By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com
Wilmington on DVDs: Ran; Kagemusha
DVD PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSICS
Ran” (Blu-Ray) (Four Stars)
Japan; Akira Kurosawa, 1985 (Lions Gate)
Akira Kurosawa’s lavish and violent epic Ran, inspired by “King Lear,” is one of the most famous and admired of all Shakespearean films. Most aficianados rank it at or near the top of the Bard’s film canon, even though Ran dispenses with the main element that makes Shakespeare so great and imperishable, jettisoning all of the bard’s British poetry (substituting a spare Japanese translation), along with a good deal of the play’s brilliant plot and unforgettable characters.
No “How sharper than a serpent‘s tooth…“ No “As flies to wanton boys…“ No “Out vile Jelly!“ This is Shakespeare stripped almost to the bleak, minimalist bones of the mad king’s tragedy — reduced to a lean, brutal tale of a reckless monarch, who disinherits his most loyal son (rather than daughter), elevates the others and is repaid with persecution and banishment to the wind and the rain with his last attendant, his faithful Fool.
Yet Ran (which means “Chaos”) is ornamented with such lush period settings, and expanded with such vast bloody battles raging under a stormy sky, that the sufferings and wickedness, and occasional flashes of kindness, in the story smite us with redoubled force, before becoming dwarfed in the immensity of Kurosawa’s medieval landscapes, almost lost under that towering gray sky.
Tatsuya Nakadai — whose first appearance for Kurosawa was in Seven Samurai, in the wordless part of a swaggering young samurai, one not picked as one of the seven – here plays Lear as a tragic, demented vision out of both Shakespeare and Japanese Noh drama, a wild, white-bearded monarch now repaid for the violence he has inflicted on his enemies and his subjects, by the faithlessness of his own chosen heirs and by the seeming icy indifference of the world around him. Nakadai turns Lear (or Lord Hidetora Ichimonji, as he’s called here) into a gnarled tragic woodcut, a human version of Edvard Munch’s tortured painting “The Scream.“
The Fool is mimed and played by the transvestite performer Peter, and Lady Kaede, the most evil of all Lord Hidetora’s daughters-in-law, is indelibly impersonated by Mieko Harada. The other actors include Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu and Daisuke Ryu as the Ichimonji brothers. The nerve-rending music is by the peerless Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu. And an old friend of Kurosawa’s was the assistant director on the battle scenes: Ishiro Honda, the science fiction directorial master of the “Godzilla” and “Mothra” monster movies.
“Ran lacks much of the lusty boisterous quality of Kurosawa’s great ’50s and ‘6os battle epics, Seven Samurai,” The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo — and even of his other Shakespearean film (based on “Macbeth”), Throne of Blood. But there are many compensations. It is a beautifully crafted, truly tragic film, a portrait not just of a man plunging toward grief and insanity, but of a whole universe teetering on chaos. When the darkness descends here, it falls in a way, on all mankind as well as on Lear. According to Kurosawa, he intended Ran to be a parable of the overwhelming fear and omnipresent threat of annihilation in the nuclear age. (In Japanese with English subtitles.)
CO-PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSICS
KAGEMUSHA (Four Stars)
Japan; Akira Kurosawa, 1980 (Criterion Classics)
One of the great aKIRA Kurosawa period action epics, this sixteenth century saga of a condemned thief (Tatsuya Nakadai) who masquerades as a dead warlord, at the behest of the dead man’s wily courtiers, is at once a canny political parable, an engrossing psychological drama and a stunning adventure in the tradition of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, Seven Samurai and Ran. It’s full of the usual ferocious Kurosawa action and spectacle, and the last battle scene is hair-raising.
Nakadai, a last minute replacement for Shintaro Katsu (the star of the “Zatoichi“ series, who proved demanding and difficult), gives one of his best performances: a portrait of a man elevated to phony grandeur, transformed by his deception, and lost in a world of betrayal and bloodshed. Kagemusha is a magnificent later work by one of the greatest international filmmakers, It shows us life in chaos from the viewpoint of a desperate charlatan, an outlaw accidentally trapped in the halls of power. With Tsutomu Yamasaki, and Kenichi Hagiwara. (In Japanese, with English subtitles.)
Extras: Commentary by Stephen Prince; “Making of” documentary; George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola discuss Kruosawa; Image: Kurosawa’s Continuity, a video piece on Kurosawa”s own paintings and skethces for Kagemusha; Kurosawa Suntory whiskey commercials; Kurosawa storyboards; Trailers and teasers.