Throne of Blood

  • Akira Kurosawa
  • Japan  /  1957
  • Japanese
  • 110 min
October 27, 2010 by Mark Mesaros

Wishizu (Toshiro Mifune) and Miki (Minoru Chiaki) are war heroes returning to their Lord for decorations on the labyrinthine paths of Cobweb Forest. The pair ride on horseback from screen left to right as cackling winds and flashes of lightning in the sunlight hint that there is something odd about this forest. They ride through Kurosawa’s favored telephoto lens that, as he put it, “effaces distance, cancels all perspective and gives to the image a weight, a presence almost hallucinatory, making the rhythms of movement emerge”1. The two warriors believe the tales they’ve heard and anticipate having to battle forest spirits to make it out alive.

After riding from screen right to left to indicate circularity they realize that they are totally lost. Suddenly, they discover a blindingly white hut, a spirit inside lost in chant and turning a spinner’s wheel with a stick in futility. The spirit delivers a fortuitous prophecy unto them in a uniquely terrifying depiction of the supernatural that will stay with you long after viewing. The spirit vanishes into its cloak with the sweep of a gale and a lightning flash. Inspecting the surrounding mounds of bleached bones and rusted armor to no avail, the warriors turn to depart and now the hut has vanished too. They are subsequently lost in a field mired with dense, ethereal fog. Riding in and out of every screen direction, riders and horses emerge from then are rapidly swallowed by the fog in turn. After a disorienting few minutes the fog magically lifts and they find themselves facing Forest Castle, their destination and the domain of their retainer.

The single element that makes Throne of Blood stand out so distinctly among the director’s films is its ability to sustain a mood, as evidenced so clearly in the above mentioned sequences that take some fifteen minutes to run. It lacks the depth and myriad of voices and attitudes that color films like Seven Samurai, but it is inarguably crystalline in its goals. The whole thing has an artificial quality, intent on evoking atmosphere at the expense of pathos. Surprisingly though it isn’t alienating to the viewer. It plays as a grand allegory of hubris and free will set against the forces of time. Wishizu’s actions may seem fraught with determinacy, but so do social mores and the codes of class. So who turns Wishizu’s wheel of fortune? Who wields Macbeth’s invisible dagger, an icon of power and desire?

Throne of Blood takes a classic and familiar Western source and reconfigures it in a singularly Japanese mode using the grammar of Noh theater. The internal mechanisms, the horror and pathos that make the play work on the stage have a cinematic corollary here in the sparse use of meaningful speech. It is a marvel of photography and editing and also a model of restraint, but it is quite the feat that Kurosawa managed to up the ante on Shakespeare in terms of horror and atmosphere in a film that has little violence shown onscreen until the climactic, and very famous, arrow-shooting finale. Kurosawa as screenwriter reworked nearly every facet of “Macbeth”, deleting scenes of both contemplation and violence, paring the Bard’s already abbreviated narrative down even further. It is constructed as an ellipse so the film is thus more fatalistic and more despairing than the play, and just downright spooky.

From the beginning we have a narrative that is propelled not by physical action, but through interpolation and nuance. It begins amid a battle brought on by the traitorous Lord Fujimaki, urged to rebel against Lord Tsuzuki by an enemy of a neighboring province. Instead of giving us battle, Kurosawa allows battle messengers to clue us in. They report to Tsuzuki on the shifting tides of battle and in a matter of a few wipe cuts we learn that the rebellion is crushed, that Fujimaki committed seppuku before his capture and that General Wishizu and his Lieutenant Miki are to praise for their heroic defense of his domain. Fujimaki’s ritual suicide is only the first example of offscreen gore, but it will make its presence known symbolically.

Later, Miki’s death and his son Yoshiteru’s escape (Banquo and Fleance in “Macbeth”) are also revealed implicitly. Believing his wife to be infertile, Washizu will announce Yoshiteru as his successor, that is until his wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) claims that she is with child. An assassination order is never shown explicitly, but at this very moment there is an abrupt cut to a panicked white horse circling the courtyard of North Garrison which Miki now occupies. The fact that the horse returns riderless later that night indicates the success of the assassination. Washizu will decline to see Miki’s head when it is brought to him by a subordinate.

Kurosawa keeps the original play’s sense of inexorable fate promoted by the imagination of the individual. As Loren Eiseley put it,

“the future that we seek from oracles… is not forward to be come upon. Rather its gestation is now, and from the confrontation of that terrible immediacy we turn away to spatial adventures and to imagination projected into time as though the future were fixed, unmalleable to the human will, and to be come upon only as a seventeenth-century voyager might descry, through his spyglass, smoke rising from an unknown isle”2.

Unlike the characters of Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex”, Kurosawa’s voyager doesn’t run from a dangerous prophecy, but acts to fulfill a morally hazardous one. If “Macbeth” is dominated by a series of paradoxes and negations, then this film is utter nihilism. Kurosawa keeps the paradoxical context of the world of the play in his film; in both, “human affairs are defined by their violence… tragic paradox is revealed through the commission of inhuman acts in pursuit of human aims. In bloody times, murder empowers man. Conscience… now threatens to incapacitate man”3. Lady Asaji utters these sentiments and repeatedly goads her husband into embracing his manhood, his destiny, his ambition…

What’s interesting in Throne of Blood is how Kurosawa departs from “Macbeth” with the character of Washizu’s wife, Lady Asaji, and the logic she employs to impel her husband to violent ambition and regicide. She tries to convince him that if Miki reveals the prophecy to Tsuzuki, the Great Lord will surely destroy Washizu as he would any pretender to the throne. Washizu dismisses the plausibility of Miki’s treachery and the depth of his own ambitions. At this very moment Tsuzuki arrives with a veritable clandestine army; Washizu is noticeably perturbed. His fears are assuaged by his appointment to be the Lord’s vanguard commander on the upcoming secret attack on the enemy, but Asaji once again counters this logic by offering as the Lord’s true reasons for Washizu’s appointment his desire to put him in a vulnerable and likely fatal position, while Miki is left to guard the safest place of all, Forest Castle. These paranoid musings as well as the realization that the opportunity to murder Tsuzuki in such close quarters will never again occur, convinces Washizu of his course of action.

Washizu is rendered as an impotent caricature of Macbeth. Not only does the director take Asaji’s machinations to ridicule and motivate her husband much further than Lady Macbeth’s, but he completely removes Macbeth’s conflicted monologues, his heroism and vehemence, his sense of guilt and his final words of contrition. The sense is that Washizu is compelled to act rather than innately ambitious. He is still a tragic figure, but a wave in a ceaseless tide of human tragedy. We know that Tsuzuki too murdered his predecessor to come into power, but, if Kurosawa offers us any consolation, the fact that Washizu is deposed collectively and that the original successor, the prince, still lives may signal a messianic change in the seemingly interminable course of wrath and malice. Unlike Macbeth, Washizu’s comeuppance is at the hands of the many—his death presaged by his wife’s admonition that “arrows will seek [him] from all sides”—just as his fears and desires are emblematic of the many. The funereal chants that bookend the action proper are left to interpretation. Does Kurosawa mean to distance us from the tale? Is he again emphasizing its inherent nihilism? Or is he simply echoing Macbeth’s famous last words that life “is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing”?

1 Shirai, Yoshio; Shibata, Hayao; Yamada, Koichi. “‘L’Empereur’: entretien avec Kurosawa Akira.” Cahiers du cinéma no. 182 (Sept. 1966), pg.76.

2 From “The Night Country”, pgs.73,74.

3 From “Akira Kurosawa and Intertextual Cinema” by James Goodwin, pg.171

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