Cast & Crew
At the age of seventy, Great Lord Hidetora Ichimonji, and after many years of consolidating his empire, he decides to abdicate his position and split his domain up between his three sons. The oldest son Taro will rule and his second son Jiro and younger son Saburo will take over the Second and Third Castles but are expected to obey and support their older brother. The two older brothers agree with the arrangement, but Saburo objects and is banished.
Vittorio Dare Ole
Best Costume Design
Best Art Direction
It helped that he took as his narrative model another country's national treasure that had a universal impact. This wasn't the first time Kurosawa had borrowed from Shakespeare. Throne of Blood (1957, aka Kumonosu-jou) transposed Macbeth to medieval Japan with Kurosawa's frequent star Toshiro Mifune bringing his characteristic intensity to the role of a ruthlessly ambitious warlord. At 75, nearly blind and having come through the wilderness of rejection and depression, Kurosawa was now ready to tackle Shakespeare's great tragedy King Lear. For the leading role of an elderly lord who divides his realm among his sons with disastrous results, he cast his other frequent muse and one of Japan's biggest stars Tatsuya Nakadai (Kurosawa and Mifune were by then estranged). The result was a stunning 16th century tale whose combination of deep personal drama and epic battle scenes was called by critics "a great, glorious achievement" and "as close to perfect as filmmaking gets," winning numerous awards and legions of fans worldwide. Kurosawa had returned to his old glory, but the road there even after the success of Kagemusha was not that easy.
Kurosawa had been preparing this one for a decade, even before the production of Kagemusha, making hundreds of highly detailed storyboard illustrations, which was a career-long practice for the artist who had once trained as a painter. The scope of the picture, however, would be huge, and he began to despair once again that backing could ever be secured. It was finally made possible through a deal put together by Serge Silberman, the French producer of Luis Bunuel's later films, who risked his own money on what would become the most expensive Japanese film made up to that time.
To view Ran simply as a transposition of King Lear would be to sell it far short. Shakespeare's tragedy aims for a kind of emotional catharsis that Kurosawa never attempts; instead, he tells his story from the viewpoint of a silent deity, remote from the horrifying action unleashed upon the earth by the lust for power and blood of a wantonly greedy and ambitious humanity. In fact, Kurosawa didn't go directly to King Lear for inspiration but came to his story through the well-known history of the medieval Lord Mori who, according to legend, had three sons, each of whom was handed a single arrow and asked to break it. But when three arrows were held together, nobody could fracture them. "When I read that three arrows together are invincible, that's not true," Kurosawa said in an interview about the genesis of the screenplay. "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?" The link to the Mori legend is made obvious and shattered in a scene in Ran in which the third son smashes the three arrows across his knee. By going back to Japanese history, Kurosawa also took care of what he felt was a shortcoming of Shakespeare's play, the lack of a back story for the characters. Kurosawa gave the abdicating Lord Hidetora and his family a history that shapes and fuels the revenge and betrayal on which the narrative hinges.
Stylistically, Ran takes its cue from not only Kurosawa's earlier period action films (with the humor and robustness of, say, Seven Samurai, giving way to a bleaker and more dispassionately beautiful approach) but also to the traditions of classical Noh theater, whose highly symbolic stylization is evident in such aspects of the movie as acting, costume, and soundtrack. Sound is used as a particularly evocative device in the film, from the sliding of silk garments across a polished floor to Toru Takemitsu's majestic, mournful score, which replaces the ambient sound of battle to chilling effect; it won awards from the Japanese Academy and Los Angeles Film Critics.
Almost 1,400 extras were employed for Ran, each requiring a uniform or suit of armor hand-made over the course of two years. The film also used 200 horses, many of which were imported from the U.S. Location work was done primarily in the mountains and plains around Mount Aso, Japan's largest active volcano. Kurosawa also got permission to shoot at ancient castles that are among the country's most famous historic sites. For the third castle of the abdicated Lord Hidetora, Kurosawa eschewed the use of miniatures and had a complete building erected on the slopes of Mount Fuji for the sake of burning it down in one of the film's most memorable scenes.
The title, Ran, is the Japanese character for "chaos" or "revolt." Chaos is a particularly apt word for a film whose subtext, as Kurosawa explained in a 1985 interview, is the threat of nuclear apocalypse a notion bolstered by the fact that the second-unit director here, Ishiro Honda, directed Godzilla (1956), Rodan (1956), and several others of the famous 1950s-60s series of Japanese atomic-age monster films.
