Akira Kurosawa reimagines Shakespeare’s King Lear as the story of Hidetora Ichimonji, an aging samurai warlord who divests himself of his power and splits his kingdom among his three sons Taro, Jiro, and Saburo. Saburo protests that Hidetora has taught them nothing but war and that he can expect no loyalty from them once he has relinquished control. Angered, Hidetora banishes Saburo. But immediately Taro and Jiro begin vying for power, and Taro’s wife Lady Kaede insists that Taro need no longer show respect to his father, since Taro is now the head of the family. So begins the end of the Ichimonji clan.
Kurosawa’s adaptation of King Lear reimagines the titular character as an aging warlord, Hidetora Ichimonji, who spent his life conquering other clans and now plans to retire in peace (but still with the title of Great Lord ) while his sons take care of the kingdom. Hidetora’s past drives the story. As his youngest son Saburo points out, Hidetora has taught them nothing of loyalty or the arts of peace; they grew up learning how to betray and conquer, how to take power. To expect his sons to live in any other way is madness.
Hidetora, of course, ignores Saburo’s wisdom and banishes him along with the one faithful servant who also dares to protest his abdication of power. Thus he sets in motion the familiar Lear plot of familial betrayal and a mad wandering through nature. But Hidetora is haunted by his past deeds. The betrayal here begins at the urgings of his daughter-in-law, Lady Kaede–she married Hidetora’s son Taro and then Hidetora killed her family. And as Hidetora wanders through the fields he repeatedly stumbles upon the sites of his past conquests and the remnants of the families he broke apart and the lives he took. Hidetora’s madness is not only the madness of betrayal by his children, but also the madness of realizing that it is all his fault, that he a destroyer of peace and of families as well.
Thus Kurosawa transforms the story into a powerful commentary on war. Are the gods at fault for the suffering of mankind, or is man himself to blame for never resting content with what he has? How should individuals respond to suffering and pain? Is there any way to break the cycle of violence?
The vision is bleak, the misery unrelenting, and the ending, of course, tragic. Love and loyalty are shown, but only so they can be cut off and destroyed. It’s difficult to find a moment of redemption in this vision of King Lear.