Akira Kurosawa: Throne of Blood (1957) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Akira Kurosawa: Throne of Blood (1957)

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Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is a milestone for a few different reasons.  First, this is marks, at least for his filmography, the dead center of his career.  He had not yet slipped from the pedestal of worldwide fandom he established so he was free to flex his creative muscle with the studios a little more.

Second, this is the first time Kurosawa adapted one of Shakespeare’s plays for the big screen.  As I’ve said before, when Kurosawa is devotional to capturing the essence whatever he’s adapting for cinema the results are the least inspiring of his career.  Neither of us were very big fans of The Idiot and while The Men Who Tread on Tiger’s Tail had a couple of interesting confrontations there wasn’t much meat for me to latch onto.  If I remember correctly, next week’s Kurosawa adaptation of The Lower Depths suffers from the same issues of slavish devotion and dull execution.

His Shakespeare adaptations are on an entirely different plane of quality and execution from the rest of his films.  Just look at the list - Throne of Blood, The Bad Sleep Well, and Ran.  They all run just shy of perfection and this version of Macbeth is the most artistically fulfilling and downright creepy film that Kurosawa had done at this point in his career.  Yes, there are films I feel a deeper connection to (One Wonderful Sunday) and ones I think are more exciting (Seven Samurai), but the creativity he shows with his Shakespeare adaptations separate the films from his other ventures. Part of the tension comes from the sheer logistic difficulty in transporting the original Shakespeare stories into the then-modern Japanese cinematic landscape.  There’s less trouble taking the existential thoughts of Ivan Ilyich from one building and putting them in another.  Transporting the lingering fear of foreign otherness in some of Shakespeare’s plays to a completely different cultural sphere is another matter altogether.  There is no easy path so Kurosawa has to completely transform the story in order to make it more palatable for his audience, and given how boring his more straightforward adaptations have been I’m grateful he didn’t go this path.

Kurosawa adapts Macbeth splendidly without sacrificing any of the theatrical touches, especially where the performances are concerned.  Toshiro Mifune, who at this point I’m completely convinced inspired Nicholas Cage in many different ways, subscribes to the acting method that if a line of dialogue is worth speaking it is weightier if it is barked.  Left to his own devices this can look a bit silly, but Kurosawa dresses him and his surroundings up to play his aggression to maximum effect.  Mifune has shadows painted on every possible crevice of his face and facial-hair so unruly that his eyebrows run together and seem to be forming their own rebellion on his face.  Kurosawa lights him to maximize the shadows that are always in his presence, and places him into increasingly hostile environments where the buildings, trees, and roads are always slanted to get him.

He’s playing to Mifune’s strengths as an actor and getting the most of an already overblown production, but the real kicker is in some of the more outright changes he makes to the play.  My absolute favorite involves the scenes with the Forest Spirit (Chieko Naniwa) who tells Washizu (Mifune) and Miki (Minoru Chiaki) of their betrayal-filled future.  Instead of a trio of witches issuing portents over a pot, Kurosawa blends the three together into a single powerful character.  When the Spirit speaks, it sounds like hundreds of mournful souls wailing at once.  When they find the Spirit, it barely regards their existence and stops its song of eventual death to tell them their grisly fates.  All this while it sits from the confines of a cage spinning a small loom repeatedly as the cloudy particles threaten to obscure the view.  As they leave Washizu and Miki run into numerous pairs of corpses, all overgrown with moss and dirt.

What say you  to this overblown perfection Kyle?The scenes with the Forest Spirit are hands down the best for me. They're terrifying, held in medium shots that never give you a close-up view of the spirit's face, which from the distance we see it seems to be composed starkly of just bold white and a black smile. It's like a horribly well-realized version of the round-eyed, round-mouthed ghost every child draws at Halloween. This character is made entirely of nightmares.

This is fitting since the combination of Kurosawa's pacing and Mifune's panicked, sunken, heroin-addict Kabuki face give Throne of Blood the relentless, crawling inevitability of a nightmare — we know exactly where things are headed, and so does the main character, and yet he must go through the motions of trying to save himself. What makes it all the more tragic is that his paranoia over what the Forest Spirit tells him is the very thing that enables him to be manipulated into sealing his own fate by killing his leader, trying to assassinate two of his cohorts, etc. Had he not had delusions of grandeur put in his head to begin with, we get the feeling he may have gone about being a loyal lord to his emperor.

All of this is in the original story though — it's the way Mifune embodies the increasing panic at what he's done that makes the movie so compelling. Some of the best shots work not only because Kurosawa allowed Mifune's performance to run totally bats*!t (and the Nicholas Cage comparison is excellent), but also because he isolates him so often within closed, empty spaces, accompanied either by no one or by his wife, who sits almost entirely motionless feeding his paranoia in deceptively mild tones. The effect is one of a man slowly going mad alone, which I guess is what's happening.The inevitability of his tragic end makes the individual steps in the process seem all the more macabre — there's little suspense in the movie, but it's propelled all the same by a fascination with how far Washizu will go before he finally acknowledges his fate. Even at the end he seems renewed by a sense that somehow he can escape the spirit's initial prophecy that his reign will be short lived, making his iconic death scene—as his own troops fire arrows at him relentlessly from the courtyard below—all the more pitiful. His is a sin of arrogance carried to epic proportions.

