Mitchell Beaupre’s review published on Letterboxd:
I watched one pretty darn good Kurosawa adaptation of Shakespeare a few months ago, Throne of Blood, and now I've seen an even better one with the director's take on the Bard's King Lear, titled Ran, appropriately translated as "chaos". Kurosawa's film is an epic in the truest sense of the word; an extravagantly orchestrated war story with a family splintering off into individual armies all fighting for power, with blood shed and characters calling out to the gods for answers, receiving none. The plot of the film is incredibly dense, with many main and side characters, but I want to focus on two of them specifically.
First is the ostensible lead here, the Lear of this piece, named Ichimonji Hidetora, played by the great Tatsuya Nakadai. Hidetora starts off this familial war when he steps down from his position of power, the rare move to cede his power before his death. He gives the keys to the castle, so to speak, to his eldest son Taro, entrusting that his other two sons will fall in line and everyone will accept his terms. His youngest, Saburo, vehemently disagrees with this decision, not because he wants power for himself, but because he knows that his father should keep hold of his power or else chaos will come to all. Inevitably it does, as everyone other than Saburo is overcome with their own greed, their own pride, their own thirst for power at all costs. Hidetora is taken aback when Taro takes his new power a step too far, as Hidetora's terms stipulated that he would still hold his title. That's his pride getting in the way of his common sense. You can't give your son a five dollar bill and tell him to only spend two dollars.
As Hidetora's status is dismantled, he begins to lose everything. Not only his power, but his armies, his family, and eventually, his mind. The further his mind falls into dismay, the more he begins to battle with the understanding of his actions. He encounters multiple people who he has ripped from their own families, by spilling the blood of their parents, and sometimes of them, and he starts to see the consequences of the life that he's led. He realizes that his power-hungry, traitorous sons are only following the example that he set for them all of their lives. Kurosawa brilliantly uses Noh theater techniques in the depiction of Hidetora's descent, and Nakadai goes for broke with a performance for the ages.
The other character who I think best reflects the themes, and propulsion, of this movie is Lady Kaede, played by Mieko Harada. Kaede gives Lady Macbeth a run for her money when it comes to masterfully manipulating everyone for her own ends, but she doesn't thirst for power for power's sake. All she wants is revenge, to destroy the house of Ichimonji because of the horrors that Hidetora inflicted upon her family many years ago. She is the literal embodiment of his past coming back to haunt him, and Harada's performance fills the screen with the calculated menace of the smartest character in this thing. Most of these characters are fools, putting their blades and armies first and not taking the step back to think about the ramifications of their actions. Kaede is the scorpion taking her time, watching them all tear themselves apart and striking only when absolutely necessary. Both of these characters are brilliantly written, each of them expertly encapsulating the mastery of what is going on here on a script level.
There's plenty more to talk about in the writing here, like the ways that Kurosawa subverts expectations, as we see main characters dropped abruptly in a manner so unbefitting of their status and what we imagine the end of main characters to look like, but I want to instead shift focus to, of course, the wonder of the film's central battle sequence. Limiting sound, removing dialogue, focusing our senses almost entirely on the visual chaos on display, highlighted by the overwhelming horror present in Toru Takemitsu's score, the battle sequence halfway through this movie is an opera, plain and simple. It's quite possibly the greatest battle scene ever staged on film, and Kurosawa knew that nothing could top it. Coming halfway through, I was worried that the film was going to drag afterwards, before inevitably ramping up to another inevitable battle scene that would be underwhelming by comparison.
The movie does admittedly drag a little bit after that, it probably couldn't be avoided, but wisely we move into a completely different direction, with the focus shifting so much into Hidetora's mental deterioration, into us getting an understanding of the past atrocities that he committed that have led us all to this point. Kurosawa shows us the hell of war, and then gives us a lesson on understanding how the world reaches that point. It's a genius move that allows the second half of the film to feel different in a way that remains captivating, and compliments the first half to give us better insight into it. Both halves of the film make the other half stronger, and that was a really nice surprise to see. Not that I should be surprised that Kurosawa made a great movie. Finally, just want to note that this is the first color Kurosawa film that I've seen and I was unsurprisingly blown away by how gorgeous it looked, even when it falls into the depths of nightmarish bloodshed. It also helped greatly to distinguish between the different armies, something that I feel would have been absolutely impossible were the film in black and white.