Ran (film)

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Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Produced by Katsumi Furukawa
Serge Silberman
Masato Hara
Written by Akira Kurosawa
Hideo Oguni
Masato Ide
Starring Tatsuya Nakadai
Mieko Harada
Music by Tôru Takemitsu
Distributed by Greenwich Film Productions
Herald Ace Inc.
Nippon Herald Films
Release date(s) 01 June 1985 (Japan)
20 December 1985 (USA)
Running time 160 minutes
Language Japanese
Budget $12,000,000
All Movie Guide profile
IMDb profile

Ran ( Japanese: , "chaos", "wretchedness") is a 1985 film written and directed by Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. It is a Jidaigeki (Japanese period drama) depicting the fall of Hidetora Ichimonji ( Tatsuya Nakadai), an aging Sengoku-era warlord who decides to abdicate as ruler in favour of his three sons. His kingdom slowly disintegrates as each son struggles for power, murdering rivals and laying waste to the land. Hidetora goes insane after watching his retainers slaughtered in an epic massacre, the centerpiece of the film. As the kingdom crumbles and rival warlords move in for the kill, the Ichimonji clan collapses in a frenzy of revenge and betrayal as old scores are finally settled. The story is based on legends of the daimyo Mori Motonari, as well as on the Shakespearean tragedy King Lear.

Ran was Kurosawa's last great epic. With a budget of $12 million, it was the most expensive Japanese film ever produced. Kurosawa would direct three other films before he died, but none would be on so large a scale. The film was hailed for its powerful images and use of colour – costume designer Emi Wada won an Academy Award for Costume Design for her work on Ran. The distinctive Gustav Mahler inspired film score, written by Toru Takemitsu, plays in isolation with ambient sound muted (most notably during the battle at the third castle).


According to Stephen Prince, Ran is "a relentless chronicle of base lust for power, betrayal of the father by his sons, and pervasive wars and murders that destroy all the main characters." It is a tale about the downfall of the once-powerful Ichimonji clan after its patriarch Hidetora decides to give control of his kingdom up to his three sons: Taro, Jiro, and Saburo. Taro, the eldest, will receive the prestigious First Castle and become leader of the Ichimonji clan, while Jiro and Saburo will be given the Second and Third Castles. Jiro and Saburo are to support Taro, and Hidetora illustrates this by using a bundle of arrows. Hidetora will remain the titular leader and retain the title of Great Lord. Saburo criticizes the logic of Hidetora's plan. Hidetora achieved power through treachery, he reminds his father, yet he foolishly expects his sons to be loyal to him. Hidetora mistakes these comments for a threat and when his servant Tango comes to Saburo's defense, he banishes both of them.

Following Hidetora's abdication, Taro's wife Lady Kaede begins pushing for Taro to take direct control of the Ichimonji clan, and engineers a rift between Taro and Hidetora. Kaede is a vengeful, manipulative woman whose family was slaughtered by Hidetora in his own rise to power. Matters come to a head when Hidetora kills one of Taro's guards who was threatening his fool Kyoami. When Taro subsequently demands that Hidetora renounce his title of Great Lord, Hidetora storms out of the castle. He then travels to Jiro's castle, only to discover that Jiro is more interested in using Hidetora as a pawn in his own power play. During this time Hidetora runs into Jiro's wife, Lady Sué. Like Kaede, her family was murdered by Hidetora, but she had embraced Buddhism and forgiven him. Finally Hidetora journeys to the third castle, which had been abandoned after Saburo's forces followed their lord into exile, where he and his retinue are ambushed by Taro and Jiro. Hidetora's bodyguards and concubines are slaughtered, the castle is set on fire, and Hidetora is left to commit seppuku (ritual suicide). However, much to his dismay, Hidetora's sword has been broken and he cannot commit seppuku. Instead of killing himself, Hidetora goes mad and escapes from the burning castle. As Taro and Jiro's forces storm the castle, Jiro's general Kurogane assassinates Taro.

Hidetora is discovered wandering in the wilderness by Tango and Kyoami. They join Saburo, and remain the only people loyal to Hidetora. They take refuge in a peasant's home, only to discover that the peasant is a man named Tsurumaru, the brother of Lady Sué. Hidetora had ordered him blinded years ago.

