Ran (1985)


After Kagemusha, Kurosawa set out to make the film that he had been wanting to make for almost a decade, Ran.

Though he would direct three films after it, Ran would be Kurosawa's final epic period film.

He initially had trouble finding the $12 million he needed to make the film. It was the highest budget for a Japanese film ever at that time.

Finally he found the money he needed in the French producer Serge Silberman.

Kurosawa initially thought of the idea when he read about a famous warlord named Mori Motonari, who was known to have three sons.

Kurosawa only later discovered the similarities between this story and Shakespeare's King Lear.

Ran was nominated for four Oscars. One which it won for Best Costume Design, and three which it did not win including Best Directing.

Because of the Japanese film industry's ill feelings towards Kurosawa at the time, Ran was not entered as the Japanese film in the Best Foreign Film Oscar category nor was it nominated for Best Feature at the Japanese Academy Awards.

Despite its massive budget, the film did make enough to come out a few million dollars ahead.

But most importantly, Kurosawa was able to make the film he had been wanting to for years. Though not his final film, it is certainly his last great masterpiece.


Ran tells the story of a fictional clan leader named Hidetora Ichimonji and his three sons Taro, Jiro and Saburo.

After a boar hunt the four men sit down with two lords from neighboring clans when Hidetora falls asleep.

When he awakens from his nightmare, he decides that he must hand over the clan to his oldest son Taro, a decision that Saburo openly protests.

Saburo is so insistent that it comes out as insolence, and he is banished by his own father along with one of his closest advisers.

Taro, who quickly takes on the role of puppet as his wife Lady Kaede begins to pressure him to exert more authority, demands his father put in writing that he will give up all power and dissolve his small fighting force.

Feeling spurned by his own son, Hidetora goes to his second son Jiro, but is turned away as Jiro has his own plans to take over the clan.

Hidetora eventually resolves to settling in the third castle that would have been Saburo's. While Hidetora sleeps, Jiro and Taro march on the castle and begin to attack.

Hidetora's forces are quickly overtaken and the castle is set alight. After he is unable to find a sword to commit ritual suicide, Hidetora exits the castle after going mad inside its keep.

Hidetora, along with his former adviser Tango and Kurosawa's version of Shakespeare's court jester, begin the journey to another abandoned castle that was burned to the ground long ago by Hidetora himself.

Along the way they find the brother of Jiro's wife, whose eyes were gauged out long ago by Hidetora.

Meanwhile, Lady Kaede has forgotten her husband who was killed in the attack on Hidetora's castle and has begun to court Jiro so that she can remain in her position of authority.

Lady Kaede herself is the daughter of a lord that Hidetora killed, a fact that fuels her revenge against the man.

Saburo, learning of his father's whereabouts, travels to reclaim him, only to be confronted by Jiro.

While Saburo goes off with a small contingent of forces to find his father, his main army stays to fight Jiro's forces.

What Jiro doesn't know is that an ally of Saburo's is taking his castle as he fights Saburo's forces.

As Jiro returns to unsuccessfully defend his castle, Hidetora is reunited with Saburo. As they begin to ride away, Saburo is shot by an enemy sniper. Hidetora is so shaken by his son's death that he too dies.


Ran is a film that is certainly representative of Kurosawa's later period. Kurosawa's former belief that goodness will prevail out of so much evil is here replaced with the feeling that human beings are inherently evil, and that those few good people that are in the world are doomed to live in sadness.

From the beginning of the film, we know that Hidetora will see no happy ending. In his dream, he says, he is walking alone in a desolate field.

And indeed just prior to his death at the end of the film he is very much alone. All that he loved is now gone. His kingdom and more importantly his sons, have all left him.

Throughout the film he is haunted by his past. These are decisions he doesn't appear to regret because in his state of insanity he already feels as if he has gone to hell.

In Ran, Kurosawa deals with one of the primary concerns of his entire career, which is the corruption that comes along with power.

In Throne of Blood, Ikiru, The Bad Sleep Well, and Kagemusha to name a few, those who are in power are portrayed negatively.

Ran's characters, especially Taro and Jiro, are all vying for power. Both are corrupted by their advisers, and both end up dying in the end.

In the beginning of the film the sons' ambitions are established. Taro and Jiro, attempt to hide their ambitions for clan leadership by questioning their father's decision and then finally coming to accept it.

