During Akira Kurosawa's long eclipse during the 1970s, a period during which he made one film as an exile and made one suicide attempt, the director occupied himself with refining the designs and storyboards for two films he didn't know if he would ever make. At the time, he had only made two films in color, and one can imagine him beginning to burst at the possibilities of color that he might never get to realize on screen. The two films* that eventually resulted from this long obsession play as if the director had taken a gun, put it in his mouth, and splattered both his disillusionment and his pent up ambitions onto the screen in eyeball-searing color.
My local art house has been running a Kurosawa retrospective this summer, consisting of six films. Of these six, I own five of them and have seen all of them on the big screen at one point or another. The sixth is Ran, Kurosawa's 1985 version of King Lear, which I have only ever seen on television and don't own. I skipped the others, but went to Ran.
There is a valedictory quality to Ran. There are so many disparate theatrical elements plucked from his long career and from his national cinema that it seems as if Kurosawa, in this one film, was trying to live up to the criticism that his career was like watching the history of Japanese cinema running in reverse. The theatricality of it is at odds with his early films, but of a piece with them, too. The theatricality of it was always there in films like Seven Samurai, but it was hidden, perhaps because they were in black and white. A great many of the shots in Ran seem decorated rather than composed, as if the director had spent years and years working and re-working them. The volume of Kurosawa's art from this period shows that this is indeed what happened. The director enlisted his friend, Ishiro Honda, to realize many of these pieces on screen, thus, perversely linking this particular apocalypse with the various catastrophes inflicted on Japan in Honda's kaiju films.
There are odd notes, from the androgynous Fool (the actor who plays him was in fact a noted female impersonator), to the grandly theatrical make-up worn by Tatsuya Nakadai, to a Tôru Takemitsu's score that sounds like nothing Japanese at all and most resembles Jerry Goldsmith's Planet of the Apes score. This is a weirdly feminine movie, too. The aforementioned Fool is part of it, but the movie hinges on the two female characters, Lady Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki) in the role of the murdered innocent and Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) as a descendant of Lady Macbeth. Lady Sue has hardly any screen time, but the pivotal role of the murdered innocent is implacable in a Shakespearean tragedy. Lady Kaede, on the other hand, steals the entire movie from all comers, even the wildly overacting Nakadai. I categorize this all as odd because Kurosawa was never a filmmaker with much interest in women, and yet they dominate his valediction. All told, this assemblage of oddities has a mounting effect, like a top that begins with small wobbles spinning into wildly eccentric gyrations. It would be a mistake to think that this effect is an accident, because, after all, the title of the film translates literally as "Chaos."
Ran is a great movie, no doubt about it, but I'd forgotten just how much of a downer it is. Not all of that can be laid at the feet of William Shakespeare, either. Oh, the broad outlines of Lear are still there, though it changes Lear's daughters into sons and kinda sorta changes Richmond into Lady Kaeda, one of the cinema's most jaw-dropping monsters. Lear is already something of a total negation of life, in which even the villains are inconsequential in a godless void. Its dominant words are no, not, nothing, and (memorably) never never never never. And in spite of all this, Kurosawa goes it all one better. The last shot of the movie has a blind man teetering on the precipice of a ruined castle, having accidentally dropped an image of the Amida Buddha he had been given to keep him company. Rarely has a filmmaker ever matched himself so keenly to the material. Ran is Kurosawa howling in the wilderness.
*The other is Kagemusha (1980)