ALL THE images and the ideals of a lifetime come together in Akira Kurosawa's epic "Ran," the 75-year-old filmmaker's towering adaptation of "King Lear" set in 16th-century Japan.
"Ran" misses the raw, early energy of Kurosawa's samurai movies and their comic ferocity. Instead it's as frightening as a burnished sword, as refined as a tea ceremony, as elegant as the rustle of a kimono on stone.
Kurosawa -- painter, swordsman and literary scholar -- joins the traditions of Occident and Orient, staging Shakespeare in a style influenced by Noh drama, an ancient, stately form that has, in common with Kurosawa, its perfectionism.
"Ran" is a masterpiece of cinematic craftsmanship, 10 years in the making and the culmination of his life's work with epic themes, in particular the enlightenment of the lonely samurai. But here, in the Great Lord Hidetora, the director chooses a hero who turns from the true path to cause turmoil, or "ran," throughout the land.
Hidetora, a 70-year-old warlord who has murdered and pillaged and maimed to reunite the local provinces after civil war, gives his kingdom to the eldest son. A kingdom built on civil war cannot stand on filial obligation, warns the youngest son, who, along with a faithful retainer, is promptly banished by Hidetora.
The warlord is inevitably betrayed by his two eldest sons and his closest counselors, abetted by Lady Kaede, the bloodthirsty wife of his first son. His kingdom is destroyed in war and the impoverished Hidetora goes mad, with no one to guide him but his faithful fool. He is left to wander on misty, moral plains, meditating on his foolish choices. "I'm lost," says the lord. "Such is the human condition," says the fool.
Courtly scenes between the lord and his sons contrast with Kurosawa's awesome battlescapes and atmospherics. Hidetora, his men shot full of arrows like porcupines covered with blood, stumbles from his last stronghold and the sky roils. The battle scenes, painstakingly staged, pit brother against brother, bearing banners blood red and yellow fluttering like dying butterflies across death's valley.
Blood runs and spatters, for Kurosawa has never been one to spare us the gore of warfare. The horses charge in deadly cadences, clopping and drumming out an apocalyptic tattoo. Sun and shadow play across a plain that separates the armies of the brothers, the shadow riding with an army to blot out the sun. Not even the weather is left to chance -- Kurosawa even directs a typhoon.
Tatsuya Nakadai, who also had the dual role of Lord and Shadow Warrior in "Kagemusha," is titanic as Hidetora, a classic tragic figure. Mieko Harada makes much of her role as the thoroughly evil Lady Kaede, a captive bride whose family was murdered by Hidetora. Now totally corrupted by revenge, she is a deceitful, vain and completely odious heroine.
No one is particularly likable, except for the youngest son and Kyoami, the fool. Shinnosuke Ikehata, a transvestite pop singer, plays the devoted jester as a kind of Kabuki Puck.
Integral to the plot is a complex system of obligations called "giri," fundamental to the culture, but not easily understood or readily apparent to most westerners. The chaos of the title results from the destruction of the bonds of duty uniting a son to his father, a brother to his brother and a samurai to his lord. All are sundered in this hugely tragic, magnificently crafted movie of a lifetime.
RAN (R) -- In Japanese with English subtitles at the Key.