The 1970s had been very difficult for Kurosawa – faced with indifference in his own country and unable to secure funding for film projects, he’d attempted suicide – and his only film that decade had been the Russian-Japanese co-production, Dersu Uzala (1975). He only managed to get Kagemusha made with the help of George Lucas (whose Star Wars was partly inspired by Kurosawa’s 1958 jidaigeki The Hidden Fortress) and Francis Coppola, both co-producers, and Ran was another co-production, this time with the Paris-based Serge Silberman. Filming lasted more than a year, and was interrupted by the illness and death of the director’s wife.
I didn’t get long with him, and this is the first and only time I have ever conducted an interview through a translator. Having lived for a year in Tokyo, I knew enough basic Japanese to spot that the translator wasn’t at ease, and made at least one basic error.
My Japanese wasn’t anywhere near good enough for me to do the interview in Japanese myself, but if only the director hadn’t been a world-renowned figure, with an intimidating reputation and an entourage, I might have proposed a one-on-one in a mixture of pidgin English and rudimentary Japanese, maybe over a couple of beers – the way I’d managed perfectly well with a wide variety of friends and acquaintances in Japan.
The world’s greatest living director is wearing a fuschia-coloured cashmere sweater and shades. He smokes Mild Seven Lights, which are even milder than Mild Seven. At 75, he looks his age, though could never be described as an old man. And for someone nicknamed “The Emperor”, Akira Kurosawa is surprisingly unimperial and easy to talk to, even through the filtering device of an interpreter (my own Japanese being limited to pleasantries such as “Phew, it’s hot today!”) and in front of a small but respectful entourage.
The idea for Ran had been in his head since the days of Dersu Uzala, back in the mid-1970s. “I had the idea of writing something about the sixteenth-century Japanese warlord Mori Motonari, who had three sons. And, having written an outline of the script, it suddenly occurred to me that it was very similar to King Lear, so I went back and read that again, and developed it from that point. Motonari had three very good and loyal sons, so I started thinking about what would have happened if they hadn’t been loyal, and developed a fiction around the actual character.”
Fans of Goneril and Regan, however, will be gratified to learn that Kurosawa has added a female character, Lady Kaede, who is up there in the ranks of Great Screen Villainesses of Our Time: more ruthless than Lady Macbeth, sexier than Cruella de Vil, more fatale than any of the film noir femmes. Kaede, her opposite number the goody-goody Lady Sué and Sué’s blind brother Tsurumaru are all Kurosawa originals, whose differing attitudes to their maltreatment at the hands of the warlord, Hidetora, point up the main difference between Ran and King Lear.
“Lear never reflects on his past evil or why he comes to what he is, but Hidetora is aware that his past is catching up with him, and this in the end is the cause of him becoming mad.”
One of the most pleasing aspects of Kurosawa’s films is his treatment of battle scenes. In The Seven Samurai, for instance, he makes good use of a map. In Kagemusha, the various armies were identifiable by symbols. In Ran, the opposing armies are colour-coded. The screen may be filled with clashing chaos, but you are always able to follow the action, and can bask in the illusion that you too are an expert in military strategy.
“It often happens in battle scenes, for example in War and Peace, that you have no idea which are the Russian troops and which are the Napoleonic ones,” says Kurosawa, “and it’s not very kind to the audience. So it was very deliberate to attach different colour banners so you knew exactly what was happening. I was also very careful to pay attention to the fact that the armies of Jiro always entered from left to right, and Saburo’s armies were always filmed the opposite way, from right to left.”
Kurosawa seems most to enjoy discussing the practicalities of filming. He chuckles as he recalls a scene in which an actor had to ride across a vast expanse of virgin volcanic sand. “After the horse had gone out, the whole crew had to come out with brushes to sweep the hoof prints away. And then, of course, that left the brushmarks, so you had to wait for a wind to come and blow the sand into a natural shape before you could film it again. It took four days to shoot that scene.”
It was even worse trying to tidy up a grass field after a whole army of horses had galloped across it. And although, while watching Ran, you often get the impression that Kurosawa has managed to marshall even the elements into his film-making scheme, this actually entailed an enormous amount of waiting around for typhoons which never arrived, and, in editing, the meticulous matching-up of the shadow patterns cast on the landscape by clouds passing over the sun. “It’s a very tedious task, that one.”
It is tempting to interpret Ran as being an almost autobiographical work: Kurosawa as Hidetora, with the rest of the Japanese film industry cast as the ungrateful offspring, refusing to finance his films and criticising him for his costly perfectionism. (His last three films have all been financed by sources outside Japan.) Prior perusal of press cuttings persuaded me it was unwise to pursue this Kurosawa-as-Hidetora line of questioning, but the director still seems baffled by Japan’s seemingly wilful neglect of its greatest living film-maker.
The critical reaction to Ran in Japan was ’50-50′, an astonishing ratio considering the film has already been hailed in the West as a masterpiece. “There is a group of people in Japan who oppose what I do,” says Kurosawa, rather guardedly, “but I don’t make a point of going round befriending critics. I’m happy enough if the general public go and see the film and like it.” He shrugs. A member of his entourage suggests that the reason for the animosity is jealousy. I suggest, getting the wrong end of the stick as usual, that perhaps it’s because his films are so popular in the West.
“Usually it’s the other way round,” says Kurosawa. “Things that are popular abroad then become popular in Japan.” He is making a great effort to go round and help publicise the film in Europe, hoping that perhaps this will influence its reception in his native country.
And during the filming of Ran, he adds, foreign journalists were invited on to the set whereas Japanese journalists weren’t. So it could be just a simple case of sour grapes.
The photographs of Akira Kurosawa are from the Cahiers du Cinéma booklet included in the Studio Canal DVD box set of Ran (with subtitles in French).