By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010; WE27
There's a reason films like "Ran" get 25th-anniversary rereleases. It's because there aren't a heck of a lot of them.
Based on Shakespeare's "King Lear" and set in 16th-century feudal Japan, Akira Kurosawa's 1985 antiwar epic is almost over the top with betrayal, battle and blood. At times, the red stuff flows like paint from the brush of Jackson Pollock. It's an angry and expressive spurt of pigment, emblematic of the director's rage -- the title is the Japanese character for "chaos" or "fury" -- and not a realistic body fluid.
Filmgoers raised on contemporary special effects might balk at all the fake-looking gore, along with the Noh-style old-age makeup of the main character, Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai), whose actions set the story in motion. But the drama itself packs a powerful -- and timeless -- gut punch.
As in "Lear," Hidetora has decided to divide his kingdom among his three children, except here they're sons instead of daughters. The eldest two, Taro (Akira Terao) and Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), flatter their father, while the youngest, Saburo (Daisuke Ryu), calls the old man a fool for thinking that Taro and Jiro won't quickly turn their backs on their father. Saburo, like Shakespeare's Cordelia, is banished for his blunt talk.
Of course, Taro and Jiro almost immediately let Hidetora down. It is at this point that Kurosawa goes well beyond his source material, adding a treacherous female character in the form of Taro's wife, Kaede (Mieko Harada). Like Lady Macbeth, she's the real instigator of Taro and Jiro's perfidy, and her presence lends the film a Grand Guignol flair. At one point she demands the head of her sister-in-law after her own husband is killed and she has seduced Jiro. It's wild, compulsively watchable stuff.
But Kurosawa doesn't care just about "how sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child." Over the course of the film's nearly three-hour length, Hidetora is shown to be something of a war criminal himself. He didn't just inherit his kingdom but shed 50 years' worth of his neighbors' blood to get it and keep it. His betrayal by his sons makes him a tragic figure, but so does the blood on his own hands.
By the time Kurosawa's camera comes to rest on the film's final, poignant image, a painting of the Buddha that one character had promised another would protect him from harm, the movie seemingly has accomplished the impossible: one-upping Shakespeare.
**** R. At Landmark's E Street Cinema. Contains lots of blood and violence, and brief sensuality. In Japanese with English subtitles. 162 minutes.