Saturday, April 9, 2011

Throne of Blood (蜘蛛巣城) (1957)

Akira Kurosawa's Japanese contemporaries often airily dismissed his work as "too Western". They pointed to his acceptance by an increasingly global film audience, as well as his alleged sentimentality, as evidence. It seems obvious to me that these criticisms were simply the sour grapes of jealous peers who were envious of Kurosawa's ability to hit upon human truths, and appeal to all audiences; not just the Japanese. Indeed, Kurosawa's perfect intersection of artistry and popular appeal is unmatched throughout cinema of any nationality or time period.

With that in mind, it is interesting to look at Kurosawa's 1957 Macbeth adaptation, Throne of Blood. Kurosawa had a fascination with Shakespeare (culminating with Ran), that most emblematic of all Western writers. Maybe this stemmed from the fact that neither man was particularly concerned with the constraints of cultural boundaries (Shakespeare less so, as it happens); they were primarily preoccupied with expressing more universal human qualities and flaws. Both artists' work lends itself so easily to adaptation by foreigners: Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood's breakthrough Fistful of Dollars, which was a remake of Kurosawa's Yojimbo, transposed from Edo-era Japan to the American West, is a prime example. Similarly, Kurosawa adapted Shakespeare with ease, with Throne of Blood proving he could do so with grace and style.

The story of a regicide takes on vast new significance transposed against the honor-bound backdrop of feudal Japan. It should be said that the film is not a strict interpretation, and there are a couple minor changes, but Macbeth is the sole source material, and any analysis of Throne of Blood must start and end with Macbeth.

Shakespeare's play, it is generally agreed upon, features Macbeth's driving ambition as the primary thematic force. Throne of Blood, on the other hand, is less about ambition and more about the motivating power of male insecurity. This is largely due to the performance of the great Toshiro Mifune in the lead role. He is agitated and nervous, easily wounded by any questioning of his manhood. He is an overcompensator, evidenced by his elaborate suits of armor late in the film. He doesn't seem motivated by any real desire for power, he is simply terrified of seeming weak. Prestige is just a byproduct of his terrible actions.

Central to both play and film, of course, is the character of Lady Macbeth (here named Asaji), played in the film by Isuzu Yamada, who audiences may recognize, along with most of the other actors in the film, from several other Kurosawa movies. It's a fantastic performance. The ease with which she overpowers Washizu's mind with suggestion and doubt is a sight to behold. Washizu often looks startled and horrified, as if Asaji's paranoid claims dredge up suppressed suspicions within himself. This is likely the case.

The collaboration between Kurosawa and Mifune is the greatest in all cinema. Kurosawa is the greatest director who ever lived and Mifune is the finest screen actor of all time. Their 16 films together are a towering achievement. Both brought out the absolute best in each other, and Throne of Blood is a perfect example of Kurosawa's deliberate technique colliding flawlessly with Mifune's boundless dynamism.

As the Macbeth equivalent Lord Washizu, Mifune is light-years away from his trademark role as the laconic, jocular ronin in Yojimbo and Sanjuro; as well as the swaggering, charmingly self-aware wannabe samurai Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai. In Throne of Blood, Mifune demonstrates his astounding range. He is gaunt and staring, manic-depressive and menacing. His face twists and distorts in rage and disgust and terror. Characteristically for Mifune, he throws himself into the role with such unrestrained violence that the viewer worries frequently and irrationally for his safety. Not completely without reason: Mifune famously insisted that the climactic scene where Washizu is shot with a hail of arrows be filmed with actual arrows. He was not actually pierced by arrows, obviously, but the arrows hitting the wall around him as he runs around were completely real, as was the expression of terror on his face.

No director in film history has shot atmospherics nearly as well as Kurosawa, and it isn't likely that any ever will. The way he was able to film rain, also used extensively in Rashomon, has to be seen to be believed. The distinguishing feature of Throne of Blood, however, is the frequent use of fog both as a narrative and stylistic device. Incredibly, the film was actually shot on the slopes of Mount Fuji, which provided Kurosawa with frequent and thick fog. It is used beautifully. The iconic scene where the forest comes to meet the walls of the castle is quite possibly the centerpiece of a film packed with incredible shots of nature.