Upon his return from battle, Jiro begins having an affair with Lady Kaede, who quickly becomes the power behind his throne. She demands that Jiro leave his wife for her. When Jiro offers to divorce his wife Lady Sué and marry her instead, she also demands that he have Sué killed. Kurogane is given the order to kill Sué, but he publicly disobeys and warns Jiro not to trust his wife. Meanwhile, Hidetora's party hides out in the remains of a castle that Hidetora had destroyed in an earlier war. At one point Tango kills two of Hidetora's treacherous councillors. Hidetora's madness causes him to have nightmares about all the people he murdered in his quest for power. The madness finally becomes too much for him to bear; eluding his servants, he flees back into the wilderness.

With Hidetora's location a mystery, Saburo's army crosses back into the kingdom to find him. Worried about his brothers' actions and mindful of his alliance with rival warlords who want the Ichimonji lands for themselves, Jiro hastily mobilizes his much larger army to stop them. The two forces meet on the field of Hachiman. Sensing a major battle, Saburo's new patron, a warlord named Fujimaki, marches to the border. Another rival warlord, Ayabe, also shows up with his own army. After arranging a truce with Jiro, Saburo rides off to find Hidetora. But Jiro orders an attack anyway, and his forces are decimated by arquebus fire from Saburo's army. In the middle of the battle, word reaches Jiro and Kurogane that Ayabe has slipped away and is marching on the First Castle. Jiro's army promptly disintegrates and flees back to the castle. During the battle against Ayabe's forces, Kurogane confronts Lady Kaede about her actions; she admits that she herself had planned for events to transpire this way all along; Kurogane kills her. Jiro, Kurogane, and Jiro's men all die in the battle that follows. Lady Sué is also finally murdered by one of Jiro's men.

In the end, Saburo finally discovers Hidetora, hiding in a cave. The two are reunited and Hidetora comes to his senses. However, Saburo is promptly killed by an assassin that Jiro had sent out earlier. Overcome with grief, Hidetora finally dies, marking the end of the Ichimonji clan. The film ends with a shot of Tsurumaru, standing alone on top of a ruined castle while Saburo's army mourns for their fallen leader. Tsurumaru is left wandering blindly in the mountains; presumably he will soon either starve or fall to his death.


"When I read that three arrows together are invincible, that's not true. I started doubting, and that's when I started thinking: the house was prosperous and the sons were courageous. What if this fascinating man had bad sons?"
—Akira Kurosawa, July 1986.

Kurosawa first got the idea that would become Ran in the mid-1970s, when he read a parable about the Sengoku-era warlord Mori Motonari. Motonari was famous for having three sons, all incredibly loyal and talented in their own right. Kurosawa began imagining what would have happened had they been bad. Despite the similarities to Shakespeare's play King Lear, Kurosawa only became aware of the similarities after he had started pre-planning. According to him, the stories of Mori Motonari and Lear merged in a way he was never fully able to explain. He wrote the script shortly after filming Dersu Uzala in 1975, and then "let it sleep" for seven years. During this time, he painted storyboards of every shot in the film (The resulting collection of images was published with the screenplay and is available as an extra on the Criterion Collection DVD release of the film) and continued searching for funding. Following his success with 1980's Kagemusha, which he sometimes called a "dress rehearsal" for Ran, Kurosawa was finally able to secure backing from French producer Serge Silberman.

Kurosawa once said that "Hidetora is me," and there is some evidence in the film that Hidetora serves as a stand-in for Kurosawa. Hidetora's crest is the sun and moon, and the Chinese character of Kurosawa's first name "Akira" is combined from the characters of the sun and moon. Roger Ebert agrees, arguing that Ran "may be as much about Kurosawa's life as Shakespeare's play." Ran was the final film of Kurosawa's "third period" (1965–1985), a time where he had difficulty securing support for his pictures, and was frequently forced to seek foreign financial backing. While he had directed over twenty films in the first two decades of his career, the third period saw him direct just four. After directing 1965's Red Beard, Kurosawa discovered that he was considered old-fashioned, and did not work again for almost five years. He also found himself competing against television, which had gutted Japanese film audiences from a high of 1.1 billion in 1958 to under 200 million by 1975. In 1968 he was fired from the 20th Century Fox epic Tora! Tora! Tora! over what he called creative differences, but others said was a perfectionism that bordered on insanity. Kurosawa tried to start an independent production group with three other directors, but his 1970 film Dodesukaden was a box office flop and bankrupted the company. Many of his younger rivals boasted that he was finished. A year later, unable to secure any domestic funding and plagued by ill-health, Kurosawa attempted suicide by slashing his wrists. Though he survived, his misfortune would continue to plague him until the late 1980s. By the time he directed Ran, he was almost completely blind; to make matters worse, his wife of forty years, Yôko Yaguchi, would die during production.

