April 14, 2009


1985 film
directed by Akira Kurosawa
written by Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Masato Ide
based on the play KING LEAR by William Shakespeare


Old age. It creeps up our souls like a snail on a mossy branch. Inevitably, no matter how big our name, nor how great our accomplishments, we will find ourselves, our vision, our legacy, gradually drifting to the side as the younger generations take our place. Some accept this with dignity, allowing themselves to fade off into the sunset. Others rage against it to their dying breath.

And a few go mad.

Kurosawa must have realized his peak was behind him by this point, that deals were getting harder and harder to strike, support more and more difficult to find, and one collaborator after another falling into the grave. Why else would he descend upon KING LEAR, the story of a powerful, successful leader pushed to the side due to his age and the ambition of his children, with such passion and fury? Sure, he'd already explored similar material before in I LIVE IN FEAR, but here it was personal. Now it had become a dark reflection of the director's life.

The film opens with a boar hunt. Though old and lean, with pale skin and a flowing white beard, Lord Hidetora of the Ichimonji clan cuts an imposing figure as he firmly draws back a bowstring while riding full gallop. This is a man who started small, with little land and a modest castle to his name, but he rapidly rose, using ruthless, brilliant tactics to pull all surrounding lands under his domain. Today, he'll be forced to confront two ominous events. First, the only boar he's able to kill is old and worn, unfit for eating. Secondly, the hunt leaves him so exhausted, he nods off into slumber during an important meeting with a pair of neighboring warlords.

Realizing that his time has come and gone, he decides to divide his lands amongst his three sons, Taro, Jiro, and Saburo. While the eldest pair heap the idea with flattering praise, Saburo brushes it off as naive. He knows that the same passion his father had, the desire to unquestionably rule everything in sight, burns in the blood of his brothers and that no peace will be lasting. Enraged, Hideotora banishes Saburo and splits the lands between the remaining two.

And that is where we get to an important message in the film: don't trust those who dispense easy flattery, but hold close the ones who are open and honest, even when it's not what you want to hear. First Taro then Jiro start chipping away at the lord, taking his title and property in their names. When he makes a stubborn spectacle of himself, they put out orders for his very life, culminating in a scene of apocalyptic horror as a castle burns, all of his retainers and concubine are slain, and he wanders off, little more than a spectre, a shadow, gaping in a stupor of despair.

This would all be quite marvelous were there not one major problem: Tatsuya Nakadai. I've found him to be a wonderful actor in the past and it's great to see at least one holdover from Kurosawa's old troupe of regulars, but his portrayal of Hidetora just doesn't work for me. Sure, Kurosawa shoots the character in some striking ways, but the acting itself and the increasingly garish makeup are far too theatrical in my opinion and constantly took me out of the moment.

Thankfully, that's the only performance I had a problem with. Jinpachi Nezu is great as Jiro, the middle son who eventually takes the Lordship, largely through the ambitions of others. Mieko Harada is terrifying as Lady Kaede, a nefarious schemer who moves from one brother to another, imposing her will upon them both mentally and physically. Masayuki Yui is stout and dependable as Tango, a General who refuses to leave the service of the Lord who banished him. But the standout definitely has to be Peter as Kyoami, Lord Hidetora's jester. He starts off a typical Fool, bounding about as he makes up songs and jokes at his master's expense, but gradually finds himself the sole caretaker of this aging, abandoned man. He's almost a reflection of Hidetora's soul, cocky at first, getting away with lines a nobleman would never think of, then a shoulder to lean on and an ear to listen as things get dire, and finally, as the Lord hits his deepest despair, as an angry voice to his own self loathing. And Peter plays it masterfully.

I've already written a review of the script (see above) that says how much I preferred this adaptation to Shakespeare's original play, but let me add that I credit much of this to the presence of Hideo Oguni. First joining Kurosawa's writing team with 1952's IKIRU, Oguni's contributions have been an essential part of Kurosawa's greatest films. There's a sharp, sarcastic cynicism to his contributions that were missing in KAGEMUSHA, stuff like a leader lining his army up on a hill as a sign of support, only to start a war, or the triangle of Lady Kaede and her two husbands, or a tag involving a severed head head, that gives the material a striking depth and a resonant ring of genuine despair. Sadly, though he'd live on for another 11 years, this would be both his last collaboration with Kurosawa as well as his final contribution to film.

Visually, this film suffers a bit in comparison to the violently vibrant KAGEMUSHA. Don't get me wrong, it's beautiful with crisp figures against flowing landscapes, but there's something missing. There's a dullness to the imagery, and Kurosawa's shot composition, usually one of his greatest strengths, just doesn't leap off the screen with the same vigour. Granted, his eyesight was starting to fail him at the time and he was putting more and more trust in others to see that it all came out properly. Or maybe it's intentional, a reflection of the fading old lord and his living hell. I really don't know. All I can say is that my attention kept wandering away from the work of a filmmaker who typically pulls me in. Maybe it isn't just the duller palate but, as with KAGEMUSHA, the fact that he was drifting away from closeups and shots of striking depth. The stuff he's doing with these two film is more like a filmed stageplay with elaborate backdrops. It's still good, but doesn't intimately draw me into events in that way that films are more than capable of doing.

I'm not really sure how best to explain it, but the film just doesn't entirely work for me. The script is among Kurosawa's strongest, the supporting cast is there, and the design simply brilliant, but the lead was off and the technique starting to fade. It truly is a bittersweet experience to admit that a master of the craft has finally slipped from his peak, but that's the very thought that goes through my head as I listen to the ethereal score drifting over the end credits like the last breaths of a dying man.


(internet movie database)


Anthony Williams said...

Fantastic review! Very well written. A time honored theme about aging. I, for one, have always favored the person who doesn't stand aside for time and chooses to go out on their shield. Of course the result isn't always glorious. Maybe a little art imitating life on 'Ran' for Kurosawa? So how many films does that leave for him?

NoelCT said...

Just three left to go. I've been working on Kurosawa since last July and I can't believe I might be done by next week. Man, what a great journey this has been.