Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Akira Kurosawa|
|Music by||Toru Takemitsu|
|Edited by||Akira Kurosawa|
|Box office||$12 million|
Ran (乱?, Chinese and Japanese for "chaos", "rebellion", or "revolt", or to mean "disturbed" or "confused") is a 1985 Japanese-French jidaigeki epic film directed and co-written by Akira Kurosawa. The film stars Tatsuya Nakadai as Hidetora Ichimonji, an aging Sengoku-era warlord who decides to abdicate as ruler in favor of his three sons. The story is based on legends of the daimyo Mōri Motonari, as well as on the Shakespearean tragedy King Lear.
Ran was Kurosawa's last epic. With a budget of $12 million, it was the most expensive Japanese film ever produced up to that time. Ran was released on May 31, 1985 at the Tokyo International Film Festival and on June 1, 1985 in Japan. The film was hailed for its powerful images and use of color—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.
Hidetora Ichimonji, a powerful warlord, experiences a dream reminding him that he's showing his age and decides to divide his kingdom among 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. Hidetora will retain the title of Great Lord and Jiro and Saburo are to support Taro.
Hidetora lectures them on the importance of unity by showing them that one arrow is fragile, but three arrows held together are much harder to break. However, Saburo breaks the three arrows across his knee and calls the lecture stupid, pointing out that Hidetora foolishly expects his sons to be loyal to him, while he himself has used the most ruthless methods to attain power. Hidetora mistakes these comments for a threat, and when his servant Tango comes to Saburo's defense, he banishes both men. Fujimaki, a warlord who had witnessed these events, and been impressed by Saburo's frankness, invites him to his dominion and offers him his daughter to marry.
Following Hidetora's abdication, Taro's wife Lady Kaede, who plots revenge on Hidetora for massacring her family after her marriage to Taro, begins to urge her husband to take direct control of the Ichimonji clan. When Taro demands Hidetora renounce his title of Great Lord, Hidetora storms out of the castle with a few loyal retainers. He travels to Jiro's castle, only to discover that Jiro is more interested in using Hidetora as a pawn in his own power play.
Hidetora and his escort leave Jiro's castle to wander, finding no food in the villages abandoned by the peasants. Eventually Tango appears with provisions, but to no avail. In a moment of anger Hidetora orders his escort to burn the villages down. Tango intervenes and Hidetora learns from him of Taro's decree: death to whoever aids his father. At last perceiving his eldest sons' treachery, Hidetora takes refuge in the Third Castle, abandoned after Saburo's forces followed their lord into exile. Tango and Kyoami do not follow him.
The old Lord and his followers are attacked without warning by Taro and Jiro's combined forces. In a short but violent siege, the retainers and concubines are slaughtered as the Third Castle is set alight. Hidetora succumbs to madness and wanders away from the burning castle. As Taro and Jiro's forces storm the castle, Taro is killed by a bullet shot by Jiro's general, Kurogane.
Hidetora is discovered wandering in the wilderness by Tango and Kyoami, who along with Saburo remain the only people still loyal to him. The two of them stay to assist Hidetora, who has gone mad. In his madness, Hidetora is haunted by horrific visions of the people he destroyed in his quest for power. They take refuge in a peasant's home only to discover that the occupant is Tsurumaru, the brother of Lady Sué, Jiro's wife. Tsurumaru had been blinded and left impoverished after Hidetora took over his land and killed his father, a rival lord.
With Taro dead, Jiro becomes the Great Lord of the Ichimonji clan, enabling him to move into the First Castle. Upon Jiro's return from battle, Lady Kaede, who doesn't seem to be fazed by Taro's death, blackmails Jiro into having an affair with her, and she becomes the power behind his throne. Kaede demands that Jiro kill Lady Sué and marry her instead. Jiro orders Kurogane to do the deed, but he refuses, warning Jiro that Kaede means to ruin the entire Ichimonji clan. Kurogane then warns Sué and Tsurumaru to flee.
Tango, still watching over Hidetora with Kyoami, encounters two ronin who had once served as spies for Jiro. Before he kills them both, one of the ronin tells him that Jiro is considering sending assassins after Hidetora. Alarmed, Tango rides off to alert Saburo. Hidetora becomes even more insane and runs off into a volcanic plain with a frantic Kyoami in pursuit.
Saburo's army crosses back into Jiro's territory to find him. News also reaches Jiro that two rival lords allied to Saburo (Ayabe and Fujimaki) have also entered the territory, forcing Jiro to hastily mobilize his army. At the field of battle, the two brothers accept a truce, but Saburo becomes alarmed when Kyoami arrives to tell of his father's descent into insanity. Saburo goes with Kyoami to rescue his father and takes 10 warriors with him; Jiro sends a few gunners to follow Saburo and ambush them both.
Jiro then orders an attack on Saburo's much smaller force. Saburo's army retreats into the woods for cover and fires on Jiro's forces, frustrating the attack. In the middle of the battle a messenger arrives with news that a rival warlord, Ayabe, is marching on the First Castle, forcing Jiro's army to hastily retreat.
Saburo finds Hidetora in the volcanic plain; Hidetora recovers his sanity, and commits to repairing his relationship with Saburo. However, one of the snipers Jiro had sent after Saburo's small group shoots and kills Saburo. Overcome with grief, Hidetora dies. Fujimaki and his army arrive to witness Tango and Kyoami weeping over the two. Kyoami curses the heavens for allowing Hidetora and Saburo to die, only to be told by Tango to stop, and that the gods are weeping for them.
Meanwhile, Tsurumaru and Sué arrive at the ruins of a castle but inadvertently leave behind the flute that Sué gave Tsurumaru years before, when he had been blinded and banished. Sué decides to return for it. Tsurumaru begs her not to go; but she insists and gives a picture of Amida Buddha to him for company during her absence. It is when she returns to Tsurumaru's hovel that she is killed by Jiro's assassin.
Meanwhile, Ayabe's army pursues Jiro's army to the First Castle and commences a siege. When Kurogane hears that Lady Sué has been finally murdered by one of Jiro's men (who arrived in the First Castle with Lady Sue's head), Kurogane confronts Kaede, who admits that all along her purpose had been to exact revenge against Hidetora and his Ichmonji clan for having destroyed her family years before. Kurogane finally snaps and decapitates Kaede. Jiro, Kurogane, and all Jiro's men subsequently die in the battle with Ayabe's army that follows.
The final scene shows a solemn funeral procession for Saburo and Hidetora. Meanwhile, blind and alone in the castle ruins, Tsurumaru accidentally drops, and loses, the Amida Buddha image Sué had given to him. The film ends with a distance shot of Tsurumaru, alone, silhouetted, atop the ruins.
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 Mōri 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 Mōri 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, later published with the screenplay and 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 "Hidetora is me," and there is some evidence in the film that Hidetora serves as a stand-in for Kurosawa. 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, he directed just four in these two decades. After directing Red Beard (1965), 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 reduced 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 described as 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.
Kurosawa was influenced by the William Shakespeare play King Lear and borrowed elements from it. Both depict an aging warlord who decides to divide up his kingdom among his offspring. Hidetora has three sons — Taro, Jiro, and Saburo who correspond to Lear's daughters Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. In both, the warlord foolishly banishes anyone who disagrees with him as a matter of pride — in Lear it is the Earl of Kent and Cordelia; in Ran it is Tango and Saburo. The conflict in both is that two of the lord's children ultimately turn against him, while the third supports him, though Hidetora's sons are far more ruthless than Goneril and Regan. Both King Lear and Ran end with the death of the entire family, including the 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. A reviewer notes that Kurosawa had expanded the role of the Fool into a major character (Kyoami), and that Lady Kaede was the equivalent of Shakespeare's Goneril but with a more complex and important character. Kurosawa was also concerned that Shakespeare gave his characters no past, and he wanted to give King Lear a history.
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. Filming of Ran started in 1983. The 1,400 uniforms and suits of armor used for the extras were designed by costume designer Emi Wada and Kurosawa, and were handmade by master tailors over more than two years. The film also used 200 horses. 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[dubious ]. 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. The filming of this scene can be seen in the documentary A.K..
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, Yōko Yaguchi, died during the production of this film. He halted filming for just one day to mourn before resuming work on the picture.
While most of the characters in Ran are portrayed by conventional acting techniques, two performances are reminiscent of Japanese Noh theater. The heavy, ghost-like makeup worn by Tatsuya Nakadai's character, Hidetora, resembles the emotive masks worn by traditional Noh performers. The body language exhibited by the same character is also typical of Noh theater: long periods of static motion and silence, followed by an abrupt, sometimes violent, change in stance. The character of Lady Kaede is also Noh-influenced. The Noh treatment emphasizes the ruthless, passionate, and single-minded natures of these two characters.
