Get ready for a few reviews of movies from 1957. I’m starting a fun project to watch a bunch of movies from that year. And what better way to begin it than with this classic Japanese film?
Admirable, my Lord. You, who would soon rule the world, allow a ghost to frighten you.
Throne of Blood is my first Akira Kurosawa film. I don’t know how I’ve gone this long in my movie fandom without seeing a film by him but it has happened and now it has been corrected. This was a perfect film to start with, too, since Macbeth is the best Shakespeare play. The best! One of the great traditions of cinema is to adapt Shakespeare plays and do whatever the heck you want with them. Some are straight adaptations, using the same words and depicting events exactly as they happen in the play. Others change around everything from genders to time periods. This film transposes the main events of Macbeth onto feudal Japan. There’s one evil spirit instead of three evil witches. The dialogue is entirely new, nothing wicked this way comes. But the themes are there. And the outsized acting suits the play’s melodramatic plot and characters. It’s Shakespeare and Kurosawa equally, and that’s great.
If you read a few Shakespeare plays you’ll soon recognize a few themes he likes to use over and over again. My favorite is the way nature and the physical world reflects the interior states of the powerful. Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark, and he’s not talking about the day old meat. Kurosawa uses this theme beautifully throughout the film. When we first see Washizu and Miki (our Macbeth and Banquo) riding through the Spider’s Web Forest on the way to the fortress that lies in the middle of it the rain pelts and the sun shines. The characters stop to recognize how strange the weather is, and then they see the evil spirit. Was she the cause of the weird weather? It would certainly suit the theme. Later, after Washizu has taken over as Lord of the Spider Web Fortress and on the night before his inevitable comeupance, there is a strange bird attack. It’s straight out of Hitchcock (even though this film came out 6 years before The Birds). Washizu decides to interpret the birds as an omen of success. People that know their literature or understand how stories work know that it’s probably an omen, but not of success. And then there’s the story’s biggest claim to fame: the army of moving trees. It’s a freaking great image and Kurosawa captures it beautifully and creepily. He shoots a fog filled frame from on high, so we see only the tops of these swaying trees, moving back and forth. It’s totally menacing. And amazing.
I’m told by the internet that Kurosawa shot this film in the style of Noh theater, a form that emphasizes the dramatic, using dance-like movements and grand, over the top acting. It’s on full display and it totally works for a film that hinges on big actions by big players. The film’s Lady Macbeth (Asaji) is the same murderous character, pushing her husband to kill his Lord and his friend. The two actors that play the couple, Toshirô Mifune and Isuzu Yamada go big, using their piercing eyes and expressive faces to convey the doubt which leads to extreme hubris. The scene where Asaji convinces Washizu to kill the Lord plays out like a dance. First he circles around her and then she circles around him. We know, of course, who wins this battle.
The movie looks amazing, as well. There’s one shot early on that sold me on the whole film. It comes at the end of the scene with the evil spirit, and the camera pushes into the small hut the spirit was in before it disappeared, following Washizu and Miki as they look for where the spirit might have gone. It doesn’t cut away as they search for the spirit, and when they turn around to look back at the hut they see that it has disappeared. All in one shot! It’s not super hard to do, I’m sure, but it sells the unquiet nature of that forest and its supernatural denizens. The camera likes to move in this film, too. It tracks behind creepy trees as the characters ride through the forest, glimpsing pale white spirits in the background (or is it just more fog?). It moves to reveal Miki’s ghost at the banquet scene, and then it moves again to show that the ghost was never there. If the characters are caught in a wheel of fate, maybe the camera is the axle, spinning and directing them on their paths.
I’m waxing philosophic now. That means it’s time to wrap up. I couldn’t have asked for a better start to this mini-marathon. I’ll be sure to check out more Kurosawa as well. And look for Throne of Blood to appear in my new top 100 list later this year. Its spot is almost guaranteed.