An old man, a great and brutal warrior in his day and now the monarch of all he surveys from the windswept hilltop where his hunting party has paused to rest, announces a plan he has long contemplated. It is time, he says, to renounce his power. He will divide his holdings among his three children and appoint the eldest head of his house. The youngest, the one who loves him most selflessly, resists the idea and is angrily banished from the realm. By the time the ensuing tragedy has played out, the patriarch is a madman wandering the wilderness, all three children are dead, and their world, racked by civil war, is a smoldering ruin.
Yes, of course, King Lear. But wait. The great lord is called Hidetora, and he speaks in a tongue Will Shakespeare would not have recognized, inhabits a landscape unknown to the Bard, that of 16th century Japan. And Goneril, Regan and Cordelia are here men called Taro, Jiro and Saburo. We are obviously far from the place of this tragic tale's mythic birth and noble retelling, and we are far from the inert reverence of the typical movie adaptation of a classic. Indeed, in Ran (which means "chaos" in Japanese) we venture into a territory where the very word adaptation distorts and diminishes both intention and accomplishment. For what Akira Kurosawa has done is to reimagine Lear in terms of his own philosophy, which blends strains of Western existentialism with a sort of elegiac Buddhism, and the imperatives of the movies. If Shakespeare's poetry enters the mind through the ear, Kurosawa's enters it through the eye. But the imagery is of comparable quality, at once awesome in its power, delicate in its irony and, finally, for all the violence of the events it recounts, eerily serene in the sureness with which it achieves its effects. At 75, with such films as Rashomon, Seven Samurai and Yojimbo already installed furnishings of the modern sensibility, Kurosawa is not only the master of his own medium but, more important, of his own mind as well.
What he nourished there for the decade between writing and shooting Ran was a dream that inevitably obsesses (and generally defeats) most great filmmakers: the creation of a work that realizes cinema's unique capacity for the sweeping epic gesture. The problem in realizing what may be the movie's ideal form is to keep one's balance. Reach too far in one direction, and all you do is bring on the empty horses. Restrain the impulse, and you may only bring forth empty images, beautiful and static. It is on the ground that lies between melodrama and abstraction that the most haunting figures in film history--Griffith, Eisenstein and Abel Gance among them--have both lost themselves and found themselves. It is this terrain Kurosawa confidently bestrides in Ran.