King Lear

"King Lear and the Fool in the Storm" by William Dyce.
" King Lear and the Fool in the Storm" by William Dyce.
"What has always troubled me about 'King Lear' is that Shakespeare gives his characters no past. ... In Ran, I have tried to give Lear a history."
— Akira Kurosawa

While Kurosawa said that Ran is not a direct adaptation of King Lear, he did admit to being influenced by the play and incorporated many elements from it into Ran. Both follow an aging warlord who decides to divide up his kingdom among his offspring. In place of Lear's daughters, Hidetora has three sons — Taro, Jiro, and Saburo (who correspond to Goneril, Regan and Cordelia respectively). In both, the warlord banishes anyone who disagrees with him — in Lear it is the Earl of Kent and in Ran it is both Tango and Saburo. The conflict in both is that the lord's children ultimately turn against him, though Hidetora's sons are far more ruthless than Goneril and Regan. Both King Lear and Ran ultimately end with the death of the entire family, including the hapless Lord.

However, there are some crucial differences between the two. King Lear is a play about undeserved suffering and Lear himself is at worst a fool. Hidetora, by contrast, has been a cruel warrior for most of his life, a man who ruthlessly murdered men, women, and children to achieve his goals. In the film, Lady Kaede, Lady Sué, and Tsurumaru were all victims of Hidetora. Whereas in "King Lear" the character of Gloucester had his eyes gouged out by Lear's enemies, in Ran it was Hidetora himself who gave the order to do the same to Tsurumaru. Kurosawa also expanded the role of the Fool into a major character (Kyoami), while also making him sexually ambiguous (he was played by "Peter", an entertainer well-known for cross-dressing). His other major addition was Lady Kaede, who is the polar opposite of Kyoami. Although he probably based her on Shakespeare's Goneril, she is a much more complex and important character in the film.


Ran was Kurosawa's last epic film and by far his most expensive. At the time, its budget of $12 million made it the most expensive Japanese film in history. The film used approximately 1,400 extras, which required 1,400 uniforms and suits of armor to be fabricated. These were designed by costume designer Emi Wada and Kurosawa, and were hand-made by master tailors over more than two years. The film also used 200 horses, a number of which had to be imported from the United States. Kurosawa loved filming in lush and expansive locations, and most of Ran was shot amidst the mountains and plains of Mount Aso, Japan's largest active volcano. Kurosawa was also granted permission to shoot at two of the country's most famous landmarks, the ancient castles at Kumamoto and Himeji. For the castle of Lady Sué's family, he used the ruins of the Azusa castle. Hidetora's third castle, which was burned to the ground, was actually a real building which Kurosawa built on the slopes of Mount Fuji. No miniatures were used for that segment, and Tatsuya Nakadai had to do the scene where Hidetora flees the castle in one take. Apparently, Kurosawa also wanted to include a scene that required an entire field to be sprayed gold; it was filmed but Kurosawa cut it out of the final film during editing.

Kurosawa would often shoot a scene with three cameras simultaneously, each using different lenses and angles. Many long-shots were employed throughout the film and very few close-ups. On several occasions he used static cameras and suddenly brought the action into frame, rather than using the camera to track the action. He also used jump cuts to progress certain scenes, changing the pace of the action for filmic effect.

Akira Kurosawa's wife of 39 years, Yôko Yaguchi, died during the production of this film. He halted filming for just one day to mourn before resuming work on the picture.