Saburo, who we already know is the true loyal and good son as he demonstrated when he alone stayed to shade his father after he fell asleep, does not share these ambitions and speaks frankly when voicing his opposition.

In the end, it is clear that Kurosawa is once again expounding the old adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Up to this point in his career religion was not incredibly important to Kurosawa and had never much come up in any of his films except sparingly in films like Ikiru, The Idiot, and Dodes'ka-den.

In Ran, Jiro's wife, Lady Sue, is the only purely good person in the film. Her innocence and faith in Buddha translate to Hidetora as naivety. There is no Buddha in such dark times, Hidetora tells her.

And indeed Kurosawa himself might have been questioning religion at this time in his life as well.

The very end of the film contains religious importance as well. Lady Sue's brother was given a scroll with a picture of Buddha on it while she went to go look for a flute he had left behind. She is later killed and never returns, and as her brother stands on a cliff overlooking the valley where Hidetora's and Saburo's bodies are being carried in a procession, he drops the scroll and it falls into a small cavern.

At the end of the film all faith is lost, and not even religion can save them. Ran is the Japanese word for chaos, and chaos is exactly what the film descends into.

Kurosawa's depiction of women is once again an interesting one. At one end of the spectrum there is Lady Kaede. Lady Kaede, who could easily be compared to Lady Washizu in Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, is the strongest female character of any Kurosawa film.

Though she is fueled by revenge and her feelings towards the Ichimonji clan are clearly justified, her character remains an evil one in comparison to the female character on the opposite side of the spectrum, Lady Sue.

In the end, both of the characters die, but it is only in Lady Sue's death that we feel remorse. Despite the justice that is being served by Kaede, it is Sue's position of forgiveness through religion that we sympathize with and which makes her death that much more tragic.

Indeed, our feelings toward Kaede are partially guided by Jiro's right-hand man Kurogane. Though Kurogane himself is not free from guilt over the evil that pervades the film. It was he who fired the shot that killed Taro, though he claims the shot came from Hidetora's castle.

The character of the fool, or court jester, is a new and interesting one for Kurosawa. In Ran, Kyoami is Hidetora's last surviving servant. He remains loyal to Hidetora even when he descends into madness. This loyalty may be partially due to the fact Hidetora earlier in the film saved Kyoami from an oncoming attack from one of Taro's men.

However, despite this loyalty Kyoami is quick to point out the irony of Hidetora's downfall. Essentially telling Hidetora he had it coming, he recalls a story of a bird who accidentally sits on a snake egg and is killed by it after it hatched. He tells his master that before it was he who was supposed to make him laugh but now the tables have turned due to his loss of sanity.

He even makes Hidetora a makeshift crown of grass and flowers, poking fun at how much power Hidetora has lost.

The image of Hidetora with his crown of grass is in stark contrast to the Hidetora at the beginning of the film. In true old-style Kurosawa fashion, the main character goes through a startling transformation throughout the film.

In the beginning, Hidetora is shown during the boar hunt atop his horse with an arrow ready in his massive bow. This image is one of strength and power, completely different from the ghostly white image of Hidetora at the end of the film.

But like any great Shakespearean tragedy, we knew he was doomed from the start. And also like any Shakespearean tragedy, foreshadowing plays an important role.

After Hidetora relinquishes power to Taro, he attempts to prove that his decision to give up power to his sons was a good one. First he hands each of his sons an arrow and instructs them to break it, which they do with ease.

He then hands them three arrows bunched together and tells them to break them. Taro and Jiro are unable to with brute strength alone, but Saburo breaks the arrows using his leg, then tells his father that there are indeed ways to break things apart.

Kurosawa utilizes another interesting technique to signify trouble coming up in the film. At times during the beginning of the film, before the fighting begins, to transition between scenes Kurosawa will point the camera to the sky and shoot billowing clouds, a symbol of the storm brewing down below.

During the siege of Hidetora's castle, Kurosawa cuts to a shot of the sun being taken over by black smoke. Hidetora's crest is a sun, and in this scene it is he who is being overtaken by the black smoke that is Jiro and Taro's forces.

These shots, like many of the others in the film, are static. The camera in Ran is the most immobile of any Kurosawa film to this point. Apart from a few tracking shots the camera simply pans around or doesn't move at all.

