Kevin Jones’s review published on Letterboxd:
Ran is a masterpiece. Personally, I do not give out perfect ratings often. Every few months, maybe more, a film comes along that stuns me so thoroughly that a rating that is not a perfect score feels like heresy. Ran is that kind of film. From the story to the score to the cinematography to the colors, the film is a lyrical and poetic masterpiece from director Akira Kurosawa. Based on King Lear, Ran depicts the transfer of power from an old Lord to his eldest son, only for him to be subjected to watching his three sons destroy all that he built. A film about chaos of the mind and the world, Ran develops themes of family, respect, honor, nihilism, and postmodernism. An epic of profound scope, delicately brought to life by Kurosawa, Ran is a film that immediately becomes one of my personal favorites.
Depicting the fall of the House of Ichimonji, Ran is an exercise in trusting and respecting those that you what is on their mind, rather than lie to your face but cover it in complimentary words. In this way, Great Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) is doomed to watch his lands fall to ruin after opting to trust those that to lie to him, if only because they bowed before him when they did it. Though the sons will be blamed for fracturing the family, in many ways, Hidetora fractured the family and the family was always doomed to fail. As he had three sons, the power struggle would have continued no matter when Hidetora died. In many ways, this could be described as Ran's way of showing that our actions do not mean anything (nihilism) and everything is pre-determined for us (free-will or lack thereof). This is even mentioned by one character who says to not blame the gods for what occurs because everything has already been determined. Thus, it can certainly be concluded that the Ichimonji were doomed from the start to fracture. However, by trusting his unfaithful sons over his most faithful son because he spoke his mind, Hidetora merely sped up the demise.
Additionally, Ran is an exercise in violence begetting violence. Towards the end, when Hidetora's life is one again struck with tragedy at the hands of his son's violence towards one another, he asks "Is there no justice?" Though his pain is authentic and he is incredibly sympathetic, Hidetora losing his sons to war is justice in its purest form. Throughout the film, we see castles of lords killed by Hidetora. We are introduced to daughters that were witnesses to Hidetora slaughtering their families, only to then be married off to one of Hidetora's sons. For Hidetora to suffer as he made others suffer - by watching his family be destroyed - is justice and demonstrates that you "reap what you sow" and "violence begets violence".
Ran also heavily discusses chaos. In fact, its title translates to "chaos". Yet, the chaos in the film is two-fold: of the mind and of the world. As he family falls apart, Hidetora goes mad. His mind is very literally chaos. Though he has moments of lucidity, his insanity destroys his mind and memory, causing him to forget what his sons look like and forgetting who a faithful servant was. All of these moments are painful to see, in particular with the servant. Faithful from the beginning, Kyoami (Shinnosuke Ikehata) is distraught to see his master forget who he is and the audience certainly feels his pain. The madness of Hidetora, however, is matched by the now war torn region he is surrounded by. With bloodshed, plots for power, and intrafamily conflicts, there is very little chaos and the film reflects this with long, drawn out battle sequences highlighting every element of brutality. Though chaos appears to happen quickly from the outside, it actually comes from very precise and small steps and Ran goes to great lengths to show the slow descent into chaos experienced by the House of Ichimonji. From plotting wives to power hungry siblings, the collapse is hardly a gradual one.
As with many Japanese films, Ran also delves into themes of family, respect, and loyalty. In particular, respect and loyalty are a large element of the film. With long scenes of men showcasing their loyalty by bowing or following their master into battle, Ran develops a constant theme of loyalty. Though some loyal men die, their loyalty is always celebrated, in particular when they do not stay quiet and instead speak their minds. Even if rebuked, they are proven to be right in the end and their original objections were proven to be justified. Had their warnings been headed, the collapse of the Ichimonj would not have happened. As such, Ran could be called a celebration of contrarians. Though they are unpopular figures, the words they speak come from the heart and should be heard clearly, in order to avoid making a fatal error.
Ran is also a very postmodernist film. Essentially, postmodernist theory argues that nothing matters anymore and that God is dead. For Ran, Buddha is dead. Very literally stated to be dead, those who worship Buddha are eventually brutally killed and the film continues to reinforce the belief that it hardly matters what occurs next. Everything is pre-determined for us, thus there is no value in waking up and praying to the gods on a daily basis. In fact, Hidetora is mocked for this action after he first abdicates the throne. Even the final shot further demonstrates how unimportant the entire world is at this point in time. As a blind man drops a picture of Buddha to the ground, he will be unable to find it again, but it hardly matters because Buddha is dead anyways. Even if were once alive, the madness and chaos of the world drove him far away and relegated him to a position in which he just had to watch with disdain and sympathy. In essence, his hands are off the wheel and we are left to drive ourselves off the cliff. The film itself really also is a piece of postmodernist entertainment, further highlighting the lack of originality left in the world. Though I love the film, it is based on two different source materials and its story, themes, and ideas, are hardly original to this single film.
Cinematically, Ran is a masterpiece. In particular, the battle sequences are breathtaking. The siege on the third castle, where Hidetora is holed up, by his eldest two sons Taro (Akira Terao) and Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) is stunning to view. Largely set to music once it becomes clear that Hidetora's army will not win, the film lyrically floats throughout the battle with a pitch perfect score to match. This oddness and calmness and peace ends violently with a gunshot ringing through the air. The film follows up this scene with a similarly beautiful battle sequence towards the end. With great strategic detail and language, the film sculpts a tremendous battle sequence that is thrilling, precise, and poetic in its movements.
As for the use of color, Kurosawa expertly uses color throughout the film to denote the true intentions of the brothers. Taro, Hidetora's son, is always clothed in yellow. His army also wears yellow as part of its uniform. Often symbolizing courage in countries such as Japan, Taro is actually referred to as a coward, which is a meaning yellow has come to symbolize. However, the yellow in Ran most closely aligns with deceit. As Taro humbly presents himself to his father and asks him not to declare him Lord of the House of Ichimonj, for fear he would be inadequate compared to his father, Hideotora is greatly flattered. However, this was a deceitful action by Taro as he was the first person to betray his father.
Meanwhile, Jiro - Hidetora's middle son - similarly deceives his father by promising to protect him and to work with his brother to preserve the KIngdom. Dressed in red along with his personal army, Jiro's red certainly symbolizes both violence and danger. Wherever Jiro goes, the House of Ichimonj is constantly in danger as he threatens to overtake power and is then manipulated by somebody who wishes the Kingdom great harm.
Finally, Hideotara's young son, Sarubo (Daisuke Ryu) is always seen in blue. Symbolizing faith and truth, Sarubo is Hideotara's most faithful son. However, he is quickly exiled for telling his father that the family is doomed and that the sons will certainly fight. By the end, Hideotara does realize his folly, yet Sarubo's honesty is punished initially. The fact that he is an honest person and faithful to his father is indicated by the use of blue clothing for Sarubo and his army.
A true masterpiece, Ran is a relatively long film, but never slacks, never drags, and never bores. Instead, it constantly impresses with its precise design with regards to mise en scene. The staging, movements, acting, costumes, and production design, are all exquisite and highlight Kurosawa's brilliant attention to detail in all of his works. Expertly depicting the fall of an kingdom in Japan and all of the chaos, nihilism, and pain, that comes from such an occurrence, Ran is a breathtakingly written and shot film that should have each frame of it hung up and displayed in museums across the world.