Acting style

Acting performances in Ran were greatly influenced by Japanese Noh theatre. This is exemplified in the heavy, ghost-like makeup worn by Tatsuya Nakadai's charater, Hidetora, which resembles the emotive masks worn by traditional Noh performers. The body language exhibited by the same character is also typical of Noh theatre: long periods of static motion and silence, followed by an abrupt, sometimes violent, change in stance. The character of Lady Kaede is also a Noh influenced performance. The traditional performances of these two characters--contrasting with the naturalistic performances of the majority of the cast, lead some Westerners to see Lady Kaede as mentally unstable, just as we rightly see Hidetora. However, Lady Kaede is actually fully in her right mind, making her one of the most devious characters in modern cinema.

Cast and characters

Ran was a late Kurosawa film and so it lacked many stalwarts of earlier Kurosawa films, such as Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune. The description of Hidetora in the first script was originally based on Mifune, who had been estranged from Kurosawa since Red Beard. However, for various reasons the part ultimately went to Tatsuya Nakadai, who had played several supporting characters in previous Kurosawa films, as well as the thief in Kagemusha. But because the character had been written for Mifune, Nakadai found himself playing Toshiro Mifune playing Hidetora. Two other Kurosawa veterans in Ran were Hisashi Igawa (Kurogane) and Masayuki Yui (Tango), who were both in Dreams and Madadayo (Yuki had also been in Kagemusha and Igawa would later appear in Rhapsody in August). Many of the other actors had also appeared in other late Kurosawa films, such as Jinpachi Nezu (Jiro) and Daisuke Ryu (Saburo) in Kagemusha. Others had not, but would go on to work with Kurosawa again, such as Akira Terao (Taro) and Mieko Harada (Lady Kaede) in Dreams. He also brought in two comedians for lighter moments: the transvestite Shinnosuke "Peter" Ikehata as Hidetora's fool Kyoami and Hitoshi Ueki as rival warlord Nobuhiro Fujimaki.



"A terrible scroll of Hell is shown depicting the fall of the castle. There are no real sounds as the scroll unfolds like a daytime nightmare. It is a scene of human evildoing, the way of the demonic Ashura, as seen by a Buddha in tears. The music superimposed on these pictures is, like the Buddha's heart, measured in beats of profound anguish, the chanting of a melody full of sorrow that begins like sobbing and rises gradually as it is repeated, like karmic cycles, then finally sounds like the wailing of countless Buddhas."
— Ran Screenplay

As the title suggests, chaos occurs repeatedly in the film; in many scenes Kurosawa foreshadows it by filming approaching cumulonimbus clouds, which finally break into a raging storm during the castle massacre. Hidetora is an autocrat whose powerful presence keeps the countryside unified and at peace. His abdication frees up other characters, like Jiro and Lady Kaede, to pursue their own agendas, which they do so with absolute ruthlessness. While the title is almost certainly an allusion to Hidetora's decision to abdicate (and the resulting mayhem that follows), there are other examples of the disorder of life, what Michael Sragow calls a "trickle-down theory of anarchy." Kurogane's assassination of Taro ultimately elevates Lady Kaede to power and turns him into an unwilling pawn in her schemes. Saburo's decision to rescue Hidetora ultimately draws in two rival warlords and leads to an unwanted battle between Jiro and Saburo, culminating in the destruction of the Ichimonji clan.

The ultimate example of chaos is the absence of God. When Hidetora sees Lady Sué, a devout Buddhist and the most religious character in the film, he tells her that "Buddha is gone from this miserable world." Sué, despite her belief in love and forgiveness, eventually has her head cut off. When Kyoami claims that the gods either don't exist or are the cause of human suffering, Tango responds that "[The gods] can't save us from ourselves." Kurosawa has repeated the point, saying that "humanity must face life without relying on God or Buddha." The last shot of the film shows Tsurumaru standing on top of the ruins of his family castle. Unable to see, he stumbles towards the edge until he almost falls over. He drops the scroll of the Buddha his sister had given him and just stands there, "a blind man at the edge of a precipice, bereft of his god, in a darkening world." This may symbolize the modern concept of the death of God, as Kurosawa also claimed that "Man is perfectly alone... [Tsurumaru] represents modern humanity."


