April is Switcheroo Month at the Gutter. The time when Gutter Editors write something outside their domains. This year we’re writing about reputable art.
It’s hard to say what’s reputable and disreputable anymore. Things are not what they were when the Cultural Gutter was founded in 2003, but one thing I know for sure is that filmmaker Akira Kurosawa is reputable as hell. Kurosawa is an influence on directors as diverse as George Lucas, Stanley Kubrick, Stephen Spielberg, Antoine Fuqua, Johnnie To, Satyajit Ray, Takashi Miike, Robert Altman, Ingmar Bergman, Sergio Leone, John Sturges, Sydney Lumet, Sergio Corbucci, Roger Corman, and Albert Pyun. In fact, when I attended a screening of Throw Down (2004), director Johnnie To’s tribute to Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata (1943), To referred to Akira Kurosawa as the greatest director of all time. I started getting interested in older films in part through Kurosawa. (The other part was film noir). The first Kurosawa film I saw was probably either Yojimbo (1961) or Throne of Blood (1957). Hidden Fortress (1958) was my favorite for a long time, but I cycle through favorites. There’s always something to find in Kurosawa’s films. I could write about Yojimbo or Seven Samurai (1954), two of Kurosawa’s best-known films by far, and when we return to writing about disreputable art, maybe I’ll write about low budget adaptations of Kurosawa’s movies like Pyun’s Omega Doom (1996) or Jimmy T. Murakami’s Battle Beyond The Stars (1980). And I am down for a good crime film like Drunken Angel (1948), Stray Dog (1949), High and Low (1963)–his adaptation of Ed McBain’s novel, King’s Ransom (1959)—and The Bad Sleep Well (1960).* But this month I’m writing about,Throne of Blood, aka, Spider’s Web Castle.
Throne of Blood is one of three films Kurosawa made adapting Shakespeare’s plays. Probably his best known adaptation, and one of his best known films, is Ran (1985), which sets King Lear in late 16th Century Japan. Tatsuya Nakadai’s descent down the stairs of his burning castle remains a highpoint in the staging of Shakespeare for me, as are the pictures of Kurosawa on set as the castle burns.
The Bad Sleep Well is a current favorite with its blend of noir and a more naturalistic feel as it sets Hamlet in a corrupt corporate world. