In repertory at Film Forum through February 18.
If you were introduced to director Akira Kurosawa through his acclaimed films from the 1950s (Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, among others)—all of which are feature shadowy, evocative black-and-white cinematography—the bold color of Ran, released in 1985, is disconcerting at first. Seeing the familiar figures of feudal Japan in vivid reds and blues and greens rather than the familiar dreamy grays is a jolt—but a welcome one. Kurosawa makes great use of his color palette, showcasing intricate costumes and breathtaking locations and even color-coding the three warring sons and their armies. The color, along with Kurosawa’s familiar panoramic direction, helps make Ran a gorgeous film to behold.
It’s also an affecting one—which I don’t take for granted, considering that the story is based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, a play that has always eluded me, to some extent. But besides relocating the familiar tale of an aging, misguided warlord from ancient Britain to feudal Japan, Kurosawa and his fellow screenwriters have tweaked the details, alluding to backstory and character motivations that don’t exist in the play. The result is exceedingly bleak—perhaps even more so than the tragic Lear. With Lear, one could argue that the king steps wrong in choosing who to trust; Cordelia might have been a fine heir. But Ran seems to argue that conflict and betrayal are all but inescapable. The youngest child is still the most affectionate and loyal, but he, too, is caught up in the heirs’ power-plays, which arrive early because of the warlord’s abdication but which were inevitable. (The movie’s title means chaos.) Frankly, if Kurosawa weren’t such a great director, Ran might have been unbearably grim.