American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
One of the early reviews of Akira Kurosawa's "Ran" said that he could not possibly have directed it at an earlier age. My first impulse was to question that act of critical omnipotence. Who is to say Kurosawa couldn't have made this film at 50 or 60, instead of at 75, as he has?
But then I thought longer about "Ran," which is based on Shakespeare's "King Lear" and on a similar medieval samurai legend. And I thought about Laurence Oliver's "Lear" on TV last year, and about the "Lear" I saw starring Douglas Campbell a few weeks ago here in Chicago, and I realized that age probably is a prerequisite to fully understand this character. Dustin Hoffman might be able to play Willy Loman by aging himself with makeup, but he will have to wait another 20 years to play Lear.
The character contains great paradoxes, but they are not the paradoxes of youth; they spring from long habit. Lear has the arrogance of great power, long held. He has wide knowledge of the world. Yet he is curiously innocent when it comes to his own children; he thinks they can do no wrong, can be trusted to carry out his plans. At the end, when his dreams have been broken, the character has the touching quality of a childlike innocence that can see breath on lips that are forever sealed, and can dream of an existence beyond the cruelties of man. Playing Lear is not a technical exercise. I wonder if a man can do it who has not had great disappointments and long dark nights of the soul.
Kurosawa has lived through those bad times. Here is one of the greatest directors of all time, out of fashion in his own country, suffering from depression, nearly blind. He prepared this film for 10 years, drawing hundreds of sketches showing every shot, hardly expecting that the money ever would be found to allow him to make the film. But a deal was finally put together by Serge Silberman, the old French producer who backed the later films of Luis Bunuel (who also could have given us a distinctive Lear). Silberman risked his own money; this is the most expensive Japanese film ever made, a nd, yes, perhaps Kurosawa could not have made it until he was 75.