Ran is a Japanese-French war film/period tragedy directed, edited, and co-written by Akira Kurosawa, adapted from Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear and the legends surrounding daimyō Mōri Motonari. The film stars Tatsuya Nakadai as Hidetora Ichimonji, an aging Sengoku-era warlord who abdicates for his three sons—with disastrous results.
Akira Kurosawa first conceived of the idea for the film that would become Ran (Japanese for “chaos” or “discord”) in the early 1970s, when he read about Mōri Motonari (1497–1571), a powerful daimyō in the Chūgoku region of Japan who is remembered as one of the greatest warlords of the Sengoku period (mid-16th century). Though a brilliant diplomat and strategist, Motonari is best known for an event that probably never happened: the “lesson of the three arrows,” a parable that Motonari illustrated by giving each of his three sons an arrow to break. He then gave them three arrows bundled together and pointed out that although one may be easily broken, three bundled together are impossible to break. Motonari actually had nine sons (two of whom died in childhood) but most prominent of them were the three sons the parable concerns: Mōri Takamoto (1523–1563), Kikkawa Motoharu (1530–1586), and Kobayakawa Takakage (1533–1597). Formulating a scenario that could generate real drama, Kurosawa imagined trouble among the three brothers rather than unity and reasonableness. As he later told an interviewer, “What might their story be like, I wondered, if the sons had not been so good? It was only after I was well into writing the script about these imaginary unfilial sons of the Mōri clan that the similarities to [Shakespeare’s 1606 tragedy, King] Lear occurred to me. Since the story is set in medieval Japan, the protagonist’s children had to be men; to divide a realm among daughters would have been unthinkable” (Grilli, 2008, p. 126). Kurosawa and two co-writers—Hideo Oguni and Masato Ide—had a draft of a screenplay completed by 1975, but Kurosawa would not be able to arrange financing for an expensive, large-scale epic set in medieval Japan for another seven years. In the meantime, he painted storyboards of every shot in Ran and made Dersu Uzala (1975) and Kagemusha (1980), the latter of which he described as a “dress rehearsal” for Ran. In 1982 Kurosawa finally secured funding for Ran from two sources: Japanese producer Masatoshi Hara (Herald Ace Productions) and French producer Serge Silberman (Greenwich Film Productions). After the box office success of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (1981), Silberman was able to put up most of the money needed to back Ran, which ended up costing ¥2.4 billion (i.e., $12 million), the most expensive Japanese film produced up to that time. Kurosawa cast Tatsuya Nakadai (who played the dual lead roles in Kagemusha) as Hidetora Ichimonji, an aging Sengoku-era warlord based on Mōri Motonari who decides to abdicate as ruler in favor of his three sons. Prior to production, several hundred elaborate costumes had to be created by hand, an arduous process that took two years to complete. Pre-production also involved extensive location scouting and set construction, for example, a castle destroyed in the middle of the movie had to be specially built on the slopes of Mount Fuji, only to be burned down.
Akira Kurosawa was 75 years old when he directed Ran (June 1984–February 1985) and was nearly blind when the initial photography started. He required assistance in order to frame his shots, and his assistants used hundreds of his storyboard paintings as templates to construct and film scenes. Almost the entire film is done in long shot, with only a handful of close-ups. An enormous undertaking, Ran used some 1,400 extras, 1,400 suits of armor (designed by Kurosawa himself), and 200 horses, some of them imported from the United States. Over his long career, Kurosawa worked with the same crew of technicians and assistants. Toward the end of the shoot, Kurosawa lost two of his old stalwarts. In January 1985, Fumio Yamoguchi, the sound recordist on nearly all of Kurosawa’s films since 1949, and Ryu Kuze, action coordinator on many of them, died within a few days of each other. A month later (1 February 1985), Kurosawa’s wife of 39 years, Yôko Yaguchi, also died. Kurosawa halted filming for just one day to mourn before resuming work on the picture.
