#307. Throne of Blood (1957)

Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is definitely his most ambient and visually-stirking movie on the List so far, and also more enjoyable, I think, than either Rashomon or Ikiru, and so while I could go on at length about that part alone—the gorgeous fog-shrouded forest, the shadowy purgatorial minimalism of his interiors, the movie’s overall dreaminess—what I’m instead compelled to address right off the bat, with shame, is that Throne of Blood is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which I haven’t read. Not only that, it’s considered one of the great film adaptations not ust of the play, but of any Shakespearean work, which is the same thing that was said about Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, another movie that curled my tail between my legs, being as I am an English major and an aspiring writer whose familiarity with Shakespeare is less than casual.

            But the Criterion Channel fortunately supplies a ton of supplemental material and for Throne of Blood they’ve got a conversation with the novelist Marlon James, who’s also a professor, and in whose classes about narrative revision, adaptation, and modernization apparently shows this film, among others, and prompts his students to ask, “What did Kurosawa change, what did he bring to the story of Macbeth?” And it was heartening to hear him prompt this question because I think that, having seen some of Kurosawa’s movies without having read this particular play, I can sorta se some of what he brought to the screen.

Our Macbeth & Banquo stand-ins discover a prophetic spirit in the forest.

            And what he brought was the above-mentioned visuals. Having told long and complicated stories with the likes of Ikiru and Seven Samurai, I think that Kurosawa might have felt, in taking a familiar story (almost a myth at this point), that he didn’t have to worry as much about using his camera to communicate information about character, about story development.

            Because we already know these characters, we know this story (I mean, some of us know it…).

            Rashomon begins with a coupla guys sitting under shelter as a torrential rain falls around them, keeping their place, and they embark then on discussing an ongoing murder trial in which all the witnesses are giving a different version of events.

            It’s people telling stories about people telling stories.

            Throne of Blood opens on a similar note: we see a lineup of what appear to be military advisors, they’re seated in a row, facing the camera, and flanking the general (not sure what his rank is; let’s say “boss,” they’re flanking the boss). They’re sitting in a vast lawn-type field in front of a castle (or maybe it’s better called a “compound”), the wind is whipping and whispering, a dense forest is shuffling and gesturing far ahead of them, a light rain appears to be falling—and here comes a lone wounded warrior with a story of how their army is losing the ongoing war.

            The military men listen in a solemn silence.

            Then, with a series of sweeps and neat cuts, we see a succession of other lone messengers riding onto those same grounds to tell of a turning fate: thanks to Generals Miki and Washizu, their army’s position is improving, improving—victorious.

            Cut to the forest interior where our two heroes come returning from battle and encounter the spirit that predicts (and thereby engineers) their futures.

            I think that this tactic of opening a story with a story, or with the view of somebody else telling a story, is a valuable way of shoehorning into a larger narrative that, for me at least, is a sign of self-consciosuness on the author’s part. It’s a way for the author to say, “Not that I think this story is necessarily all that great, but lemme tell you an amusing story about these other people who happen to think it’s amusing.”

            Citizen Kane, though authored by a man who was seldom accused of modesty, uses the same tactic with the film reel at the beginning that takes us swiftly through the life of its subject, Charles Foster Kane.

            Again, I don’t know the story of Macbeth in more than its broadest strokes, so I don’t wanna try to delve deep into the narrative’s subtext, but the presentation of that narrative does seem to be focused on stories, on their influence and their telling.

            When Toshiro Mifune and Minoru Chiaki, stand-ins for Macbeth and Banquo, are told by the spirit in the forest about what their future will be, they’re hearing a story in which they see themselves, a story that goes on to govern their behavior.

            Isn’t this what’s kept Shakespeare relevant for 400 years now? Isn’t it the whole enchanting part of cinema itself, is that we see ourselves on the screen in these stories and they inform how we understand and conduct our lives going forward?

            This is all a bit garbled, sorry, but yes that is what I see Kurosawa bringing to the movie.

            But he also brings Mifune, who in Rashomon and Seven Samurai played a maniac, a loose canon, but here—with the exception of some third-act flights of fury and the histrionics that accompany any film set in Feudal Japan-Mifune plays a strong, fierce, composed adult, a warrior. He then adds dimension to the role in these long scenes of dialogue, shot in long masterful takes, with his wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), who’s persuading him that, for the spirits’ prophecy to come true, he’s gotta take murderous action. Slowly, we see him succumb to her charisma, her spin, and now suddenly there’s this new layer to the whole “storytelling” theme, to the question of who owns the narrative of Macbeth’s future: is it Mac himself, is it his wife, is it the spirit in the forest?

            Is it Kurosawa?

            Is it Shakespeare?

            Just spinning a web here.

Mifune and Kurosawa on the set of Seven Samurai

            The ending of the movie, the last ten minutes or so, are gorgeous and creepy but, I confess, did make me laugh at one point, as Mifune, pinned on a balcony, is ambling back and forth, back and forth, dodging one volley of arrows after another, lumbering through the stems of those that’ve implanted themselves int eh wall on either side of him. Seven Samurai is definitely still my favorite Kurosawa movie, but Throne of Blood makes for a close second, and it came as a pleasant reprieve from the recurring themes in mid-fifties American cinema.

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