“Human beings are so strange. Terrified to look into the bottom of their own hearts.” – The Spirit
My introduction to Akira Kurosawa was his 1954 film, Seven Samurai. It had quite the reputation surrounding it – a (daunting) three-and-a-half-hour samurai epic that was incredibly influential on the medium and considered to be one of the most groundbreaking and popular films he ever made. I was excited to finally watch it but I must admit there was some apprehension on my part. For one, I wasn’t very familiar with foreign films. I wasn’t worried about subtitles (hell, I can read), but I was worried that the differences between my American culture and the Japanese culture would keep me at an arm’s length from fully appreciating this so-called masterpiece (this was before I learned that Kurosawa was considered the most “Western” of all Japanese directors). I wasn’t sure what to expect.
But when I did finally watch it, I was surprised at the level of control Kurosawa had over the story. It was a classic slow build, introducing the seven samurai while also setting up the stakes for both the samurai and the farmers who hired them. But the story always moved forward. By the end, when the chaotic and masterfully directed actions scenes were slicing up the film, I couldn’t possibly imagine how the hell Kurosawa managed to pull it all off so well. I was so deeply impressed with Seven Samurai, and Kurosawa in general, that I started to search for my next Kurosawa film. Throne of Blood caught my eye almost immediately. I’d heard my college professors reference Kurosawa’s re-imagining of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth when discussing adaptions of Shakespeare. And since Macbeth is probably my favorite Shakespeare play, I figured it would be a nice follow-up. What I discovered is an incredibly stunning film that lingered in my mind long after it was finished.
Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa’s favorite leading man, plays Washizu, a general for Lord Tsuzuki of Spider’s Web Castle. After Washizu and his long-time friend General Miki (Minoru Chiaki, another frequent Kurosawa collaborator) stop an uprising that threatened to overwhelm Spider’s Web Castle and its other forts, they make their way back by going through Spider’s Web Forest, which branches out like its namesake and “protects Spider’s Web Castle against all foes.” They, of course, get lost. The two soldiers eventually encounter an evil spirit that prophesies promotions for both Washizu and Miki. But the spirit also prophesies that Washizu will soon become the new Lord of Spider’s Web Castle while Miki’s heirs will eventually come to rule after Washizu. After the spirit disappears and the two make their way back to the castle, they find that they have been promoted. Washizu becomes increasingly disturbed by the spirit’s prophecy, but his wife, Asaji, manipulates Washizu into taking bloody action. From then on, Washizu goes to desperate lengths to try and keep his title.
Look. It’s Macbeth. Throne of Blood follows Shakespeare’s play fairly closely, aside from a few moments where Kurosawa changed aspects of the play (Takashi Shimura plays a variation of the Macduff character, but the role is small and not as important as the Shakespeare character is) or invented motivations (such as Asaji’s pregnancy) to better suit the story he wanted to tell. It’s not hard to see how Throne of Blood is going to end. Even if you haven’t read the “Scottish Play,” I’m willing to bet that you have a pretty good idea of how the story goes. At the very least, you probably know that this is a story that doesn’t have a happy ending. Given Macbeth’s general story and its themes of ambition and fate which are so universal, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that even with the plot and characters transported to feudal Japan, the power of the play still comes through.
And what a powerful film this is! Throne of Blood is a cold, haunting and brutal film. Fog shrouds much of it in a white haze that creates a claustrophobic, confusing atmosphere. Birds unleash a scream that pierces the soul. The rooms are wide and empty, devoid of furniture or personal items, making each of them resemble a stage for a play where we witness the slow crumbling of Washizu’s ambition. This theatricality is not by accident either. Kurosawa adds quite a few elements from the Japanese Noh theater style. I’m not familiar with Noh theater, but from what I gathered from the film as well and the special features that came with the Criterion Collection DVD, Noh is a very precise and controlled art form that Kurosawa found a lot of beauty in. After seeing Throne of Blood, I can understand Kurosawa’s fondness for it.
The power of Noh comes from an actor’s ability to show power and control through slow and measured movements. Actors in Noh also frequently use masks that represent archetypes – the warrior, the woman, the spirit, etc. While Kurosawa doesn’t use physical masks, several of the characters in Throne of Blood contort their faces to resemble one or more of these masks throughout the film. Mifune’s face, for example, is constantly twisted into a Heida, the mask of the warrior. Asaji’s face, meanwhile, resembles Shakumi, the mask of a woman about to go mad. The encounter with the spirit, sitting at a spinning wheel singing about the futility of life with mounds of corpses behind her hut, comes directly from a Noh play called Kurozuka, or Black Mound. It’s this fusion between English and Japanese culture, and between theater and film, that makes Throne of Blood an incredibly unique film instead of just another adaption of Shakespeare.