Kurosawa's wife of 39 years, the former actress Yoko Yaguchi, died during production of Ran. He halted filming for one day of mourning before resuming work.
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Producers: Katsumi Furukawa, Serge Silberman
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Masato Ide
Cinematography: Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saito, Shoji Ueda
Editing: Akira Kurosawa
Production Design: Shinobu Muraki, Yoshiro Muraki
Original Music: Toru Takemitsu
Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai (Hidetora), Akira Terao (Taro), Jinpachi Nezu (Jiro), Daisuke Ryu (Saburo), Mieko Harada (Lady Kaede), Peter (Kyoami).
by Rob Nixon
Ran - RAN - Akira Kurosawa's 1985 Film Adaptation of Shakespeare's "King Lear"
Ran is a reinterpretation of William Shakespeare's King Lear. The Lear counterpart is an elderly 16th-century warlord named Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai), who announces that he will divide his kingdom equally among his three sons and "thus enjoy my remaining years." In his dotage, he falls prey to the false flattery of his treacherous sons Taro (Akira Terao) and Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), while banishing his youngest son Saburo (Daisuke Ryu), the only member of the family who loves him enough to tell him the hard, inconvenient truth that his decision is not wise. Thanks to his foolish pride and his own history of violence, as well as the smooth machinations of his daughter-in-law Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), the house of Ichimonji collapses under its own weight as the sons battle each other over total control.
Hidetora's intentions are pure. Similar to the sickly bureaucrat in Ikiru (1952, also available from the Criterion Collection), the warrior wants his life to mean something, other than the wanton bloodshed that has marked his lordship. So he decides to make a lasting peace by dividing his kingdom among his sons. But in a departure from the source material, Kurosawa notes, "I've tried to give Lear a history. I try to make it clear that his power must rest upon a lifetime of blood-thirsty savagery." Hidetora's atonement for a lifetime of war is to stumble like a ghostly fool down a road to hell littered with the crumpled wrecks of good intentions, the blood of innocents, and the burning vestiges of his stately kingdom.
Kurosawa treats the Shakespearean text in much the same way as he treated "Macbeth" for Throne of Blood (1957, also available from the Criterion Collection). He is respectful of the source, but Kurosawa makes it his own, primarily by bringing the rich Japanese dramatic heritage of the Noh to the story. According to Shakespearean scholar Jan Knott, "Kurosawa's greatness lies in his capacity to reveal historical similarity and variance; to find a Shakespearean sense of doom in other, remote, and apparently alien historical places...the further the ‘other' setting is, the less likely it is that the image will match the text. It stops being an illustration and becomes its essence and its sign...And here lies Kurosawa's genius and the singularity of his Shakespeare. The theater he makes use of is, of course, classic Japanese theater"—Noh.
Noh is essentially a composite art based on the elements of song, dance and drama. It is the oldest living dramatic form in the world today that makes use of masks. And in Ran, as he did in Throne of Blood, Kurosawa brings a Noh-like influence to the music score, production design, acting style, and makeup. While composer Toru Takemitsu brings a great deal of Western style into the Ran score (particularly from Gustav Mahler), it is the Noh fue, that piercing, singular flute, that will conclude the film and punctuate its poignant tragedy. In an interview conducted in 1985 (included in Criterion's excellent liner notes), Takemitsu discusses his communication with sensei (Kurosawa) over the musical direction of Ran, as well as the difficulty in mixing Kurosawa's evocation of Mahler (the director played Mahler's "The Song of the Earth" over the rushes during editing) with the original compositions Takemitsu made for the Noh fue. Kurosawa told Takemitsu that the story must be seen as a drama unfolding beneath the heavens. "The music, too, must come from the sky!" Kurosawa directed.
Kurosawa is firmly within the Noh tradition when he uses vibrant colors to delineate between the three warring brothers. Each one has his own color, so when the three factions go to war, we can clearly tell who is who in the midst of chaos. The color scheme also acts as a subtextual agent in creating a looming sense of conflict, even upon first meeting the characters. The three sons sit next to their father, each one distinguished not by the same color under their father's unifying banner, but under opposing colors of Sabo's blue, Jiro's red, and Taro's yellow. This use of color allows Kurosawa to abandon, if only for a moment, his usual mise en scene, that of a three-point structure, of one or two characters occupying the background, with the other character(s) staying in the foreground, all in focus. This familiar structure is seen later on in Ran when Hidetora is forced to assume a subservient position to the new lord Sabo and his scheming wife Lady Hadeo.
