Saturday, February 4, 2012

My Favorite Akira Kurosawa Film

This was a hard one. Akira Kurosawa, the greatest luminary of Japanese film, had a very long and prolific career, that went through several different phases. He is best known for his samurai films, the jidaigeki like "The Seven Samurai" and "Throne of Blood," but he also made many excellent contemporary dramas. My first Kurosawa films were "Ikiru," the wonderful humanist fable of an old man who finds purpose at the end of his life, and "Yojimbo," the prototype for so many samurai and gunslinger films to come. They star Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune respectively, a pair of actors closely associated with Kurosawa and who appear again and again in his films.

However, Kurosawa is also known for his work with a third leading man in his later years. This was Tatsuya Nakadai, who also starred in memorable films directed by Masaki Kobayashi, most notably "The Human Condition" trilogy. For Kurosawa, Nakadai starred as a warlord's doomed doppelganger in "Kagemusha," and as the central tragic figure in the 1985 epic, "Ran," based loosely on Shakespeare's "King Lear." As much as I adore "Ikiru" for its optimism and its great heart, "Ran" is the Kurosawa film that haunts me, the nightmare of a world lost in the chaos of warfare, the destruction mirroring the ruin of a once harmonious family.

The production of "Ran" was famously troubled, and the subject of its own film, the documentary "A.K." by Chris Marker. As with most of his later work, Kurosawa had to seek international funding, and "Ran" became the most expensive Japanese film ever made at the time. Filming lasted a year, and included shooting on the plains of an active volcano and at various historical sites and landmarks. Kurosawa's wife of forty years died during the production, and one must be mindful that the director himself was seventy-five years old at the time, and nearly blind.

And yet his artistic vision reached the screen intact. Kurosawa's gift was always the clarity of his narrative, the ability to make the most obscure subject matter immediately relatable, to help very culturally specific stories resonate universally. In "Ran" he borrows the broad outlines of the plot of "King Lear," replacing the king with an aged daimyo, Hidetora, a feudal warlord of the Sengoku era, who has three sons instead of three daughters. Also based partly on existing historical figures, "Ran" feels like a piece of authentic Japanese history, full of clan politics and old grudges. Despite this, the narrative is very easy to follow, the cultural substitutions and revisions hardly a challenge at all.

What I always remember about the film is the wonderful use of color. Kurosawa makes some changes to Shakespeare's story, creating a stronger villainess and rewriting some of the subplots, but his most substantial additions were the battle scenes. Battles rage between the three armies of Hidetora's three sons, who are differentiated by the colors of their robes and armor – one in red, one in yellow, and one in blue. The flags and banners they carry into battle also have one, two, or three horizontal lines, to distinguish which is the first, second, and third son. The simplicity almost seems comical at first, but when you see the massive, staggering scenes of warfare, where the combatants are so tiny to be barely distinguishable from each other, suddenly your eyes must rely on the color coding and on other visual motifs and cues that recur throughout the film.

In fact, everything in the film is epic in scope, from the vast landscapes that become bloodied battlefields, to the stylized performances of the actors, styled after traditional Noh theater. There is a stunning shot of Hidetora descending the vast staircase of a burning castle, while the battle rages around him. He is dwarfed by the castle, by the fire, and by the armies below him, and you can see the enormity of the situation adding to his mental anguish, causing him to stagger on the castle steps. By this point his makeup is patterned on the Noh character of Shiwajo, the old wanderer beset by sorrow. Even without the subtitles, there's no mistaking what is happening.

Kurosawa has suggested that "Ran" was intended as the "gods' view" of human struggle, thus the many beautiful overhead shots and long shots that allow Kurosawa to occasionally step back from the action, perhaps to marvel at how small and inconsequential the characters are in the larger scheme, perhaps to despair at how little it all means. "Ran" itself translates as "chaos" or "madness," and at times the screen is filled with horrors, a hell of death and destruction that seems to have no end.

Other Kurosawa images linger in my mind: the beautiful Van Gogh sequence from "Dreams," and the lovely ending of "Ikiru" with Takashi Shimura on the swing set in the snow. But none of them have had the impact of the piles of the dead, the blind man on the edge of a cliff, and the awful, roiling carnage of "Ran." It's my favorite Akira Kurosawa film, but sometimes I do admit that I wish it wasn't.

What I've Seen - Kurosawa

Stray Dog (1949)
Rashomon (1950)
Ikiru (1952)
The Seven Samurai (1954)
Throne of Blood (1957)
The Hidden Fortress (1958)
Yojinbo (1961)
High and Low (1963)
Sanjuro (1962)
Red Beard (1965)
Dodesukaden (1970)
Dersu Uzala (1975)
Kagemusha (1980)
Ran (1985)
Dreams (1990)


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