(directed by Akira Kurosawa, 1957)
This post is severely overdue: I watched this about a month ago and I’m not sure how it slipped through the net (Goodwood seems to have distracted me). To recap: back in early September I had my first proper encounter with Kurosawa, in the form of Ran. That was a reimagining of King Lear set in samurai-era Japan; and Throne of Blood gives Macbeth the same treatment. As I’ve said before, I’m not familiar with Kurosawa’s films and I don’t know which of these two is generally considered the better. My own preference is for Throne of Blood, which I found much more accessible than Ran, even though it was filmed almost thirty years earlier. (In fact, I was surprised to find out just how old it is.)
Right from its opening scenes, the film feels very different to the vividly colourful Ran. Its black and white cinematography is complemented perfectly by the swirling mists which bookend the film and which begin to gather whenever one of the more eldritch moments approaches. Our ‘hero’ is the warlord Washizu (Toshirô Mifune) who, with his second-in-command Miki (Akira Kubo), has just won a great victory for the Emperor. They have both been summoned to the Court at Cobweb Castle* to be rewarded for their achievements, but as they try to find their way through the labyrinthine Cobweb Forest, they lose their way. Here they encounter a spirit, spinning in a glade, who offers them a glimpse of the future. Washizu, currently commander of Fort One, will become the master of North Castle; and Miki will be promoted to Fort One. The men are amused by this prediction, but the spirit’s words become more troubling. She also tells them that Washizu will then become master of Cobweb Castle, and that Miki’s son will rule at Cobweb Castle after him.
Baffled and disturbed by this, the two samurai continue on their way, bedevilled by mysterious fogs, until at last they reach the Castle and the Emperor. Here they receive their reward: Washizu is elevated to North Castle and Miki to Fort One – just as the spirit predicted. But what about the rest of the prophecy? Washizu discusses it with his ambitious and ruthless wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), who immediately decides that he must grasp his destiny. When the Emperor unexpectedly comes to stay with them at North Castle, Asaji drives Washizu to fulfil the prophecy with his own hands, by murdering the Emperor in his bed. From there it is a small step to Cobweb Castle; but Washizu’s conscience begins to gnaw at him. Troubled by his own guilt, which he must keep secret, he begins to succumb to paranoia. And all the while Asaji whispers in his ear: no one can be trusted, not even his old friend Miki, who must be eagerly waiting for misfortune to fall on Washizu so that his own son can succeed, as the spirit predicted.
One of the things I found distracting about Ran was the acting style, which (as I was told afterwards) drew heavily on Japanese theatrical traditions. To my unaccustomed eyes it seemed rather stilted. On the contrary, one of the most enjoyable aspects of Throne of Blood was Mifune’s performance in the lead role. He impressed me deeply: in order to feel the real tragedy of this story, we have to feel sympathy for Washizu despite everything he does, and Mifune manages to convey the necessary humanity. Here is authority, certainly, and a commanding presence, but at the same time all his insecurities and fears flicker across his face – in the scene where the Emperor grants him North Castle, for example, thereby confirming the spirit’s prophecy; or the scene when Asaji tempts him to take the throne by murder.
Actually, that direct comparison with Asaji made Washizu’s anxieties even more powerful, because Asaji herself gives so little away. She is just as terrifying as Ran‘s Kaede, perhaps more so because she does and expresses so little. Dear God, Kurosawa’s women are formidable! I noticed that Asaji gives an impression of demure submission, as is demanded by the rigid protocol of her class. She hardly ever faces her husband or meets his eyes, and her painted face as blank as that of a porcelain doll, but there is no question that she has the power in their relationship. Physically confined by her beautiful robes, which make it impossible for her to move with ease (her whispering, gliding movements sent chills down my spine by the end), her only route to power is by manipulating her husband.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable film: less sprawling than Ran and a timeless story of hubris, ambition and the inevitability of Fate. It’s left me even more determined to get my hands on a copy of Macbeth, so please let me know which you think is the best version for a beginner. I was delighted to spot some motifs in Throne of Blood which I recognised from King Hereafter – the Japanese equivalent of Great Birnam Wood moving to Dunsinane, for example – but I’m sure I’ve missed many of the allusions. I shall have to go back and enjoy it again when I’m more familiar with the original play. So much Shakespeare, so little time…
*There seem to be as many different names for this castle as there are synopses of the film, but I’m sticking with what it said in my subtitles.