"What I was trying to get at in Ran, and this was there from the script stage, was that the gods or God or whoever it is observing human events is feeling sadness about how human beings destroy each other, and powerlessness to affect human beings' behaviour."
— Akira Kurosawa

In addition to its chaotic elements, Ran also contains a strong element of nihilism, which is present from the opening sequence where Hidetora mercilessly hunts down a boar to the last scene with Tsurumaru. Roger Ebert describes "Ran as a 20th century film set in medieval times, in which an old man can arrive at the end of his life having won all his battles, and foolishly think he still has the power to settle things for a new generation. But life hurries ahead without any respect for historical continuity; his children have their own lusts and furies. His will is irrelevant, and they will divide his spoils like dogs tearing at a carcass."

This marked a radical departure from Kurosawa's earlier films, many of which were filled with hope and redemption. Even Kagemusha, though it chronicled the destruction of the samurai class, had ended on a note of regret rather than despair. By contrast, the world of Ran is a Hobbesian world, where life is an endless cycle of suffering and everybody is a villain or a victim, and in many cases both. Heroes like Saburo may do the right thing, but in the end they are doomed as well. Unlike other Kurosawa heroes, like Kikuchiyo from Seven Samurai or Watanabe from Ikiru, who die performing great acts, Saburo dies pointlessly. Conniving characters like Jiro or Lady Kaede are never given a chance to atone and are predestined to a life of wickedness and ultimately violent death as well.


"All the technological progress of these last years has only taught human beings how to kill more of each other faster. It's very difficult for me to retain a sanguine outlook on life under such circumstances."
— Akira Kurosawa

According to Michael Wilmington, Kurosawa told him that much of the film was a metaphor for nuclear warfare and the anxiety of the post-Hiroshima age. He believed that, despite all of the technological progress of the 20th century, all people had learned was how to kill each other more efficiently. In Ran, the vehicle for apocalyptic destruction is the arquebus, an early firearm that was introduced to Japan in the 1500s. Arquebuses revolutionized samurai warfare, and the age of swords and single combat warriors fell rapidly by the wayside. Now, samurai warfare would be characterized by massive faceless armies engaging each other at a distance. Kurosawa had already dealt with this theme in his previous film Kagemusha, with the destruction of the Takeda cavalry by the arquebuses of the Oda and Tokugawa clans. In Ran, the Battle of Hachiman Field is a perfect illustration of this new kind of warfare. Saburo's arquebusers annihilate Jiro's cavalry and drive off his infantry by engaging them from the woods, where the cavalry are unable to venture. Similarly, Saburo's assassination by a sniper also shows how individual heroes have no place on a modern battlefield. Kurosawa also illustrates this new warfare with his camera. Instead of focusing on the warring armies, he frequently sets the focal plane beyond the action, so that in the film they appear as abstract entities.


Though Ran opened to generally positive reviews, it was a modestly successful film. It premiered on June 1 in Japan and earned only ¥2,510,000,000 ($12 million), just enough to break even. Its U.S. release six months later earned it another $2–3 million, and a re-release in 2000 netted $337,112.

Ran had similar luck in the awards categories. Ran was completed too late to be entered at Cannes and first premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival. Kurosawa skipped the film's premiere, angering many in the Japanese film industry (The Tokyo International Film Festival was Japan's first); as a result Ran was not submitted as Japan's entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category of the Oscars. Serge Silberman then tried to get it nominated as a French co-production but failed. However, American director Sidney Lumet helped organize a successful campaign to have Kurosawa nominated as Best Director.

Ran was also nominated for Art Direction, Cinematography, and Costume Design (which it won). It was also unsuccessfully nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film. In Japan, Ran was conspicuously not nominated for "Best Picture" at the Awards of the Japanese Academy. However, it won two Prizes for Best Art Direction and Best Music Score and received four other nominations, for Best Cinematography, Best Lighting, Best Sound, and Best Supporting Actor ( Hitoshi Ueki, who played Saburo's patron Lord Fujimaki). Ran also won two awards from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Make Up Artist and was nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, and Best Screenplay - Adapted.

Today the film is regarded as one of Kurosawa's greatest masterpieces, along with Seven Samurai and Ikiru.

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