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I will admit right up front that I know very little about Japanese cinema. Akira Kurosawa is virtually the only Japanese director that I've been reasonably exposed to, but what an exposure it has been! Over the last few years he has easily become one of my favorite filmmakers from anywhere. His films are generally considered to have the most "western" (hemisphere, not film genre) feel of the major Japanese directors, contributing largely to his international appeal. For awhile, I wondered if I might get kicked out of the film geek club because I latched onto the easiest of Japanese filmmakers for a westerner to appreciate, but I've since overcome that silly spark of shame. Great cinema is great cinema and Kurosawa has created some of the best I've ever experienced.

In Ran, Kurosawa reinterprets Shakespeare's King Lear in a feudal Japanese setting. Tatsuya Nakadai gives a memorable performance as Hidetora, a Japanese lord who misjudges the loyalties of his three sons and unwisely abdicates his kingdom to the eldest. His decision sets off a tragic storm of infighting, betrayal, revenge, and war, leading to his own descent into madness and grave regret.

Kurosawa paints an ugly, but poignant picture of humanity, expressed most powerfully in a striking sequence near the middle of the film. Hidetora, banished from his own kindgom, is holed up in one of his former castles. The armies of Hidetora's two oldest sons attack the stronghold in order to push their father out completely. Kurosawa depicts the battle with an extended montage showing the bloody deaths of Hidetora's personal guard while Hidetora retreats to the top of the main tower, slowly losing all hope. The only sound throughout the entire montage is the orchestral swelling of sorrowful, yet militant strings. Kurosawa's use of color here is powerful, as the dark and hazy battlefield is splashed with the bright yellow and red banners worn by each attacking soldier. The juxtaposition of beautifully sad music and splashes of bright color set against violently extreme imagery reflects what is in every human's heart: goodness and beauty, horribly distorted by utter depravity.

Unfortunately, Kurosawa's Ran offers little redemption in this tragic vision of human existence. Near the end of the film, two characters share an exchange that is as thematically explicit as dialogue can be. One cries out to the gods, questioning their existence and cursing them for their cruelty. The other replies, "Stop it! Do not curse the gods! It is they who weep. In every age they've watched us tread the path of evil, unable to live without killing each other. They can't save us from ourselves." This is certainly a grim conclusion, but thankfully, one that falls just short of the truth. What Ran does not depict is the hope that does exist for salvation from ourselves: a God who does indeed weep watching us tread the path of evil, but offers another path full of grace and light. In all of its epic, cinematic poetry, Ran gives us the bad news, but ends before giving us the good news. Even so, it remains a gripping, powerful film and is certainly the masterwork of the late period in Kurosawa's long career.


Some brightly-colored images from the Great Balloon Race.

Black Snake Moan

Generally, I only end up commenting on movies that I really enjoy. Sometimes though, it's fun to analyze what makes a less-than-stellar film ineffective. Black Snake Moan is one such movie that just didn't work for me. I really wanted to like it. It had many things going for it that should have made it a personal favorite: Samuel L. Jackson, a blues music motif, and a redemptive theme. Yet none of those elements were able to redeem this film's poor execution.

Black Snake Moan takes place in a small-town farming community. Christina Ricci plays Ray, a young woman afflicted with severe nymphomania that causes her to cheat on her boyfriend and be used by men all over town. Ray's boyfriend, Ronnie, played surprisingly well by Justin Timberlake, carries his own affliction: clinical anxiety. While he is away on duty for the National Guard, Ray goes on a drug and sex binge, ending up scantilly-clad and beaten within an inch of her life on the side of road. She is found by a local farmer and blues musician, Lazarus, played by Sammy J. He takes her in to help heal her physical wounds and eventually makes it his mission to cure her of her psychological sickness as well.

That set-up sounds pretty good, doesn't it? The concept seems to provide ample opportunity for interesting relationships to develop and grow: a strong paternal relationship between Sammy J. and Ray as well as a repaired relationship between Ray and her boyfriend, highlighted by open, mutual support for each other's psychological challenges. In fact, the movie attempts to develop those exact relationships, but unfortunately, it comes off forced and off-center, rather than natural and convincing. I can only blame this on the direction (and perhaps partially on the writing), because the performances in the film are all pretty strong.

The major flaw of the film, for me, was that the character development was far too weak. I never felt especially connected to any of the characters and was never drawn into the supposed relationships between them. In a film that deals with heavy issues such as sexual abuse, anxiety, and infidelity, character development and emotional involvement of the audience are essential. While I was impacted by a couple of well-crafted scenes, the film as a whole lacked a strong emotional arc and simply fell flat. The heavily-marketed scenario of a barely-clothed white girl chained to an older black man's radiator, came off as a cheap gimmick, rather than a genuine, plot-advancing element. The use of the blues in the film also seemed tacked on, when it could have had a much more meaningful juxtaposition against the lives of the main characters.

I applaud the filmmakers for attempting to tell a story of restoration and grace, but many films have done so much more convincingly than Black Snake Moan. This one will just frustrate you with its unrealized potential and leave you with a case of the bad film blues.