"Men prefer sorrow over joy, suffering over peace," a military commander says near the end of Akira Kurosawa's Ran, which is back in movie theaters 15 years after its initial release and two years after Kurosawa's death at age 88. A setting of Shakespeare's King Lear in 16th-century Japan, Ran shows what can happen when an aging warlord tries to give up power without giving up the privileges of power--in a word, chaos, which is how the movie's title gets translated into English. And there may have been an autobiographical element about the movie for Kurosawa, who regarded it as his swan song, though the swan continued to sing for several more years. Dubbed "the Emperor" by the Japanese press for his autocratic methods, Kurosawa was more like a general in Ran, marshaling his color-coded troops into blood-drenched formations of pure spectacle. No wonder Pauline Kael called the movie "perhaps the biggest piece of conceptual art ever made." Doing a much better job of filling Toshiro Mifune's shoes than I remember thinking 15 years ago, Tatsuya Nakadai is Lord Hidetora Ichimonji, who loses both his power and his mind when he tries to divide his land among his three sons. It's a grandly stylized performance, the opposite of subtle, but it works within the expansive landscapes that Ran lays before us. Kurosawa didn't even try to translate Shakespeare's words into the Japanese language. Instead, he translated them into Japanese art--the high-key dramatics of Noh, the well-ordered compositions of a woodblock print. And it's this eerie combination of Olympian detachment and massive slaughter that makes Ran such a devastating indictment of what Shakespeare called "the excellent foppery of the world." Kurosawa always seems to be viewing the action from the next room, the next hill, the next cloud, as if the whole thing were being watched by some Supreme Being who's also busy paring his or her nails.
A people-mover to rival the best of them, Kurosawa has left his mark on such choreographically violent movies as Braveheart, Gladiator and The Patriot. And if you're wondering where that guy carrying around his own severed arm in Saving Private Ryan came from, look no further. Pitiless as hell, Ran lets slip the dogs of war and doesn't stop until they've all had their fill.