Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Samurai, Clouds, and Hubris

I've watched a fair number of Akira Kurosawa movies over the years, and I've always really appreciated the connections between his films and American westerns in particular. As a casual observer of Japanese film and animation I was struck by the nearly anachronistic cinematography and narrative style. It seemed much older than a mere 24 years. Filmed in 1985 with a budget of 12 million dollars, it was the costliest Japanese film and a massive epic of a scale unseen in Japanese cinema. The story, for those unfamiliar, is based on a historic Warring States period warlord Mori Motonari but fictionalized with the character Ichimonji Hidetora. Whereas Motonari was blessed with three sons who served him loyally, Hidetora was saddled with three ambitious and treacherous sons, who when given the chance betray him. The similarities to King Lear became known to Kurosawa during the planning of the movie, and while it is often claimed that Ran was an adapation of Lear it is my suspicion that the movie is really an oblique autobiography of Kurosawa himself. Kurosawa himself made mention of Hidetora being a standin for himself, even his banner in the film is a reference to Kurosawa's name. It is in the film's faults and successes however that I see the most revelations about Kurosawa and his failing career.

I'm accustomed to long movies. Sometimes it seems like the only movies I consider to be great are ones that really should have an intermission in there. At 2:40 this movie felt interminably long, mostly because we saw it all 10 times. I have never seen a movie with a plot spend so much time on clouds. Clouds, just clouds, lazily floating in an otherwise clear sky. Very pretty. One scene would have given a sense of contentment, a glorious day before it all fell apart, that's all we needed. Also, Japanese soldiers seem to spend a lot of time running too and fro in full armor, brandishing their weapons and performing circle dances. There are at least 5 battle like scenes in the movie and each of them showcases columns of men just positioning, and repositioning, and doing circle dances. It got old, real fast. I wanted to love this movie, but found I could barely stand the repetitiveness of these scenes.

Kurosawa, like Hidetora, was the elder statesman, the conqueror of cinema. He had forever changed film, not only within his own country but in America and France. His methods and style were imitated and worshiped by many within the field then and now. By the time he was making Ran his name carried with it too much baggage for most to risk. He was a perfectionist, perhaps irrationally so. He had extraordinary expectations of the respect due to him. He did things his way, be damned with the consequences. While his style had changed film forever, it had grown and yet he refused to. So, with the largest budget he ever had at his disposal he did exactly that, bigger, grander, and more Kurosawa than ever.

The movie felt like it was made in the 60s.

There is genius in this movie. Hidetora played by Tatsuya Nakadai, done in the style of a Noh actor while every other character save Kaede was done in a more contemporary manner was a brilliant blending of traditional Japanese art and modern film. I cannot find fault with any of the actors, particularly some of the lesser roles such as Tango or any of the generals were impressive in their place. It is a beautiful piece of film. From the opening frame to the credits it is gorgeous, a mixture of wonderful set and costume design and natural grandeur. There is no doubt it was an artful film, but it truly needed a firm editor.

Befitting a tragedy influenced by King Lear there is no happy ending in this film, no one comes to a good end, and everyone deserves their fate. I wonder if Kurosawa also came to understand that his unrelenting nature was the cause of his decline, or whether he really felt that treacherous Hidetora was the hero of this tale.

Strangely I got to thinking that I would have been really interested to see a live action version of the Last Unicorn done with some of his style. The connection here is Lear, don't think too badly of me. A live action Last Unicorn should focus on clouds and fog and the natural world as the true imagery of the movie while the actors would be shadows on the wall to give voice. Amalthea would be perfect as a Noh inspired waif, forlorn and really merely a human shaped vessel for pain and sorrow. Lear would be the same, a gaunt towering scarecrow of spite and boredom.

They even both start with a boar hunt! I am telling you, a Japanese Last Unicorn movie done in his style would be amazing.

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