It’s not a small thing that Ran just might be the best film Akira Kurosawa ever made. This is the man who directed films like Rashomon, Yojimbo, Throne of Blood, The Bad Sleep Well, Sanjuro, High and Low, Ikiru, The Hidden Fortress…oh, and did I mention The Seven Samurai? In other words, some of the greatest films ever made, period. And yet, even as great as every one of those films is – and that can’t be in dispute – Ran may well be his masterpiece. And seeing it on the big screen in a stunning 4k restoration only drives home that fact all the more.
Ran is Kurosawa’s final foray into Shakespearean tragedy, transplanting King Lear to feudal Japan as he tells the story of an elderly lord who steps down from power and leaves everything to his oldest son. When his decision is mocked and questioned by his youngest child, he banishes the boy, as well as an advisor who supports him – a choice that sets off a cascading and horrific tragedy of epic scope.
Ran isn’t the master’s final film – he put out less than half a dozen more before his death – but in many ways, it feels like it should be his last, a meditation on legacies, children, influence, and more than anything else, the nature of humanity. In other words, all the themes that Shakespeare himself dealt with, but made wholly unique by Kurosawa’s interpretation. Ran is also a film about war, and about people’s innate cruelty and vindictiveness. And that lesson comes through loud and clear in the battle sequences, which have to rank among the most astonishing, beautiful, and nightmarish renditions of war ever captured on film.
Here’s maybe the most remarkable thing about Ran: by the time Kurosawa filmed it, he was largely blind. Indeed, by all accounts, he could only frame shots with the help of assistants, who used as their guidance the storyboards Kurosawa had been painting for ten years in the run-up to the filming. And yet, Ran is undeniably Kurosawa’s most astonishing visual work, a breathtaking display of color, environment, and framing that creates an impact all its own. As the film builds to its devastating war between the lord’s children, clouds gather, the sunlight begins to be obscured, and the storm brews. And then, all at once, everything explodes into violence and bloodshed. Troops converge in a shadowy, haunted landscape, with their flags the only color. Flames erupt, and the smoke combines with the fog to obscure some – but not all – of the horrors. And the violence is inescapable. And yet, Kurosawa stages it all simply, removing the soundtrack and replacing it with classical music that only underlines the horrors we’re watching. It’s one of the greatest pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen, and one that both moves me emotionally and cinematically.
But the story throughout Ran is no less haunting, as the patriarch reels from the betrayal of his children, his long vanquished foes wreak their vengeance from beyond the graves, and he is forced to look at his legacy head on and realize what he’s left behind. It’s a heartbreaking arc; even while we recognize the foolishness of this man, and perhaps his culpability in everything we’re watching unfold, Kurosawa forces us to empathize with him, and realize his pain as he understands what his life has led to.
It is, in short, a masterpiece, one of the all-time great films on every imaginable level. It is a magnificent work of cinematic achievement, a haunting portrait of the horrors of war, a painful look at the damage we do in our lives, and a devastating examination of a family tearing itself apart. It is profound, moving, and gut-wrenching – and more than anything, it does Shakespeare justice while standing on its own terms as a personal work. If you’re a cinephile, and you miss the chance to see this – especially in this beautiful restoration on the big screen – you’ll be missing out on of the great accomplishments of cinema.