In making this films, Kurosawa was inspired by two main sources, William Shakespeare's King Lear and the ancient Japanese story of the Three Arrows. However, in typical Kurosawa fashion, he merely uses these sources as a jumping off point, radically changing the stories and settings to fit his personal vision. Taking the story of a king who wants to hand power to his three children, two of whom are false and bad children, and what tragedies occur because of his actions, he moves the story to Japan, makes it about a warlord and changes the daughters to sons. He references the Three Arrows story only to prove that it is false: you can, in fact, destroy three arrows that are bundled together. Most importantly, unlike Shakespeare, his gives the Great Lord of his story a history, so that rather than being a victim of fate and two unfaithful children, he is a man who has earned his fate through his violent actions, which made his children violent backstabbers and turned everyone around him (nearly) into power-and-revenge-seeking monsters.
No wonder your kids hate you, you make them color coordinate their outfits!
While this film covers many themes (fate, violence, the gods' role in human events, nihilism, death, revenge, loyalty, sanity/reality, etc.) the main story follows one Lord Hidetora, a man who spilled blood and committed countless atrocities all his life trying to gain complete control of the lands around him. Now, at age 75, at the height of his power, he wants to pass power to his sons, so that he can live his remaining life in peace. However, as his son Saburo and vassal Tango try to show him, he has lived in and perpetuated a world of violence and betrayal, and cannot expect his sons to be better than him or to live in peace after all the violence he perpetrated. However, being proud, he bans his youngest son and loyal vassal simply for telling the truth. This will quickly lead him down the path of destruction as his greedy, power-hungry sons, his psychotic revenge-minded daughter-in-law and disloyal advisers turn on him and completely, utterly destroy him.
This is Hidetora's "Before" picture. Wait until you see what he looks like only a few days later.
Kurosawa had ideas for this film long before it was made, and he originally wrote the role of Hidetora for actor Toshiro Mifune, and it shows. By the time it was made it was too late to have Kurosawa regulars like Mifune or Takashi Shimura in it. However, the performance in this film, far from being lacking, are some of the best in film history. Tatsuya Nakadai as Hidetora, inspired by Noh acting, does an absolutely incredible job. At the start of the film, he is so fierce and intimidating. As the horrors that he has unleashed through his pride bear down on him, his strength breaks down (the scene in which he moves from anger at his second son's rejection into stumbling due to his shock and pain is great). Finally, he breaks down into madness, perfectly played every time. His scenes as a mad man could so easily have been overacted and silly. Instead they are haunting, seeing how far this man has fallen is truly a spirit-shaking experience. And why wouldn't he fall into madness? His own sons not only try to strip him of every privilege or sense of pride that he has, his advisers betray him and both his sons set fire to his castle, slaughtering all his entourage, including his concubines!
I feel bad for him, son. He's got 99 problems. But at least now his bitches ain't one.
This leads to the greatest scene in the film, the one of epic scale that made this film the most expensive Japanese production up to that point (along with the climactic battle at the end). The combined forces of his two sons assault the few men he has in his castle, trying to kill him (and an adviser of his second son kills his first son so he can seize power). What is so great is that instead of filling the soundtrack with sound of battle, the sound almost completely cuts out for this, with the hauntingly minimalist score by Toru Takemitsu gets brought to the foreground. At the end of all the horror, the stunned Hidetora tries to commit Seppuku, but cannot, so far has he fallen into madness. In a fantastic shot, he slowly descends the stone staircase of his burning castle, both armies making way for this madman so that he may wander the plains aimlessly. His son even feels regret at seeing his father fallen so far and lets him leave, but he has chosen his path and moves to solidify power. The only reason Hidetora even survives or achieve moments of clarity is because the three people still loyal to him (Saburo, Tango, and his Fool Kyoami) try to help him.
Hey, don't worry about your castle Hisetora. Real Estate is a buyer's market right now! Castles like that have gone down from 2 million yen to only about 700,000!