The description of Hidetora in the first script was originally based on Toshiro Mifune. However, the role was cast to Tatsuya Nakadai, an actor who had played several supporting characters in previous Kurosawa films, as well as Shingen and his "kagemusha", "double", in Kagemusha. Other Kurosawa veterans in Ran were Masayuki Yui (Tango), Jinpachi Nezu (Jiro) and Daisuke Ryu (Saburo), all of whom were 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. Hisashi Igawa (Kurogane) would be in Rhapsody in August, and later, in Dreams, where Yui would also appear. Kurosawa also hired two comedians for lighter moments: Shinnosuke "Peter" Ikehata as Hidetora's fool Kyoami and Hitoshi Ueki as rival warlord Nobuhiro Fujimaki. Kurosawa hired approximately 1,400 extras.
Kurosawa wanted the London Symphony Orchestra to perform the score for Ran. Upon meeting conductor Hiroyuki Iwaki of the Sapporo Symphony Orchestra, he engaged Iwaki and the orchestra to record the score. Kurosawa made the orchestra play up to 40 takes of the music.
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
One central theme in the film is chaos; 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, such as Jiro and Lady Kaede, to pursue their own agendas, which they do 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." The death of Taro ultimately elevates Lady Kaede to power and turns Jiro 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 gods. When Hidetora sees Lady Sué, a devout Buddhist and the most religious character in the film, he tells her, "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 do not exist or are the cause of human suffering, Tango responds, "[The gods] can't save us from ourselves." Kurosawa has repeated the point, saying "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 "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' behavior.— 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 only to refrain from eating it, 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 balanced pessimism with hopefulness. Only Throne of Blood, an adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, had as bleak an outlook. Even Kagemusha, though it chronicled the fall of the Takeda clan and their disastrous defeat at the Battle of Nagashino, 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 in Seven Samurai or Watanabe from Ikiru, who die performing great acts, Saburo dies pointlessly. Gentle characters like Lady Sué are doomed to fall victim to the evil and violence around them, and conniving characters like Jiro or Lady Kaede are never given a chance to atone and are predestined to a life of wickedness culminating in violent death.
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 16th century. 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, in which the Takeda cavalry is destroyed 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 arquebusiers 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 can be easily disposed of 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 at its premiere on June 1, 1985 in Japan, it was only modestly successful financially, earning only ¥2,510,000,000 ($12 million), just enough to break even. Its U.S. release six months later earned another $2–3 million, and a re-release in 2000 accumulated $337,112.
Ran had similar indifferent luck in the awards categories: it was completed too late to be entered at Cannes and had its premiere at Japan's first Tokyo International Film Festival. Kurosawa skipped the film's premiere, angering many in the Japanese film industry. 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.
Roger Ebert awarded the film four out of four stars, writing, "'Ran' is a great, glorious achievement. Kurosawa often must have associated himself with the old lord as he tried to put this film together, but in the end he has triumphed, and the image I have of him, at 75, is of three arrows bundled together." In 2000, he added it to his list of great movies.
Ran was also nominated for Academy Awards for art direction, cinematography, costume design (which it won), and Kurosawa's direction. It was also successfully nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language 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. Despite its limited success and reception at the time of its release, Ran has since been re-examined and its accolades have improved greatly, to the point that it is now regarded as one of Kurosawa's masterpieces.
Ran also won Best Director and Best Foreign Film awards from the National Board of Review, a Best Film award and a Best Cinematography award (Takao Saitô, Shôji Ueda, and Asakazu Nakai) from the National Society of Film Critics, a Best Foreign Language Film award from the New York Film Critics Circle, a Best Music award (Tôru Takemitsu) and a Best Foreign Film award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, a Best Film award and a Best Cinematography award from the Boston Society of Film Critics, a Best Foreign Feature award from the Amanda Awards from Norway, a Blue Ribbon Award for Best Film, a Best European Film award from the Bodil Awards, a Best Foreign Director award from the David di Donatello Awards, a Joseph Plateau Award for Best Artistic Contribution, a Director of the Year award and a Foreign Language Film of the Year award from the London Critics Circle Film Awards, a Best Film, a Best Supporting Actor (Hisashi Igawa) and a Best Director from the Mainichi Film Concours, and an OCIC award from the San Sebastian Film Festival.
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