Discovering Kurosawa: Throne of Blood

throneThrone of Blood is a bracing tonal shift after Seven Samurai and the Yojimbo films. Its solemnity is more reminiscent of Rashomon and Ran, the two Kurosawa films I’d seen before starting this project. As an adaptation of Macbeth, it’s also a precursor to Ran as Kurosawa’s first take on Shakespeare, and the two films share a sense of desolation.

Throne of Blood shifts the setting to feudal Japan and its perpetual conflicts between local lords. Toshiro Mifune plays the Macbeth analogue, Washizu, who is told by a spirit that he will become Lord of Spider’s Web Castle. However, his friend Miki’s son eventually will as well. The script then follows the structure of Macbeth fairly closely, apart from omitting his wife’s suicide, the murder of Macduff’s family, and some other plot points.

But despite the location shift, Kurosawa finds a local equivalent of the bleak original setting, recognising it as a vital metaphor for the isolation of striving for power. The film opens with several shots of the fog-saturated, seemingly lifeless landscape around the castle. Images like this are scattered through the film, creating a palpable atmosphere of both dread and futility. Washizu’s ambitions seem absurd in such a world: who would want to lord over such a wasteland? Despite the armies, the film feels strikingly empty, both inside and outside the castle. The quiet need not be a bad thing, as both Washizu and Miki refer early in the film to enjoying the peace of their new positions. But tragically, Washizu destroys it.

Mifune is again captivating in the lead, neither world-weary like Sanjuro or swaggering like Kikuchiyo. Washizu is commanding yet perpetually fearful and paranoid, either paralysed into stillness or exploding into frenzied or self-deluded rhetoric. Mifune’s intensity is palpable as he merely sits, staring into space, ruing his actions or fearing retaliation.

Kurosawa presents the supernatural elements almost nonchalantly. The pale make-up and lighting on the spirit and the ghost of Miki are straightforward, but the shot composition and sound effects are executed with otherworldly, vaguely omniscient precision. When Washizu searches for the spirit, after some time we finally see her run rapidly across the screen ahead of him, obscured by branches. The shot is quick and simple, but unnerving. She seems to melt into view, and her stillness in the first scene didn’t lead us to consider she would ever move so fast. Kurosawa also lowers and distorts her voice to chilling effect when she breaks into unexpected laughter. This technique is old hat now but remains disconcerting here.

The shots of the massive branches inexplicably shuffling through the fog towards the castle are remarkable too. The fog completely conceals the men carrying them, so Washizu’s terror at this impossible manifestation of prophecy isn’t undermined by what could have been an obvious illusion. But the branches look truly ghostly as they sway in the mist. Kurosawa built the castle set at the foot of Mt Fuji to take advantage of this copious fog and the dark volcanic soil, and it yields gorgeous and hypnotic cinematography.

Throne of Blood also offers the benefit of other non-English language adaptations of Shakespeare. Without the distinctive Shakespearean language and familiar settings and names, the flexibility and raw power of his narratives becomes clearer. But Kurosawa hasn’t just transposed a story from one culture to another. He uses it to speak about both the unique and universally relevant characteristics of Japanese history and culture, bringing an iconic story from one culture into another and reconfiguring its archetypes from another perspective.

I look forward to eventually returning to Ran and experiencing Kurosawa’s take on King Lear in the context of his earlier work and this previous exploration of Shakespeare. Although almost three decades separate the two films, I suspect the connection and similarities between them will be pronounced enough to provide valuable insight into the core characteristics of Kurosawa’s art.

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