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. After Ran, Kurosawa directed three other films before he died, but none on so large a scale. 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.
Following Hidetora's abdication, Taro's wife Lady Kaede begins pushing for Taro to take direct control of the Ichimonji clan, and engineers a rift between Taro and Hidetora. Kaede is a vengeful, manipulative woman whose family was slaughtered by Hidetora in his own rise to power and has thus dedicated her life to bringing about the downfall of the Ichimonji clan.
Matters come to a head when Hidetora kills one of Taro's guards who was threatening the fool Kyoami. When Taro subsequently demands that Hidetora confirm Taro's new standing and powers by signing a document in blood, Hidetora reluctantly complies and storms out of the castle. He then travels to Jiro's castle, only to discover that Jiro is more interested in using Hidetora as a pawn in his own power play. During this time Hidetora visits Jiro's wife, Lady Sué. Like Kaede, her family was murdered by Hidetora, but she has embraced the gentle creed of Pure Land Buddhism and forgiven him. When Jiro refuses to allow Hidetora's warriors to enter the castle with him, Hidetora leaves, vowing never to see Jiro again. Hidetora's entourage is reduced to camping in the wilderness where they face the prospect of starvation because the peasants have been threatened by Taro not to provide them with food.
Meanwhile Taro's retainer Ogura arrives at the Third Castle to take possession of it. Refusing to serve him, Saburo's troops leave to join their lord in exile. Tango, following Hidetora in disguise, arrives at the camp to convince his lord to take refuge with Saburo. Hidetora, though ashamed of his mistakes, refuses to let go of his pride and, orders his samurai to burn the villages as punishment, over the protests of Tango. Influenced by his devious adviser Ikoma, Hidetora decides to go to the Third Castle, instead of going to Saburo, who has taken refuge with the warlord Fujimaki. When Kyoami uses a jest to criticize his master's decision, he is violently reprimanded by Hidetora and left behind with Tango. Hidetora takes control of the Third Castle and settles in it.
Shortly afterwards, Hidetora and his retinue are attacked from within and without by the combined forces of Taro and Jiro (yellow and red forces respectively). Hidetora's retainers are slaughtered, his concubines kill each other in despair and the Third Castle is set on fire. As Taro's and Jiro's forces storm the castle, Jiro's Chief Retainer Kurogane surreptitiously assassinates Taro. Hidetora is left to commit seppuku (ritual suicide); however, to his dismay, Hidetora finds his sword broken and he cannot commit seppuku. Instead of killing himself, Hidetora becomes insane and wanders distracted out of the burning castle, unharmed by the attackers who, awe-struck by his transformation, clear a path for him.
As the castle burns, the deranged Hidetora wanders about during a storm in the grassy fields of the nearby mountains when he is discovered by Tango and Kyoami, the only people who have remained loyal to him. At first, regressing to childhood, he gathers flowers, ignoring his companions; then, suddenly overcome by a horrifying vision of all the people he has killed, he flees in terror. The three take refuge from the storm in a nearby peasant's home, only to discover that the peasant is Tsurumaru, the brother of Lady Sué, blinded years before on the Great Lord's orders.
Upon his return from battle, Jiro, as part of the plan made with his generals, publicly embarrasses Lady Kaede. The treacherous Ikoma and Ogura have given Jiro good service, as his generals in the recent campaign against their erstwhile lord, Hidetora. But now the traitors are themselves betrayed, when Jiro offers them presents in thanks but also in farewell, dismissing them on the grounds that having betrayed one master, they might betray another. Later, Kaede comes to supposedly congratulate Jiro for his new rank, she manages to overpower him. With a dagger pointed at his throat Kaede extracts from Jiro the truth about Taro's death, blackmailing him and becoming his lover. She demands that Jiro leave his wife for her. When Jiro offers to divorce his wife Lady Sué and marry Kaede instead, she demands he have Sué killed.
As Ikoma and Ogura are travelling into banishment, they are discovered and killed by Tango, who learns that Jiro killed Taro and intends to murder his father should he recover sanity. Kyoami and Tango decide that to ensure Hidetora's safety he must be taken to Saburo. But shame at his shabby treatment of his only loyal son prevents Hidetora from willingly reuniting with his son. Therefore, Tango sets out to bring Saburo to Hidetora. Kyoami stays with the Great Lord as the old man descends deeper into madness, wandering into the remnants of the castle of Lady Sué's father - a castle that Hidetora himself destroyed.
Kaede swiftly becomes the power behind the throne of the weak-willed Jiro, in her secret efforts to destroy the Ichimonji. Kurogane is given the order to kill Sué, but he refuses, blatantly bringing back the head of a statue and, through the story of a wily fox, warns Jiro not to trust Kaede. Having been warned by Kurogane, Lady Sué flees the Second Castle and, meeting up with her brother Tsurumaru, flees to the ruins of their father's castle. Along with an aide they barely outrun enemy forces sent by Jiro. But suddenly, Tsurumaru remembers that he has forgotten his flute; the aide leaves to retrieve it
With Hidetora's whereabouts a mystery and his calamities and plight now well-known, Saburo's army (blue forces) crosses back into the kingdom to find him. Saburo's new father-in-law, the warlord Fujimaki (white forces), anticipates a major battle and marches to the border. Worried about his brother's actions and mindful of Saburo's alliance with rival warlords who want the Ichimonji lands for themselves, Jiro hastily mobilizes his much larger army to stop them. Meanwhile, Hidetora and Kyoami come across Sué and Tsurumaru at the Second Castle ruins, and Hidetora flees.
