The tragedy of Ran

Ran is a 1985 movie by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa; it is a free adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Lear play. It reworks the mythological pre-Roman England setting of the play into Sengoku Era Japan (1467-1573 A.D.), the kingdom of England is replaced by the lands of the Ichimonji clan, Lear and his daughters are substituted by the aging warlord Hidetora and his three sons: Taro, Jiro and Saburo.

Much like the play it stems from the movie depicts a very bleak prospect of mankind and its relationship with the divine and itself, the movie arguably more so than the original. Kurosawa while keeping many of the core aspects of the story takes the liberty to remove and add characters and scenes; most prominent of these changes is the removal of Gloucester and his two sons Edgar and Edmund. Their roles are divided to several different characters in the movie such as Lady Kaede, who at some level takes the role Edmund when she seduces Jiro after becoming widowed from Taro, Tsurumaru in turn inherits his blindness from Gloucester. Edgar in many ways the redeeming character of Shakespeare’s play is virtually absent from the movie while The Fool, Kyoami in Kurosawa’s work is much more prominent.

Ran was produced in what is generally considered to be Kurosawa’s “third period” (1965-85), a time of difficulties for the Japanese director and for movies in general with the rise of television. Considered old fashioned in his own country, he was forced to search for foreign investment for his movies. Chastised by his contemporaries for his infamous perfectionism, plagued by ill health and his independent company having gone bankrupt Kurosawa attempted suicide. By the time Ran was made he was going blind, and as if to further even more his misfortune his wife died during production. Therefore it is understandable that by that time Kurosawa had a very bleak outlook on the world, this is clearly demonstrated through his last epic and, to many, not least himself, his last masterpiece: Ran.

The movie makes full use of foreshadowing; the very first shot shows us four riders on top of a hill, each facing a different direction, the reference to the four horsemen of the apocalypse is obvious to all to see, together with the foreboding music it creates an expectation that contradicts the clear blue sky depicted on the scene. The camera then moves between medium shots and long shots that show us several individual riders in duos or trios as they look over the hills in search of something, the sky and far reaching landscapes are always prominent giving the sense of desolation and abandonment which is heightened by the music. This is so not only during this first sequence, but throughout the movie, close ups are rarely used and when they are it is to show a particular look of madness or despair in a characters face, especially in the case of Hidetora.

Music and camera shots are not the only ways in which the movie drives its main motifs of despair, desolation and madness. Clothes and the mise-en-scene play a very prominent part in the overall effect of the scenes, clothes in particular are very symbolic in Ran they represent the characters very identity, greedy Taro is always in yellow, bloodthirsty Jiro is constantly in red, naive Hidetora is white, world wizened Tango dresses in dark colours and Kyoami the fool has lavishly intricate patterns that constantly change. Worthy of note is the scene in which after having his older brother killed, Jiro then decides to wear his armour and go to his castle, effectively taking over the identity of his dead brother Taro. Another interesting point is the fact that the traitorous characters who betray Hidetora for his elder son, appear with clothes of different colours in almost every scene.

Clothes, especially in the case of Hidetora, also show the state of mind of the character, before going insane due to his sons betrayal the old warlord’s costume and hair were impeccable taking a turn to downright haggard as he loses his mind. Taro’s and Jiro’s soldiers are identified with their respective lord’s colours that they carry in their standards, yellow and red, which are very prominent in Ran, as they are representative of fire, hell and strife. Upon their deaths however, the soldiers are reduced to an unrecognizable mass of gore, Kurosawa goes out of his way to show warfare as harshly as possible.

Swords also play an important in driving the ideals behind the movie, often depicted in Japanese culture in ways that exalt their status as the very spirit of the samurai; the katana is, for better or worse, a central figure in any samurai movie. In Ran as in other Kurosawa movies before it, such as Throne of Blood, however they are depicted as little more then glorified butcher knifes, being drawn and swung about in often clumsy and undignified ways. This, however, does not withdraw the katana’s status as the soul of the samurai, Hidetora’s sword poignantly breaks as he is drawn to madness and he drags an empty scabbard at his feet. In Ran it is not that the katana is not the soul of the Bushi, it is the warrior’s and through it humankind’s very spirit that is unsightly and shameful.

All in all Kurosawa makes use of several cinematic techniques such as colouring and long shots to drive through his vision of the world into what constitutes Ran, even Shakespeare’s original play is used as nothing more than a tool for a purpose, even having its beautiful poetry mercilessly thrown away in favour of harsh archaic Japanese lines often screamed rather then spoken. All this is done so as to generate a chaotic and harsh world depicting a lost and confused humankind abandoned by the gods and bent on its own destruction.


  • Carroll, R. and S. Prickett (eds) (1998). The Bible: Authorized King James Version. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Ran (1985) [Film] Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Japan: Greenwich Film Productions.
  • Shakespeare, W. The Tragedy of King Lear. In Bate, J. And E. Rasmussen (eds) (2007) The Royal Shakespeare Company Complete Work. China: Macmillan.
  • Throne of Blood (1957) [Film] Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Japan: Toho Company.











Eduardo Lima© 2010

Reproducing any content of this paper without proper referencing is considered plagiarism and, therefore, an act of academic dishonesty.