AKIRA KUROSAWA is a name that carries a lot of weight. A lot of people know who he is, even if they haven't watched his movies. Of course, due to the massive footprint he left on the surface of cinema, they probably have seen his movies, they just didn't know it: Star Wars, The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars—all owe massive debts to Kurosawa. Kurosawa is to the film brats of the '60s what Robert Johnson was to Led Zeppelin. Said Francis Ford Coppola, "He didn't make a masterpiece, or two masterpieces. He made, you know, eight masterpieces."
One of those—indeed, probably the masterpiece of his masterpieces—is 1985's Ran. It's often (correctly) described as Kurosawa's riff on Shakespeare's King Lear, but I've always thought it had more in common with Hitchcock's Vertigo. Not in subject matter or style, but in the way it exposes Kurosawa's psyche so clearly. Ran is the story of an old ruler, guilty of terrible crimes and nearing the end of his life; in a moment of foolish optimism, he divides his kingdom among his three sons. The chaos that ensues drives him insane as his whole world falls to beautiful, soul-destroying ruin all around him, burnt and salted by the same pride that fueled his rise.
By blending Shakespearean tragedy with old Japanese legend, and applying every technique he ever learned or invented, Kurosawa creates an epic that comes as close as anything to realizing the concept of filmed poetry. But if you know a little about Kurosawa and his life in film, the movie gains even more depth. Made in the twilight of his career, it may not be the most influential of his films, or the most seen, but it's hard not to believe it wasn't the one he meant the most. It definitely feels that way.