What sticks with me the most here—and it's not true of Kurosawa's other Shakespeare adaptations—is how effectively creepy the whole movie is. The scene where Washizu and his wife stay in the room of the fort that earlier played host to the previous ruler's suicide is filled with dread, as Mifune first lets his wife convince him that he is to be sacrificed on the front lines by the emperor, and then as he anxiously paces around the small, cramped room waiting for her to poison the guards outside so he can execute her plan.

Kurosawa stages this scene wonderfully by first showing several soldiers enter the room to clean the blood from the previous ruler's suicide off the walls, and this gruesome image carries through in our minds as Mifune goes to kill the emperor in his sleep. This entire sequence is staged with slow, deliberate action and dialogue, which allows the feeling of dread to well up to almost unbearable proportions. It's an example, as much of the movie is, of form perfectly following function.That moment with Asaji, alone in the room while Washizu carries out his fate, is another wonderfully suggestive moment from Kurosawa.  This is one of the only times we see a break in her coldness and the way she aggressively approaches and then nearly caresses the blood of the previous occupant is a moment of creepy surreality, even for the universe presented here.  I won’t say that Macbeth is a story of how a warm heaven awaits all of us, but the attempts Kurosawa makes to link the afterlife with coldness not too different from our blood is chilling.  Asasji is warmest when she is the most directly linked with someone’s death, and so the circle continues.

It’s another example of Kurosawa’s attempts to distance himself from the material in Macbeth and it’s all the stronger for it.  In many ways, Macbeth is a much more passive protagonist than Washizu is.  We can partly point to the original play being stuck on stage and written for audiences that would need their hands held every so often.  See Banquo’s brief aside to the audience that he is suspicious but certain his friend would never kill him for a good example of this.  But Washizu elicits my sympathy more.

Granted, I can’t quite empathize with someone who is willing to turn to murder because his eyebrowless wife egged him on at the suggestion of a powdered spirit, but the world seemed against him from the start.  Macbeth is driven by the spirits from the start while Washizu’s situation is driven more by politics and weakness.  A crucial difference is how the two deal with the betrayal and murder of their best friends.  Macbeth is literally driven insane by spirits, but Washizu drinks himself silly and starts ranting at nothing.

Really, Kyle, which one of us can say we’ve never done one but not the other?

That agency is important, it makes the story feel like less the culmination of destiny and more people in charge of their lives that make a number of horrible decisions weak people make.  Throne of Blood, for me, is an improved Rashomon in that philosophical respect and in terms of the execution.  For the source material, In a Grove and Macbeth both feature people justifying horrible actions and molding them to their worldview.  I admire the way Rashomon takes a subjective approach to this, but there’s the result of Throne of Blood is far more evocative by creating this nightmare world that everyone takes part in equally (the “objective” setting.)  We're all in the mires, though not necessarily together, despite what you may tell you otherwise.  That, alone, makes Throne of Blood so much more pessimistic than many of the Kurosawa films we've seen so far.On that note, it's also more compelling that he returns to the spirit at the end to demand clarification of the initial prophecy. He's going back because he wants to return responsibility to some higher fate, as if to take all the blame for his previous actions out of his own hands. It's not so much that he's being driven mad by spirits, as you note in Macbeth, but that he needs some external answer for why he's done what he's done. If the spirit can provide it and contextualize his actions in prophecy, then he's just a tragic victim.

This is also what makes the ending so effective—he refuses to cave to his guilt, and instead uses yet another bit of prophecy to embrace his current situation, clinging to the notion that he will remain in power and suffer no repercussions for what he has done. Even his wife at this point gives in to her guilt in a chilling scene where she frantically scrubs her hands, mumbling that the blood won't come off, but Washizu has crossed the point of no return. His speech to his troops about how he can't be stopped shows desperation mixed with maniacal arrogance, and despite being driven to this point by a number of factors, he is now acting completely of his own (totally crazy) volition. This is where the idea of agency that you bring up is so vital.

That his actions in these last scenes can't be attributed directly to some other influence are what make his death scene so effective for me. He elicits sympathy up to a certain point for being so easily manipulated, as his fear and guilt is overwhelming, but as soon as he truly claims full agency over his actions and the course of his life, he's cut down. Were he to die in the middle of another of his wife's schemes, our sympathies may still be with him, pathetic as he is—but at the end he's embraced his situation with such cowardly arrogance (his new-found boldness has nothing to do with his own actions, but rather the spirit's second prophecy) that we can't sympathize with him anymore.

Going along with the visual theme of Washizu as a lone figure in isolation, this is just how Kurosawa leaves him at the movie's end. Everyone, even the audience, has abandoned him, and the fear and betrayal on Mifune's face as he futilely tries to flee from the onslaught of arrows hammers this isolation home. It also makes the repetition of the song sung at the beginning all the more important, as the emphasis is on the loneliness his actions ultimately cast him into rather than simply the tale of failure.

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Next week: Kurosawa follows the great Jean Renoir with The Lower Depths.

Posted by Andrew

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