no sympathy for lady vengeance

the paramount theater summer film series is in the middle of their "art-house essentials" program right now and tonight's offering was akira kurosawa's last epic, the masterful ran (1985).

it's most often touted as the emperor's interpretation of king lear, but i think it's just as much autobiographical as anything else. the film is the story of the great lord hidetora, patriarch of the ichimonji clan, and the mayhem ("ran" translates as "chaos") that follows in the wake of his decision to turn ruling authority over to his three sons. taro, the eldest, is given the first castle and supreme authority. jiro and saburo are to be given the second and third castles with the proviso that they are to support taro unwaveringly. hidetora uses a sheaf of arrows to demonstrate the principle that three are much harder to break than one. saburo, wary of the dream that spurred this decision and his father's unaccustomed, highly emotional state, argues vehemently against dividing power and is banished for his trouble.

now, it was hidetora's dream and subsequent decision that was the catalyst for the action but we will soon meet the true driving wheel for everything that unfolds subsequently - taro's wife, lady kaede. she and the ichimonji clan have a history, shall we say. hidetora was responsible for the death of her family and she now resides in her ancestral home as the wife of his eldest son and she will stop at nothing to gain her revenge. adultery, murder, drinking blood from your wounds - all in a day's work.

matters soon reach an impasse as she exerts her will and hidetora is turned out by both his remaining sons. he and his escort take shelter in the vacant third castle and the combined forces of the two sons massacre his assembled guards and concubines. only hidetora survives the brutal attack and wanders from the burning ruins of the castle, his mind lost.

this battle sequence is simply stunning. the first half is accompanied only by the lush score and you don't even notice the absence of ambient sound until the report of the pivotal gunshot knocks you back in your seat. then you are immersed in the chaos of battle. fire, screaming, arrows flying, madness.

hidetora descends further and further into his shambling hell as the palace intrigue rolls on, accompanied by the royal fool, kyoami. as hidetora can no longer make sense, the fool (naturally) has to dispense most of the truth, and it is a bleak truth indeed. when hidetora mumbles that he is lost, kyoami replies "such is the human condition". and, summing up the worldview of the film quite succinctly, "man is born crying. when he has cried enough, he dies". not the jolliest harlequin you would ever want to meet.

saburo, the only one with enough foresight to have argued against the wretched plan in the first place, eventually attempts to come to his father's rescue with rival warlords waiting in the wings to feast on the scraps of the ichimonji clan. the inevitable final showdown (you don't outfit 1400 extras with armor and weapons to have them not fight) ends the way all shakespeare ought to - the bad, unhappily, the good, unluckily. and lady kaede? the fact that she thoroughly destroyed the house of ichimonji was probably of little comfort as she faced kurogane for the last time. there is no relief for anyone, in fact. in the final debate that occurs regarding man's place in the universe, the best-case scenario is that the gods weep at our inhumanity.

the dark, nihilistic thread that runs throughout is uncommon for kurosawa. no other film of his, that i have seen, is so bereft of hope. this is where autobiography comes into play the most, i think. he was nearing the end of a long and storied career. there were rumblings from younger filmmakers that he was obsolete. he was nearly blind. his wife of thirty-nine years died during the production of the film. his personal tragedy fused inextricably with the shakespearean and ran is the end result. and it is a masterstroke, another valid argument for great suffering equating to great art. the colors are brilliant. the costumes are striking. the action is intense. the misery is palpable. it is utterly compelling, beautiful and bleak beyond measure. see it if you can.

the paramount's "art-house essentials" rolls on a little while longer with a double feature of the candy-colored the umbrellas of cherbourg (1964) and the young girls of rochefort (1967) on wednesday, 8.18.10 and the luminous fiftieth anniversary restoration of jean-luc godard's breathless (1960) on thursday, 8.19.10 and saturday, 8.21.10. if you are an austin film society member, you receive $2 off the price of admission for these particular screenings. do it!

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