The Final Masterpiece – RAN

7 01 2013

RAN (Toho Co., Ltd. - 1985)

Cinema is filled with many great films. Films that stand out above the rest. If you were to think of some of these films you would probably think of films like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, The Dark Knight, Planet Of The Apes and Independence Day. But while some are truly Great, some are greater than others. But what makes a film Great? Is it the amount of Awards it gets? Maybe. Is it the amount of money it makes? Possibly. Or is it the experience you get out of it? Yes. What I mean is the Story, the Characters, The Music, The Direction, pretty much everything. Films like Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, Rashomon and RAN, All of whom have been directed by the same man, The Great Akira Kurosawa.

Akira Kurosawa Award

RAN is the Last Great Epic of Legendary Japanese Director Akira Kurosawa. While he would make a further 3 or 4 films this was the Last Epic he made. Once again based in feudal Japan, a genre of films that he was known for, RAN was the most expensive Japanese film to date when it was released in 1985. RAN is based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, a story that I have not read, so here is a brief summary of King Lear to compare RAN to;

“The story of King Lear, an aging monarch who is headstrong old man who is blind to his weaknesses, decides to divide his kingdom amongst his three daughters, according to which one recites the best declaration of love. Goneril and Regan who are the selfish daughters of Lear who pretend to love him but later treat him cruelly. Cordelia who is the loyal and unselfish daughter of Lear. He disowns her after confusing her honesty with insolence. Edgar is Gloucester’s loyal son and heir and Edmund is Gloucester’s evil bastard son. At first the family appear to be loving and caring but this could not be further from the truth. As the characters unfold we find greed, betrayal, lust for power, and cruelty. In other words, they are anything but normal and caring. The end of the play ends in death everywhere. Regan dies after being poisoned by Goneril. Goneril stabs herself to death. Edgar reveals his true identity to his father, but the old man dies. Mortally wounded, Edmund becomes remorseful and countermands his order to hang Cordelia. But it is too late, and Cordelia dies. Lear, now a broken man, falls upon Cordelia and also dies”. – 

King Lear

The Story of RAN begins with an ageing warlord named Hidetora who is the head of the Ichimonji Clan. After he has finished hunting he has an important meeting with two rival warlords, Fujimaki and Ayabe as well as his three sons. After a horrible dream Hidetora decides now was the best time to pass his kingdom onto his three sons. He gives his first son Taro the leadership position of his country making Taro the new ruler. He gives his second son Jiro the second castle in his country and Saburo the third castle each with their own men to protect them. Hidetora decides that he will stay at the first castle with Taro but in different accommodation. However Saburo is unsure about this and voices his concerns but Hidetora takes his concerns as a threat and banishes him along with his servant Tango. Fujimaki who witnessed the event however invites Saburo to into his land and to marry his daughter.

Saburo, Tango and Fujimaki

From the get go things for the warlord do not go well. Taro’s wife Lady Keade wants revenge on Hidetora and so engineers a riff between him and Taro. After one of his sons guards try to kill his fool entertainer Kyoami, Hidetora kills him with a bow which sparks issues between him and Taro forcing Hidetora to sign a pledge that he will behave while staying with his son.  Hidetora signs the pledge but decides to leave and live with his second son Jiro. Meanwhile Jiro is jealous that he was not chosen to rule overall and so makes plans of his own. Hidetora arrives and proceeds to talk to Jiro’s wife Sue and asks her why she does not hate him after what he did to her family. Jiro meets with his dad but Hidetora does not like it when his men are not allowed into the castle, so he leaves. Taro’s men take control of the castle belonging to Saburo; the men there leave without a fuss and journey to Saburo.

Jiro and Hidetora

Hidetora and his men now find themselves homeless but are met by Tango who brings food. Tango refuses to leave his master and has been secretly following him. He suggests going to where Saburo now lives but Hidetora does not want to see his son. He discovers that Taro has decreed that anyone who helps Hidetora will be executed. They decide to leave for the third castle and take it without difficulty while Tango and Kyoami stay behind. However the building is later attacked by the combined forces of Taro and Jiro. All of Hidetora’s men are killed. During the battle Taro is killed by an arrow. Hidetora leaves his castle and wanders onto the plains.

