DVD Review Of Throne of Blood
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/29/07
Akira Kurosawa’s black and white 1957 film Throne of Blood (Kumonosu Jô- literally Spider-Web’s Castle) is a very good film, but not quite up there with the best of his films, like Seven Samurai, Ikiru, nor The Bad Sleep Well, despite its vaunted adaptation from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. That said, the hour and forty nine minute long film, written by Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Ryuzo Kikushima, features one of the best performances by its star, longtime Kurosawa leading man Toshirô Mifune as Taketori Washizu, the warrior who has the Macbeth role. Yet, in watching this film, I have come to the conclusion that while there is a minor influence from Macbeth, it is in no way merely a Japanized version of the Bard’s play. There are just too many significant differences, as well as the clear power and influence of the Noh Theater on this film, which is absent from other historical Kurosawa classics, period films called jidai-geki.
First off is the notion of determinism. In Macbeth, all the main characters have free will- they are just corrupt from the get go, whereas in this film the main actors either are fated, or- more likely, buy into the idea of fate so strongly that they live out self-fulfilling prophecies. This Orientalist determinism is at great odds with Western ideas of individual free will. It manifests itself in the fact that the minor characters in the film- despite whining about their superiors’ flaws, are more or less apparatchiks, whereas the lesser characters in Macbeth are all strong willed, for better or worse. Also, the film is not only about the personal doom that we know awaits Washizu, but that which awaits his whole class of samurai warriors just a few centuries after this film is set- likely the 13 or 1400s, due to the absence of guns. Thus there is a sense of cultural apocalypse that looms- note the beginning and ending choral sequences, straight out of Noh- as well as Greek drama, and set on the steaming and otherworldly and post-Apocalyptic slopes of Fujiyama, whereas the play is more focused on individuals with internal rot, not their whole society. After all, the Great Lord Tsuzuki (Takamaru Sasaki). whom Washizu murders, was himself the murderer of the Great Lord before him, unlike King Duncan in Macbeth. The framing device lends the whole film a very Ozymandian feel.
Washizu is also a more complex figure than Macbeth because he makes choices, despite perhaps believing in fate. It is his ignorance of his free will that is more important than its lack. From the start, we know Macbeth is corrupt. Washizu, on the other hand, has noble impulses, which he has followed most his life, but gives in to the baseness of the society he lives in, which only allows success through bloodletting. Macbeth is merely egged on to a murder he wants to commit by his Lady Macbeth, whereas Asaji has to psychologically castrate her husband to force his hand. Thus, whereas Macbeth’s world crumbles of his own rotted accord, Washizu’s world is already rotted, and he merely vainly tries to succeed in it by being worse than it. That said, Throne Of Blood gives a far more internal look into Washizu than the play ever gives us on Macbeth. We even see his delusions, such as the spirit from the forest in his hall, when he is stood up by Yoshiaki Miki (Minoru Chiaki- the Banquo stand-in) and his son.
There are other differences between the film and the play, such as extraneous characters’ existence and actions are removed, or shown offstage- such as Miki’s riderless horse showing he has been ambushed and killed, or the murder of Great Lord Tsuzuki by Washizu also occurring offstage. Shakespeare focuses on actions and their consequences, whereas Kurosawa fully sets up what the consequences are once the prophecy of the forest spirit is revealed. He’s more interested in how it fulfills itself, not why. The most prominent absence in the film, vis-ŕ-vis the play, is a corresponding Macduff character, as a lone avenger. In the film, Washizu’s men all turn against him, and their killing of him is reduced to yet another mindless reaction out of fear, much as Washizu is prompted to murder- against his samurai code, by the latent fears his wife, Asaji, plays upon. The fact that she uses all means at her disposal, even a pregnancy, says more than enough about how much more manipulative she is than Lady Macbeth. Also, since we never even see her pregnant, and she sends a servant to tell Washizu of her stillbirth, and the servant refuses him seeing her, it is likely it was all just a ruse to get him to turn against Miki and his son. So, while much of the film does follow the outline of Shakespeare’s play, so what? It’s not as if tales of murder and vengeance were invented by the Bard. Is every love story a version of Romeo And Juliet?
The film begins with the prophecy of an androgynous albino spirit (Chieko Naniwa- an actress), who lives in Spider’s Web Forest, who tells Washizu he is destined to become Lord of Spider’s Web Castle, while Miki’s son is also destined to replace him. This is a dynamic as old as the Bible and the Greek drams that preceded it. Washizu and Miki have just routed their Great Lord’s enemies, led by a traitor named Inui, and when they return to the castle, the first part of the prophecy comes true- both are promoted, Washizu to Lord Of The North Castle, while Miki is made commander of the First Fortress.
Here is where the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy vs. destiny can be argued most cogently. Is it the belief of the two men in the prophecy, based upon the initial extrapolation of the spirit (called evil by the men, but likely not; unlike the three witches in Macbeth) that they would be rewarded with promotions, or fate, which carries the rest of the film? I would argue that it is the self-fulfilling prophecy aspect that is dominant, for much of the action is avoidable, and conjured out of Washizu’s flaws, not something that is a guarantee. After his promotion, why does he fall prey to his shrewish wife’s claims against the Great Lord and Miki? If he did not, nothing that follows would occur. Also, when he sees the spirit in place of Miki and his son, he is likely hallucinating, for the spirit does not speak to him as it does in his other encounters with it. Also, there is nothing supernatural in the final fulfillment of the prophecy, that the trees will rise up against Washizu- it is merely the camouflage used by his enemies, led by General Noriyasu (Takashi Shimura- in a supporting role, as he had been eclipsed by Mifune in Kurosawa’s stock company of actors), the man he framed as the killer of the Great Lord Tsuzuki. Yet, had he not told his men of the latter prophecy’s claims that he would reign until the trees rose up against him, he would have likely survived, and his men would not have shot their arrows against him.
