"I have always had trouble with 'King Lear,' " says Akira Kurosawa -- in Japanese, of course. His English, at least in public, is limited to a few polite phrases like "Good afternoon" and "Goodbye." Kurosawa lives rather reclusively when he is not working on a movie; he gives interviews rarely and with ill-concealed reluctance. He makes no bones about telling you when he thinks he has talked enough.
The first thing you notice about Kurosawa is his stature. He is more than 6 feet tall -- undoubtedly the tallest 76-year-old Japanese film director in the world.
Next, you notice his eyes: You can't see them.
Kurosawa probably does not wear dark glasses while he is in the shower or sleeping. But he seems to wear them at all other times -- indoors and out, night and day. Is he cultivating an air of mystery? Or is he simply protecting the eyes that are his most important asset?
Kurosawa does not talk about his dark glasses; he just wears them. He seldom talks about his personal life. Ask him about 1971, when he attempted suicide, and he will say simply that it was "a bad time."
What he will talk about, at great length and in considerable technical detail, is "Ran," his latest movie, his first since "Kagemusha" five years ago and his answer to "King Lear." It is currently playing at the Key theater in Georgetown.
Those who know and love "King Lear" will find "Ran" at the same time exotic and familiar -- for example, this Japanese Lear has three sons rather than daughters. He also has a bloodthirsty daughter-in-law, Lady Kaede, who is responsible for most of the show's extensive bloodshed and who will remind audiences of Lady Macbeth. Thematically, Kurosawa's adaptation could be subtitled: "What Shakespeare didn't tell you." The question Kurosawa sk,1 sw,-1 has been asking of this play -- the one he tries to answer in his movie -- is "Why?" What happened to make such a total victim of this old man, whose only crime in Shakespeare is that he looks for love and a bit of peace in his old age?
"As much as I love Shakespeare," Kurosawa muses, " 'Lear' has always been a play that I have found extremely dissatisfying . . . From the Japanese point of view, Lear doesn't seem to have any reflection on his past. If he begins in a position of such great power, and then he goes mad because his daughters turn against him, there has to be a reason . . . and the only reason must lie in his past behavior. He must have been a terrible tyrant to get where he is at the beginning of the play. And his daughters must have learned from him."
Is there a touch of autobiography in these reflections? Like his version of Lear (a bloodstained 16th-century warlord named Hidetora Ichimonji), Kurosawa has the reputation of being a tyrant. Terms like "unapproachable" and "perfectionist" have been applied to him regularly through his career. When they are feeling affectionate, his associates call him "sensei" ("teacher"), but a more common nickname is "The Emperor."
Also like Lear, Kurosawa has been suffering a sort of exile for the last 20 years. Before "Red Beard" (1965), he had been turning out movies at a rate of at least one a year. Some of them, including "Rashomon" (1950), "The Seven Samurai" (1954) and "Yojimbo" (1961), are universally recognized as classics. But since 1965, it has taken Kurosawa five years each for "Dodeskaden" (1970), "Dersu Uzala" (1975), "Kagemusha" (1980) and "Ran" (1985) -- not for lack of ideas or energy but for lack of support. All of these films have won prestigious awards; most of them had to be financed primarily from non-Japanese sources. "Dersu Uzala," for example, was filmed in Russia and financed entirely with Russian money; French and American investors have been deeply involved in his other recent films. All that Kurosawa will say about his foreign investors is that "no restrictions were placed on my creative control."
Does he feel like King Lear? The suggestion has been made, Kurosawa notes, "that I resemble King Lear in that the studio I always worked with, Toho, has betrayed me. But I had no such feeling and no such intention in doing this film." He admits that "unconscious feelings come out . . . as part of the natural process of filmmaking . . . it's quite possible that in some of Lady Kaede's part a bloodthirsty character totally dedicated to destruction and revenge there's a great deal expressed of what I'd like to do. But if it's there, it's unconscious on my part."
In Japanese, "Ran" means "Chaos" or "Trouble" -- but it has had no trouble so far with audiences or critics. It has already won prizes at film festivals in Tokyo and New York, and it grossed $3,763,760 in its fourth week of nationwide release.
As for chaos, the movie has it in abundance. But it is chaos Kurosawa-style -- tightly focused, organized and choreographed. The battle scenes in this epic are comparable to such classics as "Alexander Nevsky" and "King Henry V"; the vision is panoramic, using a reported 15,000 horses and 120,000 extras in four contending armies with banners and uniforms meticulously color-coded in red, blue, white and yellow. "Why didn't I think of that?" George Lukas (a Kurosawa fan) wondered out loud as he watched the filming of a color-coordinated battle.
But the battle scenes also focus on such small, telling details as a soldier sitting stunned, holding his severed left arm in his right hand. Ichimonji, the Lear figure, sits alone in a castle during one climactic scene, going insane while flaming arrows whiz past him. In its mixture of epic and intimate visions, Kurosawa's battle choreography echoes the picture's double focus -- a family struggle that disrupts a whole society.
Kurosawa often talks about the logistics of movie-making in military terms. Whether or not he would agree that his artistic life has sometimes resembled a war, he does say that shooting a scene is like directing a battle. He has also studied intensively the military lore of feudal Japan -- uniforms, battle formations, the way guns were introduced into combat. He points out, with a touch of pride, that when one of the armies sets up camp, it does so authentically in what was called "the crane wingspread formation." Another scene illustrates the technique with which a small army lures a larger army into a deadly trap, and the deployment of one-shot muskets in several lines of musketeers so that a constant barrage can be kept up with one line firing while another reloads.
To his western audiences, Kurosawa's films seem intensely Japanese, but in his native country, he says, "I am constantly accused of making my films with a western audience in mind." He does not accept this accusation. "I've never had any intention other than to make movies in Japan as a Japanese," he says. "As a very normal part of my upbringing and education, I have studied not only the Japanese classics but also the western classics and music. There is nothing unusual about this for a person of my generation. But there is some misunderstanding of my work in Japan, probably because contemporary Japanese have not studied their own cultural background to the extent that I do for my films. I am trying to get as close as possible to the historical and cultural truth of Japan. I can only say that I am very pleased that this seems to be appreciated outside Japan."
Speculation is widespread that "Ran" may be Kurosawa's last film. He does not agree. "The creative process for conceiving a film is something like sowing seeds," he says, "and not every seed will produce a sprout. I have many seeds of ideas for the next film under consideration, but I need to be in a state of peaceful detachment from this film before I can go on to the next."