Taro and Jiro's forces attack the third castle

Jiro heads for the first castle and takes command of the first castle and the empire. But Lady Keade accuses Jiro of having his General Kurogane kill his brother. She becomes the power behind the throne, first by accusing Jiro of having Kurogane kill his brother so that he can have the throne and then threatening him to start an affair with her. She also tells him to have his current wife Sue killed. Kurogane does not agree and refuses to do the job. Hidetora meanwhile has been found by Tango and Kyoami. They arrive at a hut occupied by a blind man disguised as a woman. His name is Tsurumaru who is the brother of Lady Sue. He had his eyes gouged out many years previously by Hidetora. Tango decides to leave to bring Saburo to his father. Hidetora and Kyoami hide in the ruins of a castle. Tsurumaru and Lady Sue are warned by Kurogane that Jiro wants Lady Sue dead and so they journey to a castle that was formerly theirs and destroyed by Hidetora, the same castle that Hidetora and Kyoami are now hiding in. Hidetora descends more and more into Madness and begins to be haunted by his past actions. It eventually becomes too much to bear and flees into the wilderness and from his fool Kyoami.

Saburo Returns

Saburo arrives (one of my favourite scenes) with his army to look for his dad. Jiro does not like this and readies his army for war but Lady Keade tells him to make a truce with him. Saburo can look for his father and then leave but when Hidetora’s location is found Jiro’s gunners can kill him. Jiro goes with this plan and offers the truce which Saburo agrees. Meanwhile the rival warlords Fujimaki and Ayabe arrive with their armies sensing a major battle. Saburo goes off to look for his dad, while Jiro against the advice of Kurogane orders an attack on Saburo’s remaining forces. Jiro’s forces are decimated however by gunfire coming from Saburo’s forces hiding in the trees. If this wasn’t bad news enough, word reaches Jiro that Ayabe’s forces are attacking the Castle. Jiro retreats.

Ayabe's forces

Saburo reunites with his father. Hidetora believes he is dead but then manages to come round and reconcile with his son. They head back to Saburo’s land but Saburo is then shot. All this becomes enough for Hidetora who then dies bringing an end to the Ichimonji Clan. Kurogane discovers that Lady Sue was murdered by an order from Jiro; he goes to Lady Keade and kills her. Jiro’s forces are decimated by Ayabe’s Forces. The film ends with Tsurumaru standing alone on the edge of what was once his castle. He drops a picture of Buddha that his sister gave to him.

Saburo Dies

Ran is an Epic film on all proportions with a Fantastic Story. When you compare it to King Lear you can see the comparison plus the changes. However Ran is built more on its characters, each one having a different story, different ideas of you will. The characters elements, key story features are also represented in the scenes that they are in too.


The idea for Hidetora was based on Toshiro Mifune originally but the part was given to Tatsuya Nakadai who had appeared in other Kurosawa films too including Yojimbo, Sanjuro and Kagemusha. Hidetora starts off as the wise old ruler character. A very trustworthy and honest man who wants what is best for his kingdom and his sons. But as the film progresses you begin to feel sorry for him as his sons reject him. These scenes are done brilliantly and it is through how the scene is set that we can see his downward journey. So when he is a ruler he has an army of followers and a lot of respect while taking part in one of his favorite past times. But it is the scene at the castle with Taro that things go down for him. At the castle he still lives like a ruler, but when he is thrown out he arrives at what is more like an outpost than a castle. And it is through how this scene pans out that the decent is continued. During the battle at the third castle, he has gone to his lowest point yet. The scene uses great use of color. For instance, when he is at the castle it is nice and bright but after the battle with Taro and Jiro’s forces, it has gone black which plays on the mood of the film and audience which makes you feel sorry for him but also shows what has happened to him. The fire in the scene adds to this by showing the fall in his empire as it were with one of his castles now on fire as he walks out.  Music helps by providing a sorrow note.

Hidetora Madness

But your feelings toward the character change a lot though when you begin to discover his past life. When you find out what he did during a previous war, when he destroyed a castle and when he gouged out someone’s eyes. He is no longer this peaceful ruler, you start to not feel sorry for him and in a way he becomes a secondary character in the film. It is not until the end when he manages to get a pick up from his son Saburo that he manages to get out this tricky spot. Hidetora is a great example of having something one day and not having it the next. One day he is a proud and noble ruler. The next he is a simple commoner, a peasant. He descends into madness as everything around him crumbles by his own doing. He gave the power to his selfish sons, he did not listen to his son and now he is at the bottom and dies from the mental state he created and made for himself.

