'Ran' is the last great Kurosawa film, made three decades after his golden era whilst in his mid-seventies. Loosely influenced by King Lear (as well as Japanese samurai legends), the film reminds us that Kurosawa was one of the great cinematic interpreters of Shakespeare - his 'Throne of Blood' was a version of Macbeth. One might think of Olivier or the RSC as the definitive adaptations of Shakespeare though arguably their equals are the works of Kurosawa and the Soviet director Grigori Kozintsev.
Those familiar with King Lear will know the general plot but to briefly recap; Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadi), an elderly lord who has amassed a great empire after decades of war and conquest abdicates and bequeathes it to his three sons. This sparks a rivalry between the three sons that will ultimately result in tragedy and the end of the empire. Saburo (Daisuke Ryu) is disowned and banished for being disrespectful and ungrateful when he questions the decision, mindful of the consequences perhaps. Taro (Akira Terao), the eldest son who controls most of the empire and Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), the second eldest who was somewhat overlooked by his father then commence war for control over the entire domain.
The controlling influence here is Taro's wife, Lady Kaede (Mikeo Harade), a Lady Macbeth type figure who encourages his ambitions and rules her weak husband. When Taro dies in battle, she transfers her loyalties towards Jiro, encouraging him to have his wife killed in return for her sexual favours. Lady Kaede's motives are plain to see to everyone; her father had been killed by Hidetora and her family stripped of its land and position and revenge is on her mind. She knows full well Jiro had her husband killed but she's out for herself and wants to keep the realm together (to ultimately destroy, but also the castle she lives in was her father's). The fact that she is the dominant influence upon the unravelling of the empire just reinforces how ineffective the two eldest brothers are and how unsuitable they are to sustain a vast empire. Saburo, the younger son who re-restablishes a relationship with his father when he has been cut off by his other sons and was the most astute in the sense that he predicted the tragedies to follow was clearly the wisest, but it's the two eldest sons' ability to be manipulated and lust for power that proved their downfall, as well as the father's sense of pride.
'Ran' boasts incredible colours and costumes - it really is a feast for the eyes. The acting stles borrow from Noh and Kabuki theatre; Hidetora's madness is demonstrated by his ghost-like appearance; his face painted white and dressed in full white. Battle scenes are elaborately staged; castles were built and burned down, thousands of extras and hundreds of horses were used and the whole film is more or less filmed in long shot. Unsurprisingly this was the largest budget Kurosawa had ever dealt with and it certainly shows. 'Ran' is a masterpiece with style and substance. 5/5