Saburo's and Jiro's forces meet on the field of Hachiman. Another rival warlord, Ayabe, shows up with his own army (black forces) on a hill overlooking the field; Fujimaki's forces remain poised on an opposite hill. Back at the castle ruins, Sué decides to go retrieve her brother's flute herself. Tsurumaru tries to convince his sister that he does not need the flute, but Sué goes back anyway, leaving him with a scroll, illustrated with a picture of the Buddha. After arranging a truce with Jiro, Saburo finds Kyoami and rides off with soldiers to find Hidetora. Jiro breaks the truce and sends a gunnery brigade after Saburo and then orders an attack on Saburo's remaining forces. Saburo finally finds Hidetora, who comes back to his senses and repents. Despite their superiority in number, Jiro's army is decimated by arquebus fire from Saburo's army.
Word reaches Jiro and Kurogane that a large part of Ayabe's army has unexpectedly left the battlefield and is marching towards the First Castle. Thus, Jiro realizes, the army on the hilltop is a decoy. Jiro's army promptly retreats and flees back to the castle, as Fujimaki's army cheers from the opposite hilltop. As father and son ride contentedly together on horseback, Saburo is killed by Jiro's gunnery brigade. Overcome with grief, Hidetora finally dies, collapsing atop the body of Saburo.
Jiro's army barely makes it back to the First Castle, just as Ayabe's army arrives. A soldier arrives with the head of Sué, who has been killed with her aide and beheaded by Jiro's forces. During the battle against Ayabe's forces, Kurogane confronts Lady Kaede about her actions; she admits that she herself had planned for events to transpire this way all along, and so Kurogane beheads her in front of Jiro. The First Castle's defenses are ultimately overcome and breached by Ayabe's forces, the castle burned, and Jiro's death and the fall of his army are implied.
While Saburo's army mourn their fallen leader, the film ends with a shot of Tsurumaru, standing alone on top of the ruined castle of his father. As he wanders blindly about, he nearly falls from a ledge and accidentally drops the scroll given to him by his sister.
Kurosawa first got the idea that would become Ran in the mid-1970s, when he read a parable about the Sengoku-era warlord Mori 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 Mori 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 that "Hidetora is me," and there is some evidence in the film that Hidetora serves as a stand-in for Kurosawa. Hidetora's crest is the sun and moon, and the Chinese character of Kurosawa's first name "Akira" (kanji: 明) is combined from the kanji meaning "sun" (日) and "moon" (月). 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 1965's Red Beard 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. By the time he directed Ran, he was almost completely blind; to make matters worse, his wife of forty years, Yôko Yaguchi, died during production.
While Kurosawa said that Ran is not a direct adaptation of King Lear, he did admit to being influenced by the play and incorporated many elements from it into Ran. Both follow an aging warlord who decides to divide up his kingdom among his offspring. In place of Lear's daughters, Hidetora has three sons — Taro, Jiro, and Saburo (who correspond to Goneril, Regan and Cordelia respectively). 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 and in Ran it is both 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 ultimately end with the death of the entire family, including the hapless 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. Kurosawa also expanded the role of the Fool into a major character (Kyoami), while also making him sexually ambiguous (he was played by "Peter", an entertainer well-known for cross-dressing). His other major addition was Lady Kaede, who is the polar opposite of Kyoami. Although he probably based her on Shakespeare's Goneril, she is a much more complex and important character in the film.
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. The film used approximately 1,400 extras, which required 1,400 uniforms and suits of armor to be fabricated. These were designed by costume designer Emi Wada and Kurosawa, and were hand-made by master tailors over more than two years. The film also used 200 horses, a number of which had to be imported from the United States. 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. 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.
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, Yôko Yaguchi, died during the production of this film. He halted filming for just one day to mourn before resuming work on the picture.
Ran was a late Kurosawa film and so it lacked many stalwarts of earlier Kurosawa films, such as Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune. The description of Hidetora in the first script was originally based on Mifune, who had been estranged from Kurosawa since Red Beard. However, for various reasons the part ultimately went to Tatsuya Nakadai, who had played several supporting characters in previous Kurosawa films, as well as Shingen and his "kagemusha", "double", in Kagemusha. But because the character had been written for Mifune, Nakadai found himself playing Toshiro Mifune playing Hidetora. Two other Kurosawa veterans in Ran were Hisashi Igawa (Kurogane) and Masayuki Yui (Tango), who were both in Dreams and Madadayo (Yui had also been in Kagemusha and Igawa would later appear in Rhapsody in August). Many of the other actors had also appeared in other late Kurosawa films, such as Jinpachi Nezu (Jiro) and Daisuke Ryu (Saburo) 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. He also brought in two comedians for lighter moments: Shinnosuke "Peter" Ikehata as Hidetora's fool Kyoami and Hitoshi Ueki as rival warlord Nobuhiro Fujimaki.
As the title suggests, chaos occurs repeatedly in the film; 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." Kurogane's assassination of Taro ultimately elevates Lady Kaede to power and turns him 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 don't 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."
This marked a radical departure from Kurosawa's earlier films, many of which were filled with hope and redemption. Only Throne of Blood, an adaptation of 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 from 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 and ultimately violent death as well.
In Ran, the Battle of Hachiman Field is a perfect illustration of this new kind of warfare. Saburo's arquebusers 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.
Ran had similar indifferent luck in the awards categories: it was completed too late to be entered at Cannes and had its premier 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.
Ran was also nominated for Art Direction, Cinematography, and Costume Design (which it won). It was also unsuccessfully nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign 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 reexamined, and its accolades have improved greatly, to the point that it is now regarded as one of Kurosawa's masterpieces.