SIEGFRIED, the first part of Lang’s DIE NIBELUNGEN, has quite a lot of magic and fantasy elements — a dragon, petrifying dwarfs, a lake of fire, a magic satsuma bag that turns you invisible when you stick your head in it. In part two, KRIEMHILD’S REVENGE, most of that is stripped away, and what we get, mainly, is Kriemhild’s revenge.
(Which is all about LOVE. It’s rather like Lang and his Mrs. to re-conceive romantic love as the most powerful destructive force in the universe.)
It’s during this part, which I don’t think I’d ever really watch all through before, shame on me, that things started to feel familiar.
Well, a burning fort is a burning fort, but it slowly dawned that Kurosawa was maybe the right age to have seen Lang’s epic two-parter on its first release (AK mainly saw American and European films as a kid with his dad) and that there’s a rogue element in Kurosawa’s RAN that doesn’t come from Shakespeare’s KING LEAR, the movie’s credited source. The avenging woman.
In Kurosawa’s 1985 masterpiece, Mieko Harada puts in a terrifying turn as Lady Kaede, whose family were massacred by the Lear figure in his youth, and who has been married to one of his sons. With cunning, strength and a vampiric sexuality, Kaede manipulates the men around her into a course of action that results in the total destruction of her enemy’s family.
The critics, impressed but nonplussed by this extra-canonical character, likened her to Lady Macbeth and suggested that her presence compensated for the loss of Lear’s daughters from the storyline (Japanese women could not inherit a kingdom, so Kurosawa had performed a sex change on Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, turning them into Lord Hidetora’s sons). The second point is basically true, Kaede supplies a feminine evil that would otherwise be absent, but of course Lady Mac is not a figure of vengeance, she is merely ambitious for her husband. The particular brand of treachery practiced by Kaede and whose true purpose is kept concealed from us until the moment of her triumph/death, corresponds far more closely to the models of Brunhild and Kriemhild provided by Lang’s film.
(Incidentally, in both Lang and Kurosawa, this Oni-Baba devil-woman figure takes over the story altogether and becomes the strongest and most involving character.)
I’m so convinced of this connection that I would declare the matter proven if I could in any way show that AK had seen DIE NIBELUNGEN, which I can’t.
In the ever-reliable Patrick McGilligan’s Fritz Lang, The Nature of the Beast, we learn that Lang ignited his Hun fortress personally, by firing a flaming magnesium-tipped arrow onto the roof of the primed edifice. The crowd of extras watched awestruck (you can see them shift their weight from foot to foot in a kind of dazed dance) as the castle, a former factory building, was reduced to cinders inside ten minutes.
Kurosawa’s longtime assistant, Teruyo Nogami, has written a fabulous and heartbreaking book, Waiting on the Weather, about her career alongside A.K. Her account of the conflagration scene in RAN is both mind-boggling and thrilling. The 1.17 million-dollar specially-constructed castle was to be filmed by five cameras, as star Tetsuya Nakadai, playing the insane Lord Hidetora, descended the steps. Then those five camera crews had to get the hell out of the way so Hidetora could be filmed leaving the front gate, the castle still blazing behind him. Not the kind of scene you can retake.
The castle, coated four times with cement, and filled with lumber to make it burn more slowly than Lang’s factory, was set alight.
‘”Ready!” shouted Kurosawa, in an unusually high voice. The cameras all started rolling at once.
‘Clouds of white and gray smoke billowed from the castle windows. Cries of “The smoke is rolling! Smoke is ready!” rebounded from the castle.
‘”Action!” thundered the director. The bar on the clapperboard snapped down.
‘”Nakadai!” This was the actor’s cue. All eyes turned to the castle entrance. We were breathless with suspense. Kurosawa gripped the megaphone tightly with apparent concern. Pure white clouds of dry ice swirled and billowed, but no Hidetora came out. His eye pressed to the camera, Takao Saito said to his assistant, “No sign of him?” Kurosawa muttered worriedly, “What’s he doing?”
‘Then all at once a clatter arose inside the castle, and through the smoke Hidetora finally appeared, carrying his sword scabbard. Some twenty-five seconds had gone by, but it seemed like an eternity.’
Anyhow, they get the shots. Once things are a little more relaxed —
‘As Nakadai came over, looking pleased with himself, Kurosawa burst out, “You took so long coming out, I was worried. Was everything okay?” Nakadai laughed. “I took my time because I thought it wouldn’t do to rush.”‘
You would think that a shoot like that would be the highlight of the book, but it’s just ONE OF MANY. Buy this book.