*. In my mostly gushing notes on Grigori Kozintsev’s 1970 King Lear I remarked on how he made the war into a part of the landscape as well as a vital backdrop to the story, with the characters swept along by its power. I also drew a comparison to The Lord of the Rings in the way the different scales — the human and the historical or mythic — played off against each other.
*. Those comments are even more applicable to Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. You have to remind yourself while watching it that Shakespeare’s King Lear isn’t a war story, the scales have been so completely flipped. Kurosawa is painting on a broad canvas, with landscape and armies reducing human figures to insect size. We have to wait a long time before we get anything like a close-up, forcing the characters to perform in a very physical manner, with mask-like make-up, just to read them on screen. This may relate to the fact that Kurosawa was going blind, but I think it has a deeper meaning as well.
*. As Roger Ebert observed, the tragedy of this Lear, Ichimonji Hidetora, almost seems to be pushed to the side, unimportant to the sweep of events he plays no part in. “King Lear has the old man at its center. In Ran we sometimes get the impression that life is hurtling past Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai), who wanders from one tragedy to another, pushing in from the margins, bewildered.”
*. Then there is that connection to Lord of the Rings I mentioned. This mainly came to mind because the sulfuric landscape (much of the film was shot around Mount Aso, Japan’s largest active volcano) recalled not hell so much as Mordor. That sense of violent forces bursting forth in fiery destruction is a visual theme that’s worked throughout, from the burning castle at the end of the first big battle scene looking like an erupting volcano to the squads of harquebuses spitting their demonic fire in the ambush scene, leaving the banners of the old order trailing in the dust.
*. But I wouldn’t take the Lord of the Rings comparison much further. Those aren’t CGI armies sweeping across the battlefield but extras decked out in 1,400 handmade outfits. It took three years to do the costumes, which won an Academy Award. And that whole sequence of the castle being stormed is such a brilliant expression of total film, with a perfect use of sound and score, editing, choreography, colour, and everything else, that it makes you stop and appreciate how you’re actually watching great art, and not just some animated CGI lightshow.
*. You’ll notice that I haven’t said much about the performances. I find them hard to rate, both because of the foreign language but also because of what I’ve said about their distant and stylized quality. Mieko Harada is convincing as the evil demon fox Lady Kaede, but is anything as remarkable about her part as her painterly end? Now that’s a highlight arterial spray!
*. So this is a different sort of Lear. Much of the story is the same, with many of the roles gender-swapped (three sons instead of daughters, and Lady Kaede being the Edmund role), but it’s not as much a human drama. Or rather it’s a movie that’s about the generic human condition. I think this is what Pauline Kael meant when she called it “perhaps the biggest piece of conceptual art ever made.” It’s not a movie about people so much as ideas.
*. That said, it is a humanistic movie, and indeed one of the great passion projects in movie history given how Kurosawa identified with Hidetora. Most directors, indeed most artists, get duller and less interesting as they get older. Perhaps because Kurosawa had been largely frozen out of the industry by this point he was able to paradoxically make what was then the most expensive Japanese film in history such a personal statement.
*. Gorgeous to look at throughout. Tōru Takemitsu’s mostly understated score is utilized expertly. The things I did find to carp about were mostly minor. The castle battle is so good it makes the second big battle scene seem less impressive. There’s no storm on the heath but just the wind picking up a bit. The real storm is that of war. The Kent and Fool characters from the play get pretty short shrift and I thought might have been cut. The religious meaning felt obscure. Has God (or the gods) deserted us, or have we lost our connection to the divine? If chaos (ran) is hell, is any order preferable to it? Note that if Lady Kaede is a demon, she’s one that Hidetora in his prime as a warlord summoned.
*. If not great Shakespeare, it is a great and original interpretation of Shakespeare, and a movie that can be appreciated on many levels. It may not be a favourite movie of mine, but that’s only because of the kind of movie it is, or more exactly the direction it takes. I think it’s a great film and brilliantly expresses Kurosawa’s vision in the boldest and most memorable of strokes.