Movie: Ran (1984)
Kurosawa takes Lear and strips off all the tragedy, leaving nothing more than a bleak, hopeless shell. His Lear is a Hidetora Ichimonji, a warlord who had united all lands under him by the sword and burning down all he couldn’t conquer. Not exactly the doting while at the same time crotchety grandfatherly chap Shakespeare had in mind. He has no daughters, but 3 sons (which makes the whole betrayal thing easy to digest. After watching the sole female lead in Ran, I doubt a movie with three daughters would’ve been little more than sly wheedling, pent-up rage, pretty kimonos and sliding screen doors. And blood-drenched wakizashis. Of course.) Taro is Goneril, Jiro is Regan and Saburo is Cordelia. The Fool Kyoami, is the Fool. Then there is Tango, who is the Earl of Kent. (Now go read Lear and fill in the blanks. That may not give you the movie but it’ll afford some amusement to have the King of France court a samurai Saburo…Holy wow, Shakespeare-Kurosawa crossover yaoi!)
- There are few movies out there that look more picturesque than Ran. From the vividly green grass to flowing red and yellow banners crossing each other across a battlefield to a longshot of a shaken Hidetora walking down the steps of a burning castle flanked by armies with their arrows trained at him, this is a movie of memorable stills. Almost the whole movie is shot with longshots, with the characters little more than rats moving across a scene.
- I remember Kurosawa’s war sequences from Kagemusha which were pretty grand. But Ran beats that by a fair count with the attack on Third Castle by the combined forces of Taro and Jiro. What makes it absurd is that it’s actually pretty. All those multicoloured banners, all that fire, the cosy wooden quarters of the castle and pretty doll women in kimonos stabbing each other or getting shot. There is no battle sound, only Toru Takemitsu’s soundtrack for a large part of the scene. There is a fair amount of gore too with bleeding stumps, arrows in eyes, horse hooves trampling folk, human arrowcushions snailing for a while and dropping dead and on one occasion, a pile of dead bodies by a gate where you can see one of the dead guys close his eyes after a while.
- The movie is set during the Sengoku period in Japan, when the land was cut up between warlords who spent their lives fighting each other, which lends it that edge Lear never had. Ichimonji is no benevolent king who wants to spend his last days in peace, he is a tyrant too tired to fight. The plotting, the stratagems, the backstabbing and murders in the movie grow more and more desperate, as if the violence is feeding itself and Ichimonji sinks lower and lower from shock to senility.
- The only innocents in the movie are perennial victims, the Buddhist brother and sister duo, the blind Tsurumaru and Sue, who were orphaned by Ichimonji and later caught in the crossfire of the war of the brothers. They are also the only religious characters in the movie, followers of the Amida Buddha. Kurosawa points out the helplessness of the innocent and the weak in the face of those more powerful than them, whenever he can. So you have Ichimonji berating Sue for not hating him for ruining her life, and later calling for a whole village to be burnt to the ground because they wouldn’t supply him with food and shelter. The movie ends with a shot of Tsurumaru abandoned on the edge of a fort against a red evening, with a portrait of the Amida Buddha.
Overall, Ran is by far, the best medieval movie I’ve seen. The next one I want to catch is Polanski’s Macbeth which I hear was made after the Manson murders though that’ll have to wait till after I’m done with Val Lewton and Mario Bava.
Movie: The Body Snatcher (1945)
On a whim, I decided I’m going to catch some old-school thrillers and it can’t get more thrilling than watching Boris Karloff’s evil grin, can it?
The movie is based on a R L Stevenson short story of the same name. The year is 1831, the place Edinburgh. The movie opens with a blind girl singing “When ye gone awa, Jamie” (at least that’s what it’s called in the movie later) and then we see a graveyard where an old woman and a young medical student try to speak like Scotspeople. Throughout the movie, there’s a sprinkling of “lass”, “bonny”, etc. in dialogue to keep reminding us where it’s all happening. Any way, the theme is something along the lines of: How far should medical science be allowed to go? Is it moral to set any boundaries on a science whose advancement could lead to the betterment of everyone? (The kind of shit they shout at each other on ‘Big Fight’ or that other show with B Dutt) The lead characters are a Doctor “Toddy” MacFarlane (Henry Daniell) who runs a medical school which needs a constant supply of dead bodies to dissect for research, his assistant Fettes (Russell Wade) who is a bright-eyed kid who wants to be a doctor and help folk out without doing anything wrong/immoral/disgusting and the ever-gracious Cabman Grey (Boris Karloff) who is, as his title suggests, a cabman who likes to earn some extra pay with a side-job as graverobber.
The movie plays around the relationship between Dr. MacFarlane and Cabman Grey. Both Daniell and Karloff are excellent in their performances as the helpless doctor who feels stifled by the low, uncouth cabman and the spiteful cabman who finds that the only real pleasure left to him is to torment the doctor with remembrances of favours past. The movie follows the standard Faustian “deal-with-the-devil” (or “stare-into-the-abyss” for that matter) plot and ends with a storm. There are moments when the class difference between the Doctor and the Cabman factor in. The Cabman resents the upper classes for their privileges and prefers, and even seeks out, whatever dirty work needs to be done for them to continue their work. It is his secret joy that all the research and advancement in the Doctor’s school derive from corpses stolen (or worse) by him. Alternately, the Doctor is conflicted by his reliance on the Cabman to provide him the material to continue his work in the school. That such a ‘noble’ endeavour should require such base measures (base in the upper class Doctor’s eyes) is something the Doctor must live with, but he resents the Cabman for spelling it out for him every time they meet. Which is one way of looking at it, yea. Or we go with the more pleasant theory that everyone’s a nutjob wracked with guilt and shame and all that gooey stuff which makes them do crazy shit.
If you do watch the movie, watch it for Karloff who brings an air of evil to the relatively staid (in horror movie terms, really, graverobbery and murder aren’t exactly all that awful as say, werecreature or vampire or psycho slasher) Cabman. Karloff manages to infuse every scene with a sinisterness, with a raised eyebrow, a grin or just a questioning ‘Oh?’, something for which Wise (the director) should also be given credit. Bela Lugosi has a bit part in this and there is a brilliant sequence in the middle where Karloff and Lugosi share a scene. But the best scenes here are those where the Cabman is fucking with the Doctor in the bar.
The whole movie is available on YouTube over 8 parts. Here‘s the first part.
More blogging will follow in this week to come. I’ve exhausted myself for tonight.