Ran ★★★★½

”A single arrow is easily broken; not so three together.”

Akira Kurosawa's take of King Lear, the epic period piece and war film of Sengoku-era Japan Ran [“Chaos”] is a sumptuous bit of filmmaking, brilliant in color and scope but grounded in human emotion and family drama.

Kurosawa's second film with roots in a Shakespeare play -- almost three decades after Throne of Blood deftly spun a new tale from Macbeth -- 1985’s Ran tells the story of Hidetora Ichimonji, a Japanese warlord who abdicates his leadership for his three sons; at first hoping that a division of the lands among his sons Taro, Jiro, and Saburo will lead them to unite in strength and family honor. Quickly though, as the oldest son Taro is explicitly given more prestigious titles and lands, Saburo literally and figuratively breaks the bond immediately and is exiled along with any who disagree with the plan.

And so the plot unfolds, some of it also based on real and folklore stories of the daimyō Mōri Motonari, Sengoku-period feudal lord of mid-16th Century Japan, who also had three strong-willed sons. Kurosawa instead made them antagonists of Hidetora, and after years of development and story-writing, came to make what would be has final epic period film. Tatsuya Nakadai plays the aging Hidetora, slowly driven crazy by the collapsing empire around him and the gradual realization that the sycophants and deception run deeper than he first realized. His descent into madness, blaming himself for his sons’ splintering, is the centerpiece of the film.

Nakadai, without question one of the world's greatest living actors (he's 86 now and still ticking!), turns in another legendary performance. For a man already lauded for such transcendent roles in all three epic parts to the masterful trilogy The Human Condition (all my reviews there) and potential contender for one of the greatest films of all time in another Kobayashi picture Harakiri, not to mention many other Kurosawa films as well, in the fourth decade of his career he is just incredible as the man who faces losing everything. Among other great performances in the film, don't miss the devilish turn by Lady Kaede played by Mieko Harada, a Shakespearean character if there ever was one, who takes full advantage of the tragedies that befall others to orchestrate a power grab of her own. Don't let the Noh makeup fool you; this is the face of opportunity among disasters.

But if you thought this would just be a drama built from great acting and screenplay, an hour into the film is a war assault so violent and epic -- the storming of a castle as Hidetora seemingly escapes death while literal blood flows around him -- that is perhaps the best scene of military conquest and battle I've ever seen. And then, masterfully, Kurosawa has us look at Hidetora with altering pity and disdain, as his succumbs to madness through visions of his own brutal deeds committed in the name of power and hegemony. The “Great Lord” as he's called by his few remaining loyal subjects facing a reckoning for a past for which he has never atoned.

Only denied an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film because of a personal squabble with the Japanese film industry -- Kurosawa ticked them off by not attending its Tokyo premiere -- nonetheless it earned nominations for his direction, cinematography, art direction, and costumes (the single award it won).

Horrifically bleak but delightful in darkness and revenge, Kurosawa's last brilliant film is a timeless and epic piece of art that should only escalate in prestige. If somehow you figured his best work was behind him and there's no reason to catch an 80s movie from the legendary director, you are mistaken my friend.

Added to Akira Kurosawa ranked.
Added to My Subjective List of the Best Narrative Films.

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