The film makes great use of its effects: wind- a symbol of aimlessness (which also bolsters the idea that the film is not about Fate, but the human will’s destructive nature despite it), fog- which embraces the inner and outer anomy of Washizu, light and shadow- whose meaning is manifest, but it is still a much less complex work than Seven Samurai or The Bad Sleep Well, called Kurosawa’s take on Hamlet. The acting is terrific. Mifune reeks bluster with doubt, fear with strength, and comes across far more human than he does with his more buffoonish characters in Rashomon or Seven Samurai. Isuzu Yamada, then a huge film star in her own right, is also great as Asaji. Her lack of motion, emotion, and external doll like makeup forces her to use her whole body to act. There is a scene where she enters a black room to get the drug to knockout the Great Lord’s guards, and almost immediately is turned the other way, and returns with it. It occurs so fluidly it seems magical. The screen then dissolves to the drugged guards. The look on Yamada’s face is one of idyllic evil, and it almost suggests that she has preternatural powers, and is akin to the androgynous spirit. Interestingly, her makeup is very similar to that of the malevolent spectral character of Lady Wakasa, played by Machiko Kyô, in Kenji Mizoguchi’s ghost film, Ugetsu, further suggesting that there could be something more malign and supernatural to Asaji’s character. The spirit is also not shown to be evil, as claimed, for all it does is cackle, and spout apothegms like, ‘Men’s lives are as meaningless as the lives of insects.’ This may be evidence of a nihilistic, or realistic, streak but not of evil. It also should be noted that never does the spirit actually take any action in the film. It simply tells.
One of the interesting aspects about works of art, especially those by great artists, is how they rise and fall in critical opinion before settling into somewhat of a consensus- i.e.- the Lowest Common Denominator taking its hold. Throne of Blood was dismissed by most American critics as a minor film, even laughable, compared to the prior Rashomon, Ikiru, and Seven Samurai. The New York Times’ notably dense film critic of that era, Bosley Crowther (could even his name be any WASPier?) wrote: ‘But, for the most part, the action in this drama is grotesquely brutish and barbaric, reminiscent of the horse-opera business in Kurosawa’s The Magnificent Seven with Toshiro Mifune as the warrior grunting and bellowing monstrously and making elaborately wild gestures to convey his passion and greed, while other of the warriors behave accordingly.’ Two things stand out about this characterization. The first is that The Magnificent Seven was the Americanized Old West take on Seven Samurai, and was not Kurosawa’s film- I guess fact checkers were not working that day at the Times, and the second is that Crowther calls the action in the film ‘brutish and barbaric,’ when almost all the violence occurs offstage, unlike Seven Samurai- which has far more violence, and which is a lush film- in both looks and mood, compared to this film’s hermetic bleakness. It does not reassure me that nearly half a century ago film critics were as dense, biased, and disinterested in their professions as they are today.
The DVD, put out by The Criterion Collection, includes the original theatrical trailer, and a good transfer- better than on Seven Samurai (the older one disk version), and with far less scratches and blemishes. The sound is fine, as well, although it lacks an English dubbed soundtrack, and gives, inexplicably, two subtitle choices- one by Kurowawa expert Donald Richie, and the other by film translator Linda Hoaglund, who was raised in Japan. The two explain their choices in the DVD’s booklet, which also includes an essay by Stephen Prince, who wrote The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema Of Akira Kurosawa. There is little notable difference between the two- this is prose, not poetry. Richie’s subtitles, however, tend to hue closer to the spoken words’ occasional poesy, whereas Hoaglund’s subtitles are more prosaic, even though she does call the castle Spider’s Web Castle, rather than Forest Castle. Both subtitles are done in white font, which can be difficult to read in the glaring white hues in some scenes. The audio commentary is given by Japanese film expert Michael Jeck, and it’s solid. He seems a bit giddy, and weird, at first, as if he had a nip or two before recording it. He does a good job, once he settles down- about a half hour into the film, and delves into the film’s origins, structure, and details on the actors- for the uninitiated. His claim about this film’s being the greatest Shakespeare film ever made, by incorporating Macbeth’s essence while creating a new cinematic experience, is a bit overblown, though; especially since this is not Kurosawa at his best, and I’ve seen Orson Welles’ odd but effective Macbeth, whose release, five years earlier, forced Kurosawa to delay making this film for a few years, so as to not lose a slice of the international Macbeth market.
However, anyone who was entranced by the recent meager Lord Of The Rings trilogy should watch this film, for it defeats that whole series as easily as a samurai kills a foe with one stroke of his sword. Whereas it is more primal and simple a tale than Seven Samurai, it is far more interesting than the usual drama that Hollywood spews. Throne Of Blood may not be a masterpiece, but it is a piece by a master, and as such, it deserves an audience- preferably one with the intellect and ability to discern the difference between an adaptation and a derivation. Whether or not you feel it is a treatise on free will’s failures vs. determinism’s folly, and what side you come down on, will reveal much about yourself, and such disclosures are what all art strives to do, for after communication, revelation is one of art’s greatest qualities.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Unlikely 2.0 website.]
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