Ran (1985) is legendary director Akira Kurosawa's final masterpiece. The mastermind behind such classic efforts as Rashoman, The Seven Samurai, and Ikiru, Kurosawa directs what is often referred to as the Japanese King Lear. Like Shakespeare's tale, Ran concerns an aging monarch who foolishly divides his kingdom among his children, banishes the one child smart and good enough to see the folly of the plan and his most trusted servant, is rebuked and rejected by his other offspring, and is driven mad as the land becomes engulfed in war. Both stories also prominently feature a royal fool whose silly behavior and nonsense songs reveal the blunt truth of the monarch's behavior.
Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) is the elderly leader of the Ichimonji Clan. Following a boar hunt, he decides to relinquish his power and divide his kingdom between his three sons: Taro (Akira Terao), Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu). Saburo recognizes the plan would never work because he and his brothers were raised on conflict, but his protest enrages Hidetora, who banishes Saburo and Tango (Masayuki Yui), a trusted adviser who defends Saburo. With Hidetora's authority gone, Taro and Jiro, at the pressing of Taro's wife Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), conspire against the old man. Driven mad by his sons' betrayal and stripped of all the trappings of power, Hideotora wanders the wilderness, accompanied by his fool Kyoami (Pita) and visiting the ruins of castles he's destroyed, the legacy of a lifetime of conquest and bloodshed. All the while, the sons continue to plot, dragging the whole kingdom into war.
Without giving too much away, Ran ends on a final haunting shot of Tsurumaru (Mansai Nomura), a victim caught up in all the chaos around him. It was revealed earlier that his family previously ruled the land until Hidetora seized and destroyed their castle, murdered most of the family, blinded Tsurumaru, and married his sister Lady Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki) to Jiro. The final shot reveals Tsurumaru, alone in the wilderness at the edge of a cliff at sunset. One false step will send him to his death. Is there no better image to encapsulate the human condition?
Time and again, we bear witness to poor decisions being made by people of power who trust the wrong advisers. Hidetora disregards and banishes his one trustful son, and Jiro and Taro allow their manhood and pride to be goaded and manipulated by Lady Kaede (who certainly reminds viewers of another Shakespearean figure, Lady MacBeth). Hidetora does not recognize the truth Kyoami and Tango speak, and Jiro overrules his most capable adviser Lord Kurogane (Hisashi Igawa) by going to war at Lady Kaede's urging. They cannot not see the danger in front of them, and as a result of their mistakes, people get hurt.
Ran is also about the relationship between parents and children. Hidetora expects unconditional obedience from his sons, even after he has abdicated. The difference between reality and his expectations of reality shatter his psyche. The traitorous sons only ever really obeyed his title, and with that gone, they have no reason to keep him around. Later, realizing his error of judgment, he is too ashamed to seek out the forgiveness of the one son who loved him. Yet, Jiro and Taro only seem to be following the example of their power, who took all the power and land he could by sword and cruelty. It's only natural they too would be seized by greed and the lust for power. Like father, like sons.
But Ran is more than a family drama. Better than just about any other director in history, Kurosawa could convey the epic scope of war, and Ran ranks as perhaps his greatest achievement in that regard. IMDB notes he used 1,400 extras for the battles scenes, but through careful camera placement and editing, it looks like much more. The viewer feels caught in the middle of the carnage, buried in a tide of soldiers and horses as waves of arrows and bullets fly by, and blood flows readily. This is probably Kurosawa's most graphically violent work. Arrows gruesomely protrude out of men's bodies, and one shot in particular, as Roger Ebert pointed out, of a soldier clutching his own severed arm likely influenced a similar image used by Steven Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan. Early in the film, we witnessed sweeping green fields and majestic mountains, but the battles occur in nightmarish, barren castles engulfed in flames.
Visually, the battle scenes are striking. I don't know how common of a practice it was in feudal Japan, but here, the soldier's wear banners and flags on their backs to identify which lord they swear allegiance to. The bright, boldly-colored insignias - red, blue, yellow, white - contrast with the violence, but the result is curiously beautiful, almost like a moving painting (even more of an accomplishment when you consider Kurosawa was reportedly nearly blind when he made the film and relied heavily on storyboards and assistants to frame shots).
In the first big battle, in which Hidetora's loyal band of warriors is slaughtered, Kurosawa elects to only use music for much of the sequence's audio, leaving out sound effects and dialogue. It's a disquieting, surreal effect to see guns fire and men scream but not hear them. No salvation is coming. All we can do is stare as the monarch's world literally crumbles.