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I tried watching this Akira Kurosawa retelling of King Lear when I was in high school but just couldn't get into it. It was one of the few movies that I couldn't finish. Rewatching it now many years later I think I can understand why that was.

It's not just the pacing, which I probably wasn't of a mind to appreciate back then. It's also the very "objective" (for want of a better word) direction. Kurosawa keeps his camera distant from the action - there are hardly any (or any?) close ups at all. The result is that it's difficult to get drawn into the action and to empathise with the characters. You never quite forget that you're watching a movie.

Such deliberate mise en scenes (to use a somewhat pretentious term, but what the heck, I'm nothing if not pretentious), coupled with the stylised nature of the acting, costuming and makeup, makes for a sometimes disconcertingly theatrical experience. This might be true to the dramatic roots of the story, but it's not the most effective - or at least easiest - film making. On the stage lighting choices and the absence of natural scenery acts to focus the audience's attention in lieu of camera close ups. Give up this cinematic technique on screen, and what are you left with?

In Ran's case - you're left with the voice. Tatsuya Nakadai, who plays the Lear character Lord Hidetora Ichimonji, may look like he's just wandered in from the set of The Man of La Mancha but his vocal performance is rich and varied. And so for most of the cast.

A few other short comments:

I liked that the film got more epic as the story progressed. For a while I thought the theatrical convention would be carried through to the number of people on screen (ie, limited to a few dozen at most), but the scope, gore and sheer number of extras in two pivotal (and nicely distinctive) battle sequences put that theory to rest.

The parallel story of betrayal and loyalty seemed to me to be more intertwined with the main plot than in Shakespeare's Lear. Like Claude Lelouch's Les Miserables, Kurosawa uses the source material as a starting point and touchstone for his own tale but doesn't feel the need to stick to it too closely. (Though Lelouch's improvisations on Hugo's themes were more inventive and successful.)

In contrast to Lear, Lord Hidetora's downfall struck me as not so much resulting from his personal folly but rather as the fated consequence of his past atrocities. The pale ghosts of his sins were made manifest in the manipulative and vengeful Kaede (the most memorable character in the movie), the sympathetic, enigmatic Sué and her blind, pathetic brother Tsurumaru. The gods might treat us as flies, but at least there's a reason for their cruelty.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 13, 2005 6:09 PM.

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