Though it opens beneath a gorgeous canopy of clear sky (and significantly gathering clouds) as a family and its political allies hunt wild boar atop green hillsides, Ran (which means "chaos"), by its conclusion, unfolds beneath sulfurous, angry red skies and gathering mists that signal a status quo irreparably shattered. At the same time, the stage-set precision that characterizes the film's opening gradually unravels in a dazzling tableaux of orchestrated chaos.
At 70, Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) is ready for retirement, and so appoints his eldest son Taro (Akira Terao) his successor, and his two other sons, Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu), masters of adjoining castles. But a benevolent bequeathing of his dynasty to the next generation has immediately devastating results. His youngest son Saburo resists the division of the kingdom among his jealous brothers and is banished by his father, while his two other sons almost immediately begin plotting how to obtain even more power.
Though set in feudal 16th century Japan, Ran has the rich, allegorical texture of a fable as easily told in the American West (Kurosawa over his lifetime was greatly influenced by director John Ford) or ancient Rome. In fact, much of the film's plot of broken family allegiances derives from Shakespeare's King Lear and its 16th century dynasty was partly based on an actual Japanese warlord of the time. One of Kurosawa's contentions is that the bloody squabble between brothers in Ran is inborn -- not just a consequence of their violent, warlord genes but of humankind's self-destructive bent and an inability to be satisfied with a portion of power when there is more to be had. As a disgusted servant notes at the film's conclusion, after watching its unceasing body count and double crosses, "Men prefer suffering over joy."
A microcosm of human malfeasance, family is especially vile in Ran, an institution where issues of loyalty and honor quickly collapse when greed and lust enter the equation. After all, Hidetora's descendants -- his corrupt, power-hungry sons -- are merely carrying on the family legacy. In his warrior glory days, Hidetora burned kingdoms to the ground, murdered families, and in a particularly baroque gesture, spared a small child from death -- though he left his warrior's calling card by gouging the child's eyes out. The kingdom Hidetora bequeaths his sons is a body-littered battleground and never his to give, only -- like the wives who have married his sons -- the spoils of war.
One of the unique pleasures of Ran, despite the dramatic universality of its theme of severed blood ties, is the particularly Japanese character of the film, often inspired by the visual storytelling of the Noh drama, as in the elaborate, revealing make-up worn by Hidetora, which changes from fierce to forlorn as the film unfolds. There is a stagy, theatrical aspect to Kurosawa's battle scenes and other more intimate confrontations that gives the film its odd tone, somewhere between dance, Noh, stage melodrama and the Western.
Ran's twisting plotline of deception heaped upon deception is given an epic sweep in Kurosawa's impressive battle scenes. The most astounding has Taro's yellow army, along with Jiro's red army unit, storming the castle where Hidetora takes refuge. With sound removed from the bloody fracas and replaced by Toru Takemitsu's somber score, the spectacular scene of arrows flying like hail through the air and macabre injuries -- arrows to the eyes, a man who hysterically contemplates his amputated arm -- takes on a nightmarish calm. The scene is singularly horrific and unfolds in a grim, funereal place far from the blue skies and meadow that opened the film. Hell, Kurosawa suggests, at such moments, is a physical geography of human creation -- a grotesque tableaux of violence to rival a canvas by Hieronymus Bosch. The operatic, tragic scene no doubt inspired the similarly dreamy, surreal battles in Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line and illustrates why, 15 years after its making, Kurosawa's film is still cited as a cinematic masterpiece.