Jan 24, 2001 at 12:00 am

Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, which translates from the Japanese as “chaos” or “turmoil,” was the great director’s 27th film and was originally released in 1985, when he was 75 years old. Loosely adapted from Shakespeare’s King Lear, the film’s pervading mood is bitterly autumnal, managing to be both intense and withdrawn, presenting a close and steady gaze when observing the dangerous squabbles within a powerful family and then withdrawing to a godlike vantage point to watch the resulting carnage.

Kurosawa’s Lear is Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai), a 16th century feudal warlord who, having reached the age of 70, decides to bequeath his power and domain to his three sons. Each son will have his own castle, with the eldest son, Taro, ruling over the other two. Dissension comes immediately. Taro and number two son Jiro accept Hidetora’s decision with politic grace, but youngest son Saburo tells the old man that it’s an idiotic idea that will lead to bloody strife (he knows his brothers better than his father does). For his honesty, Saburo is banished from the kingdom.

With Saburo temporarily out of the way, Taro and Jiro scheme to kill their father, who escapes their clutches and wanders like Lear through the countryside, mad by his own making and with his Fool in tow. Meanwhile, Jiro has Taro murdered only to find that he now has to deal with a more dangerous personage, Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), Taro’s widow and a frightening piece of work who has no parallel in Shakespeare’s Lear — she’s more like Lady Macbeth, iron-willed and coiled to strike. With everyone knee-deep in blood, it’s only a matter of time before the principals join the pile of corpses.

Ran is generally acknowledged as Kurosawa’s last masterpiece and while it’s visually impressive, dramatically it can seem oddly inert, especially during a long, expository sequence at its beginning. But where the director’s previous late-period epic, Kagemusha (1980), slowly became a rather sluggish series of sumptuous set pieces, Ran kicks into gear with the first battle sequence — done as a grimly poetic collage with no sound except for Toru Takemitsu’s mournful score — and maintains its intensity to the end.

It impresses on a grand scale — the predigital massing of the color-coded armies, the horrible swift scenes of mass slaughter — and on the more intimate one of Hidetora’s madness and Lady Kaede’s lascivious licking of blood off Jiro’s neck. And if it occasionally bogs down under its own awful grandeur, it has the weight and pace of a classic tragedy, leaving the viewer with a feeling of sorrowful elation.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].