Author Stephen Prince, one of the few experts on Kurosawa cinema in the world, talks about the Noh acting in the DVD's audio commentary. Only two characters in the film use Noh acting style, Hidetora and Lady Kaede. In Hidetora's case, actor Tatsuya Nakadei was instructed to more or less maintain one basic expression for each scene, helped in part by the make-up that made his face look like a mask. For example, when the third castle burns around him, Hidetora retains a blank expression. There's no screaming histrionics, such as Toshiro Mifune used to brilliant effect at the brutal end of Throne of Blood, just a seemingly implacable mask that could be read several different ways, either as unfathomable misery or wearisome acceptance of his damnation. It is creepy and Kubrickian in its intense personification of otherworldly madness. On the other hand, Lady Kaede, played brilliantly by Mieko Harada, certainly wears a Noh-like mask of implacable evil, but in one brilliant scene, where she lunges towards Jiro with a dagger, she displays a cat-like ferocity that is miles away from Noh acting. Bent on merciless revenge, Kaede is a savage juggernaut, made in the image of Hidetora's own cruelty, for it was he who killed her family and overtook her home many years before. Her Noh mask is deceit doubling as death.
Aside from the Noh influence and Shakespearean source text, Ran is also an action film with stunning battle scenes. Truly, one shouldn't expect less from the creator of Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961—both available from the Criterion Collection), but at this late in his career, it would have been understandable if Kurosawa's edge had dulled, just a bit. But it did not. Kurosawa creates a dramatic kinesis of soldiers and horses, flying arrows and distant guns, billowing banners and choking smoke, and a flood of bloodshed and ignoble death. The violence is potent. During the first major battle scene, Kurosawa shows a glimpse of a wounded soldier, weeping impotently on the ground, holding his own severed arm. [A great admirer of Kurosawa, Steven Spielberg no doubt echoed this shot in Saving Private Ryan (1998) when a soldier hesitantly picks up his own severed arm on the shores of Normandy.] And the principle architect of the tragedy, Lady Kaede, meets a spectacular end, reminiscent of the final duel in Kurosawa's Sanjuro (1962), where Toshiro Mifune unleashes an arterial spray from his opponent (played by a young Tatsuya Nakadai) that is equally unforgettable and gruesome.
Kurosawa liked to call Ran his "three-castle film," referring to the film's three major sets. Real historical castles were used for some exteriors, but the third castle was built from scratch, on the moonscape side of Mr. Fuji, no less, at the tune of $1.6 million. And it was built only to burn down for three whirling cameras. Perhaps not since Buster Keaton sunk a real locomotive in The General (1926) did a filmmaker spend so much money for one single scene. There was no matte photography. No CGI. Just brave, ruthless filmmaking by a 70-year old man. And it is a stunning moment when star Matsuya Nakadai (who speaks of the moment in the DVD's new video interview) walks flawlessly down the steep steps of the engulfed castle. Kurosawa said, "Nakadai did it perfectly, without a single misstep, staring sightlessly like a sleepwalker or a madman."
The DVD boasts several supplements, including a 30-minute documentary on the making of Ran that is part of the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create. There is also a 35-minute video piece reconstructing Ran through Kurosawa's plentiful paintings and sketches. But the best supplement is the feature-length documentary AK, a film directed by Chris Marker and produced by Serge Silberman. This film, about the making of Ran was actually submitted to the Cannes Film Festival in place of Ran because Kurosawa was unable to complete the film on time. Shot in late 1984, AK shows the director alternately smiling obligingly and looking quite stern whenever his strict orders are not followed precisely. If Ran is distinguished for its long shot distance, of the heavens looking down upon the follies of Man, then AK relishes in the intimacy of the close-up medium shot. We are eavesdropping on the minute details of a master at work. When stubborn fog on Mt. Fuji interrupts the shooting schedule, Kurosawa improvises by shooting the fog to act as smoke from battle. As the narrator says, Kurosawa "is hacking his film out of the weather's boot matter, like a sculptor." Marker captures moments of irony that are apart from Kurosawa's production, such as when we see actors in full samurai regalia walking between rows of parked cars, the early morning fog crawling around on the ground beneath them.
AK also introduces Kurosawa's "phalanx of the faithful," seven associates who were Kurosawa's acknowledged inner circle. The first three acted as Kurosawa's cameramen on Ran: Ishiro Honda, Kurosawa's longtime friend, colleague, and assistant director (not to mention the creator of "Godzilla"); Asakazu Nakai, who worked with sensei on Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, and Kagemusha; and Takao Saito, the officially credited cameraman. These three were the "masters of the three-camera diagram," the set-up that Kurosawa had long used to shoot his films. The remaining "seven samurai" were Yoshiro Muraki, the production designer, Fumio Yanoguchi, Kurosawa's soundman since the mid-1950s, Takeji Sano, the chief electrician, and Teruyo Nogami, the production manager, who had the distinction for being with sensei the longest: she started as his script girl on Rashomon (1950, also available from the Criterion Collection).
