“Ran” – Betty Jo Tucker

I don’t know much about samurai films, but I know what I like to see in a movie: cinematic artistry, a great story, and memorable performances. Akira Kurosawa’s Ran boasts all three of those key elements. It’s visually exciting, includes outstanding acting by a fine cast, and tells a compelling tale about ambition, betrayal and revenge.

Kurosawa, one of the best filmmakers of all time, masterfully directs (and co-wrote) this Japanese take on William Shakespeare’s King Lear, a play about an aging king who turns his power over to his three daughters. In Ran, it’s sons rather than daughters who betray their father. When the powerful Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) abdicates in favor of his sons, he mistakenly believes he will be able to spend the rest of his life living at each son’s castle. Saburo (Daisuke Ryu), the youngest son, warns Hidetora of dire consequences as result of his decision, but his two brothers, Tora (Akira Terao) and Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), cannot be stopped in their corrupt, treacherous ways. Their thirst for power is insatiable. Greed and selfish ambition tear the empire apart, while Hidetora descends into madness as his past deeds catch up with him. The Bard and an ancient Japanese legend of three arrows come together in epic fashion here — and Kurosawa makes the most of it.

Bold colors accent various scenes; exciting, tough-to-match battle sequences seem perfectly choreographed; silence is used artistically where needed; gorgeous costumes and intriguing castles take your breath away; and the background music (especially flute and percussion sounds) enhances rather than detracts from what’s happening on screen. But the highlight of Ran for me is Mieko Harada’s unforgettable portrayal of Hidetora’s evil daughter-in-law, Lady Kaede, who is one of filmdom’s most vengeful women. However, Nakadai makes Hidetora almost as memorable, especially when showing this once powerful man sinking into despair. Another standout is transvestite Shinnosuke Ikehata as the jester Kyoami.

Released in 1985, Ran earned well-deserved Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography — and won for Best Costume Design.

Incredibly, Kurosawa filmed Ran (his 27th movie) when he was 75 years old and while suffering from poor eyesight. He called the film “a series of movie events viewed from Heaven,” but I call it a cinematic masterpiece.

Rating: ★★★★

-Betty Jo Tucker

Betty Jo is lead film critic at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, as well as the host of weekly movie talk radio show Movie Addict Headquarters.

Read A.J. Hakari’s Ran review here.
Read Chris Luedtke’s Ran review here.

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