Hidetora and Saburo reunite

Hidetora’s fool (Shinnosuke Ikehata) Kyoami is sort of like the film’s narrator. Much like Tahei and Matashichi from The Hidden Fortress, he is the lowest character. He tells the story of the king and all the other characters through song. While he is nothing more than an entertainer and a fool, it is through this that the audience can connect and have the story told in another way.

Kyoami and Hidetora

While the three sons are similar in several ways they are all very different. Taro (Akira Terao) is as selfish as Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) but while he is selfish and power-hungry he is a bit more peaceful than Jiro. To be fair on his part he was being tricked by Lady Keade who wants revenge on Hidetora and it is through this that Taro has a falling out with him. Jiro on the other hand was bloodthirsty from the start. He is jealous that Taro gets the ruling position and plans to take him out. He fights his father and casts out those who while helping him have worked for the opposition and cannot trust him. It is his rashness and bloodthirstiness that Lady Keade is able to tap into and give him what he wants with ease. Jiro’s desire for power can be recognised soon after Taro is killed when he immediately wears his armour and does not show respect for him. Saburo (Daisuke Ryu) meanwhile is very loyal to his father and only gets cast out when he voices concerns about his father’s plan. His loyalty to his father can be seen even more when he enters the region to look for his father after his downfall. Saburo could be seen in many ways as the hero of the story as he rides in to sort of save the day. That could also be why his death impacts the film and audience more. He came back to save the day and now he is leaving with his father which is what he wanted but deceased.

Three Sons, Saburo (blue), Jiro (red) and Taro (yellow)

The characters of Kurogane (Hisashi Igawa) and Tango (Masayuki Yui) are sort of odd but interesting to. Tango is a loyal servant to his master Hidetora and so is Kurogane. Tango is wise and so is Kurogane. They are both very similar characters, they only thing that separates them is whose side they are on. Tango is on the side of Hidetora while Kurogane is on the side of Jiro. However Kurogane is not really evil, he is just loyal but he is wiser than Jiro by far.

Kurogane and Jiro

Lady Keade (Mieko Harada) in many ways is the primary antagonist of the film. She starts off as a simple wife but later grows into a manipulative puppet master. As the film goes on you discover that she once lived in the main castle and now that she has returned she wants to stay there. So in a small way you are sensitive to her goals but not so much towards how she achieves them. So when she dies at the end it is through revenge/assassination/murder, almost a fitting end to a manipulative tyrant. The character of Lady Keade comes at an interesting point for cinema in particular. Women in cinema are no longer the damsels in distress much like they were pre Marry Poppins and are now some of the strongest characters in Cinema. Lady Keade truly represents this as both a strong woman who will do what she can to achieve her goals justified or not as well as her place in the story. She is not getting kidnapped or receiving death threats; she is giving orders for people to be executed. The idea that love can blind the truth is evident here with Lady Keade, the truth is, she wants revenge.

Lady Keade and Taro

The character of Tsurumaru (Mansai Nomura) is an interesting one. He has almost lost everything, but the ending of the film shows two possible sides and ideas to what the story is. One way to look at it is to see it as what you have. All the other major characters have lost everything. Both Jiro and Taro got what they wanted but in the end lost everything. Saburo tried to warn his father and even though he was banished he remained loyal and loved him so much that he returned for him only to lose his life and then his father’s life. Lady Keade got the revenge she wanted but paid for it with her life. While Tsurumaru has already lost everything and there he stands on the ruins of the castle that belonged to him with his life still intact. Another way to look at it is the idea of the blind man standing on the precipice. The Human condition as it were. One false move and its death.


The film makes great use of Camera work. Using the long shots and static cameras that would jump in. so instead of moving zoom shots or close ups you can get more into the shot and see more of the film. You can tell more in a film using specific shots and this film does that well. Much like when Hidetora is coming out of the Third Castle which is on fire, it is pretty much close up but then the camera retracts to reveal more. It helps to show his downfall to as he walks out of the castle as it is burning down. There are many shots in the film too particularly when the armies of Ayabe and Fujimaki you can see them on the far off mountains. While some people may see it and think of it as a back drop, I think otherwise because of the expansive region of the area. Kurosawa has shot on location many times before much like when he did 31 years previously when he shot Seven Samurai. There are also many great shots of whole armies (this is 1985, no CGI here at all). While most films today simply use CGI, you cannot beat the real thing, a whole army of soldiers, all of them real people playing the parts of these soldiers (1400 extras were hired for this film, put to Good use in my opinion compared to hiring extras and then just using them for CGI shots and as a result less realistic). What would you prefer, CGI or Real People?  