Ran did well in Europe, especially in France, where the success of AK at Cannes whetted the anticipation for Kurosawa's epic. Shortly after the European premiere, Ran opened in America on September 27, 1985 for the twenty-third New York Film Festival. (Kurosawa arrived at the festival just as Hurricane Gloria was pounding Manhattan.) The film garnered nearly universal raves. David Edelstein of The Village Voice wrote, "Not even David Lean has Kurosawa's eye for color, for turning landscapes into formidable characters." Richard A. Blake in America wrote, "Ran insures him a place in the pantheon as a peer of Sergei Eisenstein, Abel Gance and D.W. Griffith." Drawing upon Eisenstein, Gance and Griffith too was Vincent Canby in The New York Times, who wrote, "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." There were a few dissenters. In Vanity Fair, critic Stephen Schiff seems to have seen a different picture when he dismissed the picture as "long and boring and beautiful" and labeling Kurosawa "the Gene Autry of Japanese cinema, loping westward with a six-gun in his belt and a song in his throat."
When Oscar® season started, director Sidney Lumet (who also provides an appreciation for the DVD) successfully campaigned to get Kurosawa a Best Director nomination. Lumet said, "'Masterpiece' is an overused term, but I don't think it's overused here...There are some directors whose films can be justified solely on their sense of beauty, and there are some whose films can be justified solely on their depth of profundity. Kurosawa is the only director who puts the two together." Indeed, Kurosawa became the first Japanese director to be so honored with a nomination since Hiroshi Teshigahara for Woman in the Dunes (1964). Alas, Kurosawa, arguably the greatest active filmmaker in the world at the time, lost the Oscar® to Sydney Pollack for Out of Africa (1985).
Donald Richie notes in his indispensable book The Films of Akira Kurosawa, "Ran is not only an allegory of Kurosawa's own life but a parable of all of our lives. From a sometimes sentimental humanism...Kurosawa has moved closer to a more precise and honest statement concerning humanity and its predicament. That is what Shakespeare did as well and, in King Lear, left us a tragedy with little hope but much understanding. In Ran, Kurosawa—in Shakespeare-like fashion—has shown us the tragedy of the human dilemma. He has done it with great honesty and so thrills our senses that we can never forget his lesson. To make this statement was perhaps the director's most important reason for creating this extraordinary film."
Indeed, it's tempting to consider Ran as autobiography. Both Hidetora and sensei were in their seventies, looking back on their life's work. And like Hidetora, Kurosawa was dealing with one crisis after another, both emotional and professional. When he wasn't struggling to find an open checkbook to finance his films, he was reeling from the loss of two of his most trusted assistants: Fumio Yano, his sound engineer, and Tatsu Kuze, the expert of the staged sword fight. But more tragically, Kurosawa's wife, Kyo, died of cancer during the making of Ran. Production was suspended for one day for her funeral. For Kurosawa, Ran was the culmination of his life's work. Usually, when asked what his best film was, Kurosawa would reply, "the next." But during the shooting in late 1984, when asked the same question, Kurosawa simply said, "Ran."
For more information about Ran, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Ran, go to TCM Shopping.
by Scott McGee
Ran - RAN - Akira Kurosawa's 1985 Film Adaptation of Shakespeare's "King Lear"
The Republic of Japan
Voted Best Foreign Film and Best Director by the 1985 National Board of Review.
Voted Best Foreign Film by the 1985 Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
Voted Best Foreign Film by the 1985 New York Film Critics Circle.
Voted Best Picture and Best Cinematography by the 1985 National Society of Film Critics.
Limited re-release in United States February 26, 2016
Released in United States 1985
Released in United States June 1985
Released in United States September 27, 1985
Released in United States Summer June 1, 1985
Limited re-release in United States February 26, 2016
Released in United States June 1985
Released in United States Summer June 1, 1985
Released in United States 1985 (Shown at Tokyo Film Festival 1985.)
Re-released in United States August 18, 2000 (New York City, Los Angeles and Seattle)
Shown at New York Film Festival September 27, 1985.
Re-released in United States August 18, 2000
Shown at Tokyo Film Festival 1985.
Released in United States September 27, 1985 (Shown at New York Film Festival September 27, 1985.)