Kurosawa liked using long telephoto lenses due to his assumption that the greater distance from the cameras would get better performances from his actors. He also liked the flattened backgrounds they provided. In Throne of Blood, he uses the narrow 4:3 aspect ratio characteristic of his early work, and this allows him to create a tight, claustrophobic effect. He uses the edges of the frame to conceal and reveal things that, in life, would be easily visible to the characters. It is a fantastic technique when done well, and Kurosawa did it better than anyone (including Leone, who made extensive use of it in films like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly). Observe the banquet scene. Having seen a ghost sitting across the room, Washizu draws his sword and stalks laterally across the frame, the camera gently panning to follow him. As his subordinates drop back in fright, the seat where the ghost was sitting comes into the frame. There is nobody there.

I have not seen every filmed version of Macbeth, so I can't call this the best of them. It is, however, miles ahead of the Polanski version. I can't imagine another actor playing Macbeth with the same ferocity, pathos, and self-loathing as Mifune. Kurosawa's critics may well have pointed to a film like Throne of Blood as a symptom of his fascination with Western source material, but nothing could be further beside the point: Throne of Blood is a great film to be enjoyed by everybody, and Akira Kurosawa was a film director without peer.


  1. This was probably my favorite entry yet. I don't like old film because I think film language rolls over with an almost startling frequency which means more often than not you see a story told using an obsolete vernacular. But the way you write about it is quite compelling.

    However, I have to say that you have the wrong dynamic duo. The greatest film director of all time is Wong Kar-Wai and Tony Leung Chui-Wai is the greatest actor ever.

  2. I understand what you mean about old films, but none of Kurosawa's work has ever struck me as "old", even if it was made before a lot of stuff that feels very dated now. Calling a Kurosawa film old would be like calling the game of chess old; it doesn't really make any sense because the only thing that matters with either is pure experience, not surrounding context.

    And dude, I loved Chungking Express!

  3. I take your point and my initial observation was more of a generalization than specific to this film and director. Although I do feel, to varying extents, that modern visual arts are much more comfortable with subtlety. In a story sense of both trusting the audience to come to their own conclusion and also in crafting a story that is conducive to different interpretations intentionally. And from a photographic standpoint allowing for more ruminative and contemplative shots while also editing those shots together in a way that feels more organic and less contrived.

    Which isn't to say that this subtle quality is the "right" way to have a story unfold or the best way to present that story. It's just that my parents were never really into film so I didn't see many as a child so I don't have that traditional and more objective history to inform my perspective. All my formative films are like post-1995 and my interests dictated they be foreign language (usually Asian) so I always see things through that lens. When I see a film from the 1950's I struggle to understand it the same way people who started seeing films in the 1950's would understand any of the art cinema that has come out of Hong Kong or South Korea in the last 20 years or so.

    Chungking Express is quite good and a real showcase for Leung. Wong, however, gets much more hardcore in Happy Together, In the Mood for Love (my favorite film of all time), and 2046.

  4. You're absolutely right about naturalism coming to the fore later in movie history. I think in large part this was due to a gradual transition from movies being more like filmed theater plays into a fully realized art form of their own. So in that regard you are completely correct: through trial and error modern directors have a better grasp on (some of) the strengths of the medium itself.

    But like you point out, a movie is only good if it accomplishes what it's trying to accomplish, and pure naturalism isn't always a good choice. The current rash of "gritty" and "realistic" series remakes like Bond and Batman are all pretty offensive to my sensibilities, for example. A reasonably dramatic story is often in itself a contrivance, and I like it when filming techniques reflect that same level of realism or non-realism.

    I just added all three of those Wong films to my Netflix queue, hopefully I'll do some blog entries on them in the future!

  5. also, I think I sympathize with your viewpoint more than I'd like to admit. For example, I love Westerns, but pre-Leone Westerns can be a serious trial for me. I think Shane is a great and important film and I can admire its technique, but when I watch it I sort of want to kill myself.

  6. Oh my God, I spent about 30 minutes typing up my thoughts on the shift in the perception of film in terms of visuals and beyond and then there was an error processing it and now it is gone. I am going to go pull a John Brown and hack some people to death with a broadsword. However, true to the spirit, I will try to select people that arbitrarily deny full civil rights to others.