Far from the simple, slightly above ground level static shots that Ozu employed throughout his career, Kurosawa's shots feel more like paintings than anything. Kurosawa, in fact, storyboarded this entire film as full size paintings.

Along those same lines, the colors of the film are as vibrant as those seen in Dodes'ka-den. Though in Ran they more often than not symbolize the three sons. Taro in yellow, Jiro in red and Saburo in blue.

Though the color of the film makes a startling transformation from beginning to end as well. The lush green grass that permeates the beginning of the film is replaced in the end with baron land that looks like a desert.

Apart from the mostly static camera, another sign of Kurosawa's later career is his reluctance to accompany the action with music.

The longest stretch of music, and the one that doesn't merely seek to punctuate some small moment in the film, comes during the siege of Hidetora's castle by Taro and Jiro.

Going a different route than Kagemusha, Kurosawa cuts out all of the diegetic sound (sound from the film world) and plays only the non-diegetic (film score on the soundtrack).

The haunting music accentuates the horrors that we see on the screen. It is a nightmarish scene that gets that much more powerful with music over the soundtrack.

Finally, no discussion of the film would be complete without mentioning the superb acting of Tatsuya Nakadai as Hidetora.

Nakadai completely becomes the role. When he walks out of the burning castle, he looks like a man possessed. He plays the mad clan leader with such energy that it's hard to believe there is an actor underneath the costume. His performance is one of the greatest of any Kurosawa film, and rivals that of Mifune's in his best roles.

Though it was made during a period when many felt Kurosawa's work faltered, Ran is a film that rivals the director's best work in the 50s and 60s.

Its thematic concerns are equaled only by Kurosawa's mastery of the camera and his talent in bringing out the best performances among his actors.

Though he may have peaked decades before, Ran should be listed among the best of not only Kurosawa's work, but of Japanese cinema as a whole.

Kagemusha (1980)


The financial failure of Dodes'ka-den left Kurosawa devastated. It was, in fact, such a low point in his life that Kurosawa attempted to take his own life. Luckily he failed and recovered.

After his suicide attempt it looked as though Kurosawa would never make another film again. Production companies didn't want to fund films for the aging director especially after his suicide attempt that increased the rumors about his mental stability.

However, in 1975 Kurosawa was asked by the Soviet Union production company Mosfilm to direct a joint Soviet-Japanese film of his choosing.

For this film Kurosawa chose the true story of a Siberian hunter who helps a group of Russian troops survive in the harsh Russian wilderness.

The film went on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and more importantly brought Kurosawa back to filmmaking.

For his next film, Kurosawa would find the funding he needed from two unlikely sources. American directors Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, two big fans of Kurosawas, convinced 20th Century Fox to pay for part of the production in exchange for the international distribution rights.

With the funding he needed, Kurosawa began making his next period film Kagemusha.


Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior) is based, in part, on the true story of Shingen Takeda, a 16th-century clan leader in feudal Japan.

The film begins with Nobukado Takeda, Lord Shingen's brother, presenting a man he believes could act as a double for the lord should the need arise.

The man, a petty thief, looks exactly like Lord Shingen, though they share no common ancestors.

While visiting the battlefield outside an enemy castle, Lord Shingen is mortally wounded by an enemy sniper.

Before dying, he tells his retainers not to move the clan's forces for three years, lest the word get out that he has been killed.

Reluctantly, the double for Lord Shingen takes on the duties of the late lord. Only the retainers are made aware of Lord Shingen's death.

Katsuyori Takeda, Lord Shingen's son, believes he should be the leader of the clan, and disobeys his fathers orders by going into battle himself.

Meanwhile, Lord Shingen's double grows increasingly confident. He is so consumed with his role that he attempts to ride the lords horse, which will only respond to its true master.

When the double is thrown from the horse, it is discovered that he is in fact the double and he is subsequently cast out of the castle.

Katsuyori, further defying his father's wishes, send his entire army to battle, where they are quickly killed in a hail of gunfire.

With one final act, Lord Shingen's former double takes up a dead soldiers spear and charges at the enemy, only to be shot himself.

As he stumbles into a nearby river, he sees the flag of the Takeda clan floating on the water before he himself is carried downriver by the current.


After 18 years, Kurosawa returned to the genre that made him famous, the jidai-geki.

This time, however, Kurosawa would bring with him both color photography and a story based on the actual history of the time.

