The mountain wouldn't budge for Mohammed; nor would the lordly Akira Kurosawa, 75, come down from Mt. Fuji for the world premiere of Ran at the First International Tokyo Film Festival. Instead, two busloads of foreign journalists were diverted for a 2 1/2 hour pilrimage to the countryside near Mt. Fuji so that they could meet with the great director.
The rare summit was held at the Hakone Prince, a palatial hotel on a placid lake where Kurosawa summers. The press from outside Japan would be granted precisely one-and-half hours with the maker of such masterpieces as Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, and Ikiru. Japanese journalists? Kurosawa banned them from attending.
The ride began uncomfortably when Kurosawa's long-time interpreter, a French woman on the bus, asked journalists to write down their questions ahead of time. Then she began reading them aloud, altering the queries which might offend the filmmaker. "He doesn't like abstract ones, about significance. He doesn't like to answer, what does this mean?" She added cheerily, "You can ask as many questions as you like about horses. He likes to talk about horses."
At the actual question-and-answer session, the interpreter turned sour and shook her head whenever anything slightly probing came from the floor for Kurosawa. For instance, did the producers of Paul Schrader's Mishima, which had been rejected by the Tokyo Fest, try to enlist Kurosawa's help to get it screened? "Of course I heard of the problems of Mishima," Kurosawa did answer. "I'm convinced that if it were a good film, we would have shown it at the festival. However, I have nothing to do with the Tokyo festival, and anyway I didn't see the film. I cannot say more than what I have said."
In truth, the filmmaker tall,still erect, imposing behind dark glasses seemed happiest with soft and reverential questions allowing simple, straight-forward responses. Yes, he answered enthusiastically about the special horses recruited for Ran's spectacular battle scenes. "We tried to find horses that were a little smaller that today's thoroughbreds," he noted.
As with earlier Kurosawa pictures, Ran (English translation: Chaos) is set in Japan's medieval 16th century, when samurai rode the range. "At the time, people were still free," Kurosawa said. "If they were strong enough to fight, they could make something of their lives, they could be really human. Even a fighting peasant could do it, though the competition was fierce. People could express their personality much more than today."
Kurosawa decided to focus Ran on the well-known history of Lord Mori. "I like his personality. He lived far from Kyoto. If he lived in Kyoto, he would have united Japan." Mori had three sons and, according to legend, each was handed a single arrow and asked to break it. But when three arrows were held together, in unity, nobody could shatter them. In Ran, Kurosawa ruins the the lovely parable by having son No.3 smash the three arrows across his knee.
"When I read that three arrows together are invincible, that's not true," Kurosawa said, recalling the evolution of his screenplay. "I started doubting, and that's when I started thinking: the house was prosperous and the sons were courageous. What if this fascinating man had bad sons?" Slowly, replacing Shakespeare's daughters with male siblings, he merged Ran and King Lear. Mori (named Hidetora Ichimonji in Ran) repeats Lear's blunder with his three children by rewarding two wicked sons with property and banishing the good, loyal one.
"About Shakespeare," Kurosawa said, "I'm not a specialist. I'm just a reader. If you quote me some line, I won't know it." Still, Ran is the second time that he has utilized Shakespearean tragedy for a Japanese-set screen story: his acclaimed Throne of Blood featured Toshiro Mifune as a Japanese Macbeth. Kurosawa was asked if Ran's Lady Kaede, who marries her dead husband's murder out of selfish ambition, is another version of Lady Macbeth. "It's not especially Lady Macbeth," Kurosawa said. "But behind every man of power there's lady in back manipulating him."
Much of the Western press groaned. Kurosawa, for the first time, grinned. "I don't have a Lady Macbeth," he added, leaning into the microphone; but Kurosawa's jolly mood ebbed when a journalist asked why much of the evil in Ran seems to caused by the women.
"I don't think anyone is particularily bad in the movie," he replied. "It's only different personalities." Nor was Kurosawa pleased when asked to acknowledge that Ran was influenced by Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible. "I've never been influenced," he said. "I like Potemkin, but by the time of Ivan the Terrible, I had stopped looking at Eisenstein." Nor would he apologize for keeping away Japanese journalists. "They put silly questions because they don't study at all." Nor would he say that the anti-war apocalyptic message of Ran was aimed at Reagan and Gorbachev. "If I wanted to deliver a message, I'd write a letter," he answered testily.
And then contradicted himself. "What I wanted to say in the last scene was that humanity must face life without relying on God or Buddha. We must try to the maximum to build for a happy future, otherwise there will be a succession of wars. A reason I couldn't shoot this film for so long was that producers complained that the ending was tragic. We are always closing our eyes."
After the press conference, Kurosawa stood and signed a few autographs. Then he marched out of the hotel, intepreter by his side, and climbed into a chaffeured Mercedes. Smiling and waving, Kurosawa was driven back to his summer retreat.
(The Boston Herald, July 1986)