Other than moving the story to feudal Japan, Kuroswa's only major change in the "King Lear" plot is the changing of the old ruler's daughters to sons. Otherwise, the story pretty well follows the same course. Old Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai), who succeeded through violent efforts to unite Japan under his rulership, has decided to pass on power to Taro (Satoshi Terao), the oldest of his three sons. Saburo (Daisuke Ryu), the youngest and most outspoken son, tries to warn his father of the problems to come but is quickly banished by his father from the kingdom. He awards his middle son, Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), the second of his three castles and takes for himself the third caslte.
Hidetora prepares to enjoy his retirement with his small army, his advisors and his Fool (played by a reportedly popular Japanese TV performer known as "Peter"). But Taro is an ambitious young man and his wife, Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), whose family Hidetora had overthrown and murdered several years earlier, wants to avenge her family's treatment by regaining power. Soon Taro's army is fighting Jiro's army, using Hidetora's third castle as a battlefield.
Kurosawa called his last production, "Kagemusha," a dress rehearsal for "Ran." Both movies do deal with Kurosawa's oft-used theme of ambition and its ruinous results, and both movies carry an air of melancholy. But it's obvious that "Ran" is the movie Kurosawa spent over a decade planning and the movie he poured his heart into. There are scenes here--most notably the taking of the third castle--that are so perfectly choreographed, so dazzling and, most of all, so horrifying that one doubts they'll ever fade from memory.
Like all Shakespeare drama, "King Lear" on its most basic level is good, entertaining soap opera, with scheming villains and victimized heroes. Kurosawa hasn't forgotten that and, like Shakespeare, he uses those hooks to carry his more cerebral themes--themes that are nonetheless as universal as his wholly identifiable characters. Starring Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, Daisuke Ryu and Mieko Harada. Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Written by Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni and Masato Ide. Produced by Serge Silberman and Masato Hara. An Orion Classics release. Japanese period drama. Rated R for violence. Running time: 160 min.