[March 23 1910, legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa was born. To celebrate the centennial of his life, his prolific contributions to the world of cinema, and immense impact on the hearts and minds of those quietly mourning his absence, staffers at Row Three are (rather enthusiastically) taking this opportunity to share their own experiences of the Kurosawa catalogue]
After an extraordinarily productive first 25 years of filmmaking (at a clip of about one film a year), Akira Kurosawa’s next quarter century (1965-90) saw only 6 of his films get made. Battling with the rise of television, declining interest in his style of filmmaking and growing health problems, Kurosawa found it difficult to get a film produced. After being let go from the directorial duties of the Japanese portion of Tora, Tora, Tora, Kurosawa attempted to go independent with 3 other cohorts. The venture, however, was unsuccessful when his first film under its banner (1970’s Dodes’kaden) helped bankrupt the company. A suicide attempt followed and he had continuing funding woes after recovering – his next film was the Russian made Dersu Uzala and following films required help from outside Japan (most famously from U.S. directors such as Francis Foird Coppola, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese). More hard luck was still to come for the now ageing director, but after a “trial run” with 1980’s Kagemusha, he completed his crowning achievement in 1985: the gorgeous epic Ran.
Partially based on King Lear, the story was something Kurosawa had been ruminating upon for at least a decade and manages to dovetail many varied ideas into it (e.g. the Japanese Noh theatrical makeup and acting style for his main character) while also changing some of the basic themes from Shakespeare’s play. Both are tragedies, but Kurosawa hits harder at the human lust for power and our desire for retribution at any cost. The film opens with a wild boar hunt being led by Lord Hidetaro Ichimonji and his three sons. They relax afterwards on the grounds of their vast kingdom and Hidetaro, getting on in years and tired from the pursuit, drifts off to sleep and has a dream. It’s a nightmarish scenario about being completely alone in the world and it prompts him to step down as ruler and hand over the title to his eldest son Taro. Of course, this is met with howls of protest (even from Taro), but it’s only the youngest son Saburo who confronts the old man with a reality check:
“You spilled an ocean of blood. You showed no mercy, no pity. We too are children of this age… weaned on strife and chaos. We are your sons, yet you count on our fidelity. In my eyes, that makes you a fool. A senile old fool!”
For his honesty, Saburo is banished. So begins the unraveling of the kingdom.
Hidetaro’s refusal to give an inch, refusal to lose face and refusal to even consider ways of thinking outside his own help bring down everything for which he has ever worked, fought and stolen. Resistance to change, clinging to the old ways and a fierce sense of pride – Kurosawa doesn’t seem to think much of those qualities. And yet, much has been made of Hidetaro being a stand-in of sorts for Kurosawa himself – the old guard starting to slide into bouts of senility and staunchly holding on to the past. Perhaps Kurosawa may have seen himself in that light, but as a filmmaker he was as relevant and creative at that time as anyone else. Staging complex battle scenes, creating characters that are instantly engaging and weaving numerous themes and human foibles into his story, the master may have been 75 years old and failing in sight, but he was able to marshall all his skills together for one final Jidaigeki (period drama).
There’s not a single special effect in the over two and half hour run time and it’s glorious. When a character runs through a burning castle, he’s actually running through a burning castle. When you see hundreds and thousands of horsemen and warriors lining up on a hillside preparing to engage in battle, that’s because there are hundreds and thousands of men lining up. There aren’t many (if any) tracking shots either – the stationary cameras are typically positioned at far distances and zoom in while following the action or simply let the action flow past the lens. It’s the purest form of moviemaking – so one could see how Kurosawa may have been deemed “out of touch”. And yet, the film is thrilling. An hour or so into the proceedings, the first battle begins as the two eldest sons lay waste to Hidetaro’s fortress, guards and ladies in waiting. It’s controlled chaos – buildings ablaze, blood pouring down staircases, horses galloping across the strewn bodies – as most of the action takes place with only the quietly disturbing score by Toru Takemitsu in the background without any battle sounds being heard. It’s mesmerizing.
“I do not hate you. Everything is determined by our karma from previous lives. In all things I take comfort in the Buddha’s heart”
“The Buddha again! There is no Buddha in our world. We live in a dark age…”
As he watches his entire dynasty crumble before him, Lord Ichimonji discovers little by little that karma is indeed a bitch. While second daughter-in-law Sué takes the passive approach and harbours no ill will towards the man who wiped out her family (believing things will right themselves), it’s his first son’s wife that takes a more active role in encouraging the karma to kick in. Lady Kaede is one of the most single-minded, heartless and fierce characters you’ll come across in Kurosawa’s canon (and just about anywhere). Hidetaro wrenched the kingdom from her father’s hands, slaughtered most of her family and drove her mother to commit seppuku in the very room where Kaede now resides. From the moment she convinces Taro to recind a gift he has made to his outgoing father, you can see that she will be the string puller to hasten the demise of the Ichimonji clan rule. She plays on men’s insecurities, their pride, their egos and their libidinous desires, until each rung is dismantled. She has every confidence that the male leaders will always assume the worst of their fellow warriors, that they will still hold rank and class as important considerations and that they will never swallow their pride. She’s brilliant.
“Do not curse the Gods. It is they who weep. In every age they’ve watched us tread the path of evil unable to live without killing each other. They can’t save us from ourselves.”
One definition for the word “Ran” is chaos – along with the many instances of the continuing rise of entropy in the kingdom, the term fits well with the late in the film statement above. The Gods above have set the world in motion, but do they have any control left? What good is religious faith in this kind of world when the most dedicated and innocent follower is slain in the name of retribution? Selfish decisions are made at every turn even when the outcome is clear, so how can men be guided down the proper paths? Humanity has dismantled itself just as surely as the Ichimonji clan have done to their own kingdom.
It’s a breathtaking film from any vantage point. The stunning colour of its cinematography and the large scale battles are the obvious starting points, but it’s the tragic consequences of humanity’s tendency towards pride, power and vengeance that truly leave their mark.
Critical Thinker At Large