[Act I] Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai), a powerful warlord near the end of his life, decides to divide his kingdom among his three sons: Taro (Akira Terao), Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu). The oldest son, Taro, is bequeathed the sought-after First Castle and is named commander of the Ichimonji clan. Jiro and Saburo are given the Second and Third Castles, respectively. Hidetora retains his title of Great Lord, and the two younger sons are expected to rally behind Taro. Saburo calls his father a fool, stating that he can’t expect loyalty from sons who grew up watching their father use the most cruel, heartless methods for power and domination. Hidetora is threatened by his son, but his servant, Tango (Masayuki Yui), defends Saburo. Hidetora responds by exiling both men. Nobuhiro Fujimaki (Hitoshi Ueki), a visiting warlord, sees Saburo’s fervor and forthrightness and asks him to wed his daughter. [Act II] After Hidetora divides his remaining lands between Jiro and Saburo, Taro’s wife, Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), encourages Taro to gain control of the entire clan. Emboldened, Taro tells Hidetora to give up his title of Great Lord. Hidetora, now betrayed by two sons, runs to Jiro’s castle only to discover that Jiro plans to use him in his own scheme for power and influence. Unsure of where to go, Hidetora and his company depart from Jiro’s castle. Tango finds his father and informs Hidetora of Taro’s new decree: anyone who assists Hidetora will be sentenced to death. Hidetora flees to Saburo’s castle, which was left empty when Saburo went into exile. [Act III] Hidetora and his samurais are attacked by Taro’s and Jiro’s forces. In the ensuing battle, almost all of Hidetora’s men are killed and the Third Castle is set on fire. Hidetora, alone and losing his mind, leaves the castle as it is consumed by flames. During the siege on the castle, Taro is killed by a bullet from Jiro’s general, Shuri Kurogane’s (Hisashi Igawa) gun. Meanwhile, Hidetora wanders the wilderness and is found by Tango, who tries to assist him. The pair take shelter in a peasant’s home, but realize that the peasant is Tsurumaru (Mansai Nomura), the brother of Lady Sué (Yoshiko Miyazaki), Jiro’s wife. Tsurumaru was a victim of Hidetora’s regime: he was blinded and left for dead after Hidetora murdered his father and conquered their land. [Act IV] After Taro’s death, Jiro takes on the title of the Great Lord, moving into the First Castle and commanding the Ichimonji clan. Jiro returns to the castle to find Lady Kaede, unbothered by Taro’s death, waiting to blackmail Jiro into an affair. Lady Kaede uses her influence with Jiro to call for Lady Sué’s death. Jiro orders Kurogane to carry out the task, but he declines, stating that Kaede will be the ruin of both Jiro and the clan. Kurogane runs to tell Sué and Tsurumaru to leave. Meanwhile, two ronin are captured by Tango, who coerces them to reveal plans for assassinating Hidetora. Tango leaves to share the news with Saburo. Hidetora is overtaken by madness and runs off into a volcanic plain while Kyoami (Pîtâ) runs after him. Saburo and Jiro meet on the battlefield and agree on a truce, and Saburo becomes concerned by the report of his father’s onset of madness. While Saburo meets with Kyoami and takes 10 warriors along to rescue Hidetora, Jiro takes advantage of the situation and sends gunners to ambush his brother and father. Jiro also attacks Saburo’s army, which falls back into the woods as the soldiers go on the defensive. As the family is warring, a messenger shares news that Ayabe, a rival lord, is headed towards the First Castle. At the same time, Saburo locates Hidetora, and the father experiences a reprieve from his insanity and begins to heal his relationship with his son. However, in the midst of the reconciliation, one of Jiro’s snipers kills Saburo. Hidetora dies out of sadness. Fujimaki arrives with his troops to see Tango and Kyoami grieving. [Act V] In the meantime, Tsurumaru and Sué get to the ruined castle, but realize that they forgot a flute at Tsurumaru’s home, one that Sué had gifted to Tsurumaru at the time of his banishment. She goes back for the flute, but is discovered and murdered by one of Jiro’s assassins. Simultaneously, Ayabe’s army attacks the First Castle. When Kurogane hears that Lady Sué has been killed by Jiro’s assassin, he corners Kaede and pushes her for information. She comes clean about her plot to obliterate Hidetora and his clan to avenge the deaths of her family members. Kurogane decapitates Kaede for her treachery. As Ayabe’s army overtakes the First Castle, Jiro, Kurogane, and all of Jiro’s men are killed. Tsurumaru is left amidst the rubble, alone.
Ran had its world premiere in Tokyo on 25 May 1985. It was subsequently screened at a number of film festivals before going into staggered general release in about two dozen countries. Ran did not do very well at the box office, initially making only enough to break even. It did, however, receive Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Costume Design (which it won), among many other international nominations and awards. Reviews were, for the most part, adulatory. Vincent Canby wrote, “Though big in physical scope and of a beauty that suggests a kind of drunken, barbaric lyricism, Ran has the terrible logic and clarity of a morality tale seen in tight close-up, of a myth that, while being utterly specific and particular in its time and place, remains ageless, infinitely adaptable … Here is a film by a man whose art now stands outside time and fashion” (Canby, 1985). Roger Ebert called the film “visually magnificent” and said he realized on seeing it again in 2000 that “the action doesn’t center on the old man, but has a fearful energy of its own, through which he wanders. Kurosawa has not told the story of a great man whose sin of pride drives him mad, but the story of a man who has waged war all his life, hopes to impose peace in his old age and unleashes even greater turmoil” (Ebert, 2000). Decades after its release, most film critics and scholars view Ran as Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece.
Reel History Versus Real History
The story that Ran tells is, of course, entirely fictional. One can only judge its historical accuracy in terms of its depictions of medieval Japanese castles; the look, dress, and demeanor of the Ichimonji clan; the conduct in battle of the samurai; etc. On these counts, Ran has extraordinary verisimilitude.