April 14, 2009


undated screenplay (published draft)
written by Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Masato Ide
illustrated by Akira Kurosawa
based on the play KING LEAR by William Shakespeare


Hidetora Ichimonji is the fiercest warlord of his day, having conquered lands left and right until everything within sight of the modest castle in which he began is under his claim. But he's growing old. During a ceremony, he announces his intention to divide the lands amongst his three sons. He holds out three arrows. Individually, they are easy to break. Bound together, they hold strong. Taro and Jiro, the oldest of his boys, praise his wisdom and eagerly await their newfound fortunes. However, the youngest, Saburo, says that his father is naive to believe that all three will stand so united when the same desire for individual power that brews in his blood flows through theirs. To prove his point, he breaks the three arrows over his knee.

Enraged, Hidetora banishes Saburo and divides the land between Taro and Jiro, only to find that his youngest son's prophecy has come all too true. Wanting more power than they've already been given and impatient for their father to die, the two begin to strip the old man of what's left of his title, even going so far as to threaten death to any man who lifts a finger to assist him as he wanders with a rapidly declining group of retainers in search of food and shelter.

I can see why the story of KING LEAR resonated so strongly with Kurosawa. Not only had he explored similar themes of a patron going senile only after he'd already been declared so by children who simply didn't agree with him in the earlier film I LIVE IN FEAR, but similar things had been going on in the aging Kurosawa's life. All of his friends and frequent collaborators were either dying or drifting away. The Japanese film business which had so praised Kurosawa and raised him up as an international symbol had declared him old-fashioned and stopped funding his projects. And like the heroes of these two stories, the only people he could reach out to for help were foreigners.

Reading this script, one truly does get a sense of the despair Kurosawa must have been feeling as he was brushed aside and watched as all of his great accomplishments started falling on deaf ears. Unlike Shakespeare's LEAR, Hidetora's not already drifting into insanity at the story's beginning, he's still being the exact same person he always was, it's just the rest of the world that's moved on.

Though the brothers do have people in their inner circle that pushed them to their actions - a conniving wife, a shifty general - it truly is their fault for how they allowed their father's image of power and ferocity to crumble alongside the kingdom that their greed tears down. This is best exemplified by an apocalyptic scene of horror near the middle of the script where an assault on a castle has former allies turning on each other and raping and pillaging one another at the drop of a hat. It's no wonder such things drive the old Great Lord to the sunken pits of his own despair.

I also have to give props to Kurosawa for the wonderful character of Kyoami. I thought Shakespeare's The Fool was a waste of a character, tossing out meaningless jokes at the expense of a man who should be fierce enough to hack off the joker's noggin, and who totally disappeared without explanation halfway through the story, but here, while Kyoami starts off the same way, he soon finds himself the sole caretaker to the once proud warrior who has now turned into a fragile shadow of his former self. The clown sobs, "Heaven and earth have turned upside down. I was mad and made him laugh before. But now he is mad and makes me laugh."

To be honest, I didn't really get into Shakespeare's play. I found it cluttered and convoluted, and lacking a clear sense of where it was going right up until it hit the unnecessarily brutal ending. But I have to give Kurosawa full praise for not only tidying it up and shining the spotlight on its strongest features, but for turning it into something that is purely his own. The way he latches onto the themes and shows a willingness to follow their lead over that provided by the source material, or the way he has the story evolve out of the authentic setting and rich characters, it all feels so very Kurosawa.

And I can't wrap up this review without praising the paintings he did during the development of the story, all of which are included with the published script. Through violent strokes and a fierce use of color, he brings this rich tale to vibrant, striking, terrifying life. And yet the most memorable of these images isn't one of war or ritual, it's the final illustration that closes out the book. I'll let the words of the script describe it:


On top of the steep stone wall, Tsurumaru is at a loss.

The evening glow is now in its final stages. The last light of day will soon fade, and darkness will reign over the realm.

Against the background of the last glow of evening, the small figure of Tsururmaru is standing alone on the lofty stone wall in the remains of the castle.



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