I was first introduced to King Lear at age 15 (I think) when the Pumphouse Theatre in Takapuna put it on. I remember thinking it was a great story, awesomely tragic and powerful, but I wondered if all productions of it were so disjointed and confused. A fuller understanding of the play came at age 17 when we studied it in Mrs. Keith’s 7th form English class, and I enjoyed it very much. Mrs. Keith made sure to let us know that she’d never seen it performed well, and wondered if it was possible for it to be done; she wondered aloud about a Japanese film from the 80s that supposedly did a good job of it, but she hadn’t seen it, so she couldn’t say.
Ran is the film she was referring to, but it wasn’t just her mention of it that led me to eventually see it. Recently I was exposed to the above image, and was so captivated by it that I immediately went to the library and put a request in for the DVD. Having now seen it, I can say that it lives up to all the hype. It is a particularly fine Lear adaptation, conveying the madness and eventual tragedy of the Lord, the treachery of two of his offspring, and the nobleness of the third. It is also visually a remarkable film filled with such extraordinary images as the one above; indeed, that shot is only one part of an extraordinary battle sequence, surely the one of the most incredible ever filmed, and there is another at the end of the film which rivals it.
It’s the scale of it all that astonishes me. You look at Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the battle scenes are amazing, but 70-80% of them is created solely on a computer, and there’s plenty of cutting that makes it easier for them to convey chaos. Ran, on the other hand, is all real, except for the blood. Those are real people charging around, falling off horses and being trampled, shooting vast numbers of arrows into the enemy’s ranks. Virtually all of it is shot from a reasonable distance, so you can always see what’s going on, and you can marvel better at the audacity of it all. Look again at that above image: that’s a real castle (built especially for the film) burning to the ground, so they only had one shot at getting it – and they got it.
The carnage only comes in brief bursts, though. Ran focuses more on the human elements of the story, cutting to the heart of Shakespeare’s themes and displaying them clearly through the characters. As Lord Hidetora, the film’s Lear figure, Tatsuya Nakadai offers a remarkable range of facial expressions that one feels Western cinema could never pull off without seeming overly broad; they are somewhat over the top, but they do a better job of getting us inside the character’s head than any subtle underplaying would. The rest of the cast also performs well, particularly Mieko Harada in a Lady Macbeth-type role; her icy words are chilling, and her eventual fate is superbly handled.
This is my fourth Kurosawa film, after (in this order) Shichinin no samurai, Ikiru, and Rashomon. They have been phenonemal works, clearly showing a director very much in total command of the art form. Rashomon is probably still my favourite, but only just; in any case, I plan to own them all one day, and I plan to see all of Kurosawa’s films before too long. If you haven’t seen any, what’s the deal? Get on it. This guy really does deserve his reputation as one of the top few film directors ever. An interesting fact: as he was a trained painter, his storyboards for all his films were full paintings. It shows. There is a perfection to his images, a clarity of purpose, a genuine cinematic beauty. Even Herzog only manages it a few times per film; with Kurosawa, it’s present in nearly every frame.