Fujimaki's Army

Filming locations helped a lot in this film. Akira Kurosawa loved using expansive landscapes and shot some scenes around Japan’s largest volcano, Mount Aso. He was also granted special permission to shoot some scenes around two of Japan’s greatest Landmarks, the castles at Kumamoto and Himeji. The third castle however was actually built for production on the slopes of Mount Fuji. The ruined castle on the other hand belonging to Lady Sue’s family were shot at the ruins of Azusa Castle.

Kumamoto and Himeji Castle

The film’s music are mostly on sorrow notes. It is not really happy music. Evidence of this can be seen during the battle between the forces of Taro and Jiro and the forces of Hidetora as you don’t hear much in the form of a battle but more of a sombre music piece. Music is more or less used as an effect to help a scene and not really as a theme. But do remember that RAN is based on a Tragedy and so happy music is not really well placed for this film and as such it is more about what happens than what you hear. But all together it is a major triumph for composer Toru Takemitsu.

It is interesting to see how much colour is used. Not just in specific scenes but also in decrypting who is good and bad. The flags that appear in the armies of the clans show it all. The clans of Fujimaki and Ayabe are white and Black and so act as a neutral colour while the colours for Jiro and Taro are red and Yellow. Red being a normal colour representation of the villains. Saburo’s colour is blue and as such becomes the colour for good. It is through these uses of colours that help to identify to the audience who is good and who is bad.

Jiro vs Saburo

Overall Ran is an impressive film and one of the finest examples of cinema in history. With a Great cast that play exciting as well as believable characters and relying on more than just the ordinary, RAN is an incredible film. It was really interesting to see how a colour format would compare for his films. Previous films I have seen from Akira Kurosawa like Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress were in black and white. However colour film does not take away any of the quality from his films as shown with RAN, once again it all comes down to the story. It is a definite must see. It is a film of love, kindness, disruption, corruption, death, war and the lust for power. A truly Great Film and a Great high note for Akira Kurosawa and his last Epic.

Taro and Jiro's forces with Hidetora

I suppose in a way that is another reason for the blind man at the end. It is the end of the road, the journey, the magnificent career of the Legendary Director. While this was not his last film, it was his last epic and the perfect note to end his epics on. A man who would inspire many people including Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, Francis Ford Copolla and Me. While this is not the last time I will review an Akira Kurosawa film (still a lot more to go) I would like to end this review on one final and special note.

Thank You Akira Kurosawa




3 responses

18 01 2013
HMV HELP « Numb3r5s's Blog

[…] Kicking off this past Monday it is HMV 25% off sale. Head over to the World Cinema section with your cash, cheque book or card and get ready to Spend Spend Spend. Azumi was £10 now £7.50, get the sequel for £5.25 while the sale remains. Have you visited Spain, well visit it again with some mystical creatures, buy Pan’s Labyrinth, was £11, now £8.25 (review). Do you like watching nothing but the Best Films, why not check out Rashomon, was £1o now £7.50, why not add to it with the Legendary Seven Samurai was £7 now £5.25 (review), but wait there’s more, why not add Yojimbo to your collection, was £7 now 5.25, and the deal just keeps getting better, Stray Dog was £6 now £4.50, why not add another classic to it with Ikiru, was £6, but you can have it for £4.50. But wait there is even more, buy Sanjuro, was £14 now £10.50, The Hidden Fortress, was £7 now £5.25, Throne of Blood, based on Macbeth, this one is set in Japan, was £14 now £10.50 and if that is your sort of thing you may want to purchase RAN which is based on King Lear, was £10, now £7.50 (review). […]

20 03 2013
Latest Blog Milestone – Two Hundred And Fifty Posts | Numb3r5s's Blog

[…] The Final Masterpiece – RAN: My review of the Akira Kurosawa film RAN. When I was writing this I knew that the post was […]

31 12 2014
The Legacy Of Cobweb Castle – Throne Of Blood | Numb3r5s's Blog

[…] watched one of Kurosawa’s adaptations of a Shakespeare play. Back in late 2012 I watched (and reviewed) the rather brilliant film RAN which is based on King Lear. Since watching Seven Samurai in 2012 […]

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