Indeed, Kagemusha feels more like a historical epic than a great study of humanity that Kurosawa brought to the screen in his earlier films.

This is not meant to take anything away from the film, but it is worthy to note that Kurosawa in his later years seemed far more interested in telling a story than expounding his humanist ideology.

This is also not to say that his ideology is not present at all in the film. The final scene of the film vividly and powerfully depicts the horrors of war and the needless bloodshed of the feudal period in Japan.

But the final battle is merely a fraction of the entire film. The rest is merely an interesting story about a double taking on the role of a fallen lord.

Loyalty and power are the main themes of the film, not the horrors of war. Lord Shingen's double (we never do learn his name) becomes increasingly consumed with his role as the de facto clan leader.

So consumed is he that even as he is cast out of the castle he continually returns as if he were still or ever really was the clan leader.

The double, though he has the power to do essentially whatever he wishes, chooses to obey the orders of a man he hardly knew. He remains loyal to the bitter end.

It is loyalty that leads to the ruin of the clan as well. Katsuyori is quick to ignore everything his father told him and lets his need for power get to his head. He leads his forces into battle despite ill omens including a rainbow that one of the retainers believes is "blocking their path forward".

Also, it is the loyalty of the horse towards its true master that causes it to send Shingen's double flying off its back. Kurosawa always had a lot of respect for horses, and it is perhaps because of his feelings towards them that they are the ultimate cause of the double's fall from grace.

The film is replete with imagery, most notably in a dream sequence reminiscent of the one in Drunken Angel.

Shingen's double approaches the jar we know to contain the body of the late lord. When he approaches it Lord Shingen's double bursts out and begins to chase his double.

Here Lord Shingen is being haunted by his sense of duty to the lord. When Lord Shingen goes away, his double begins to wander around as if he were lost, until he finds his way into a shallow pond and begins to create small splashes with his legs.

Kurosawa uses a long lens to shoot these splashes up close to make them seem larger than they are. He also puts the sounds of much larger waves on the soundtrack. The double then awakens and behind him we see a painting of a raging sea. Both of these are symbols of the coming battle.

The dream sequence is also important visually because of the dizzying array of colors that Kurosawa uses. It is a brilliant dream-scape that only Kurosawa could create.

Apart from the dream sequence, color comes into play the most during the battle sequences. The majority of the battle scenes take place at night, and the fighting is largely out of sight. Kurosawa replaces the shots of the fighting with smoke lit bright red to signify the bloodshed taking place on the battlefield.

The second most memorable scene is the final battle. With no sound whatsoever and slow-motion, Kurosawa creates an agonizing picture of a blood-stained battlefield.

He cuts to several shots of shot horses (they were given sedatives to create the effect) attempting to get up, soldiers screaming but not being heard, and mounds of dead soldiers in the field.

The scene is incredibly powerful. Without sound, the audience must concentrate fully on the images, an incredibly smart move by Kurosawa as it heightens the magnitude of the scene considerably.

Though the majority of the Kurosawa company of actors was replaced after Red Beard, several have returned for Kagemusha. In the lead role of Shingen and his double is Tatsuya Nakadai. Nakadai (Yojimbo, Sanjuro and High and Low) came in as a replacement after the former lead actor had an argument with Kurosawa.

In smaller parts are former Kurosawa bit part actors Takashi Shimura and Kamatari Fujiwara. These would be their final roles in a Kurosawa film and though their roles are not especially important, it is still a small pleasure to see them working with the great director again.

As for photography the film represents both the culmination of Kurosawa's shooting style and the style he seemed to adopt later in life.

There are still the long lenses, long takes and multiple cameras. But gone are the elaborate camera movements and dynamic editing.

Though not as immobile as his next film Ran, the camera in Kagemusha is more apt to merely pan around rather than physically move around in the space.

This is, perhaps, merely a sign of Kurosawa's age. He was 70 years old at the time he made Kagemusha.

Though the color in the film is not as vivid nor hold as much meaning as it did in Dodes'ka-den, it does lend a lot to the realism that Kurosawa always sought with his period films. Again, everything from the sets to the costumes to the props looks authentic to the period.

Kurosawa readily admitted that Kagemusha was merely a test run before his next film Ran. Though its ideological message may have given way to the historical aspect of the film, Kagemusha is still an period film by the director who knew them best (well, except maybe Mizoguchi).