If any performance demonstrates the power of Noh, it’s Isuzu Yamada as Asaji. Asaji is a sculpture. Her face is expressionless. Her eyes don’t blink. Her voice is soft, yet clear. When she moves, her movements are controlled and precise. It seems like the only thing she can’t control is the soft whisper of her fabric as she moves. As terrifying as Asaji is when she sits on the floor, expressionless, she is more terrifying when she does show emotion. But the most striking image for Asaji comes at the end of the film. One of the brilliant additions to Throne of Blood is her pregnancy. For one, it gives Washizu a strong motivation to assassinate Miki and his son. But Asaji’s pregnancy, and the loss of the baby, seems to tip her over the edge. When we last see Asaji, her face is twisted into a mask of insanity, and she tries desperately to wash the non-existent blood from her hands (even more terrifying, with an empty bowl). This is the end for her. And Washizu can do nothing.
Toshiro Mifune is absolutely chilling as Washizu. And it is certainly a very different performance from the one he gave in Seven Samurai. In Throne of Blood, Mifune is a wounded animal that, not knowing who its enemy is, lashes out at everyone. It’s appropriate that Washizu is introduced in the film with him lost in a forest. Washizu is lost for most of the film. He’s either physically lost (as in the forest or in the fog) or spiritually lost (as when he kills the Great Lord.) Of course, it doesn’t help that Washizu has a wife like Asaji that constantly keeps him off balance. The scene where Washizu kills the Great Lord is chilling. We don’t witness the act, instead, while Washizu kills Lord Tsuzuki, the film focuses on Asaji as she hypnotically stares at a blood stain on the ground, the blood of a traitor who committed suicide. When Washizu comes back, he’s dazed. He sits on the floor, his breathing heavy, his mind somewhere else – probably in the room where Lord Tsuzuki’s bloody body lies – and Asaji must pry the bloody spear from his hands.
But by the end, does it really matter? Washizu has completely fallen into the unstoppable path of whatever fate has in store for him. Washizu has lost whatever soul he had left. The final prophecy by the evil spirit gives Washizu a terrifying sense of confidence that he doesn’t have in the rest of the film. The spirit reveals that Washizu will not be vanquished until Spider’s Web Forest rises to attack Spider’s Web Castle. Washizu laughs at this (after all, how can trees attack?). He becomes bold. Threatening. He promises to kill everyone in his path. He promises to build a mountain of corpses, to stain the woods crimson with blood. And when he addresses his men, revealing why he cannot be defeated, he is bold and arrogant.
And then the arrows start to fly. It’s an unforgettable finale. Washizu, screaming in terror like we’ve never heard before, tries to run from the hundreds of arrows raining down upon him. Everywhere Washizu tries to escape to, arrows penetrate themselves in the wall just feet in front of him. It doesn’t take long for the arrows to find their way into Washizu’s armor.
And then an arrow goes through Washizu’s neck.
I would be remiss not to say that all those arrows being fired at Mifune were real arrows (well… all except the one through Mifune’s neck of course.) fired by skilled archers set up just off camera. While Mifune wore protective boards under his costume to prevent the arrows from penetrating any flesh, it is still terrifying to think about. Knowing this fun fact, it is not hard to see the real terror on Mifune’s face as the arrows zip so close to him he probably felt the wind off them.
It’s a haunting ending to the film. But then, Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most haunting plays, with its witches and ghosts and the unrelenting brutality the characters bring upon themselves. Combining Macbeth with the calm, yet unnerving, features of Noh, Kurosawa creates a film that is as haunting as any film can get. But Throne of Blood ends not with Washizu, riddled with arrows, collapsing in front of the men who turned against him, but with a haunting chorus singing about the carnage brought upon Spider’s Web Castle. It’s an empty fight. A fight driven by ambition, which will never change.
Look upon the ruins
Of the castle of delusion,
Haunted only now
By the spirits
Of those who perished.
A scene of carnage
Born of consuming desire,
Now and throughout Eternity.