But Hidetora is no innocent man undeserving of his fate. We learn throughout this film the horrible things he has done. He speaks to the wife of his second son, Lady Sue, a devout Buddhist who acts as a reminder of his evil past. He cannot bear to see Sue smile despite the fact that he always like to go see her. This is because he betrayed her parents, murdered them, and burned down their castle in order to seize power. The kindly Sue, devout as she is, cannot bring herself to hate him, despite his evil deeds. Not so for her brother, who he blinded as a young boy, and now lives as a blind hermit on the plains. When the now mad and fallen Hidetora is taken to his house for help, their reunion is far from welcoming. Greatest of all however in terms of acting is the performance of Mieko Harade, who plays Lady Kaede, wife of his eldest son, who has backstory similar to Lady Sue. Her outlook could not be more different from hers however. She has devoted her entire life's purpose to getting revenge on Hidetora and his house, and when he cedes power to her husband, she sees her opportunity. She prods her husband into demanding more and more power from his father as a sign of his power, leading him to be forced out of the house and unwolcome at his other son's home. When her husband is slain, she nearly murders his brother. Instead, she seduces him, conquering his mind and body so fully that he is willing to behead his current wife (Lady Sue) for her. He even leads his men to a ruinous attack on their neighbors at her prodding. Her performance is stunning, perhaps the best I have ever seen by an actress. She slinks across the screen like a snake, her ever move and word is filled with either quiet fury or psychotic rage. Her character is similar to the wife in Kurosawa's earlier film Throne of Blood, also based on a Shakespeare play. However, while that character wanted personal power, this woman only wants revenge. Also, her character adds a level of sensuality and actual physical threat unseen in the other character. One of the films best scenes is when Kaede confronts the second son, pulls out a blade and slices his throat forcing him to admit his guilt in killing her husband, then seduces him by licking the wounds she has created and having sex with him. By the end of the scenes, she totally owns him, body and soul. The character is so devious and yet attractive, it has rarely been rivaled in film.
That's some kinky foreplay right there.
The third masterful performance comes somewhat surprisingly from what is essentially the comic relief character of the film, Kyoami. He is based on the Fool from King Lear, but here is given a distinctly Japanese feel here. The character is played by transvestite actor Shinnosuke Inehata. He does a great job of being both funny and at times very sad. Like fools throughout history, he is the only one who can really speak the truth in ever instance, because his role as a jester allows him to do so without being shunned (though he often gets in trouble for going to far). This allows him to poke fun at all of the proud characters and point out the falsehoods of their ideals and ideas. His joking also adds nihilistic philosophical depth to many scenes, especially when he interacts with Hidetora. The scene where he puts a crown of grass and flowers at his now mad master, disgusted at his fall, is incredibly poignant. Or, for example, look at this exchange of dialogue:
Hidetora- I am lost.
Kyoami- Such is always the condition of Man.
Hidetora- I think I have been here before.
Kyoami- Man is constantly traveling the same path. If you don't like it, jump!
Hidetora- [Jumps off a cliff].
Here we have both comedy at the expense of the mad lord and philosophy. Yet other scenes, like when he almost leave Hideotra only to be drawn back at the sound of him talking in his sleep, show that he has real love and loyalty for Hidetora. This makes their scenes together emotional and always great to watch.
"What do you think that cloud looks like?"
At the end of the story nearly everyone dies. This is Kurosawa's message: the gods weep at the horrors we commit, they cannot help us, we are alone and lost in this cruel word. Several scenes present this message, but the two best are as follows. Firstly, at one point Kyoami states, "Man is born crying. He cries and cries, and when he has cried enough, he dies." Pretty dark huh? That's nothing. The final shot is of the blind brother of Sue (who has been murdered by Kaede at this point) stumbling towards a cliff, nearly falling, and dropping his scroll of The Buddha in the process. The point of this scene? It is Kurosawa's metaphor for humanity. We are all blind men, about to stumble off of a cliff into nothingness, waiting for someone or something that will never come, as the gods abandon us to our fate. Wow.
How great is this film? This is the kind of film Jesus would make (if he was a Japanese man in the 20th century). If Shakespeare had lived to see this film, he would have wept and thanked Kurosawa for improving upon King Lear and making something even greater from it. Few films have such high ambitions as this film and actually manage to achieve that epicness. This is a clear 10/10 Essential film.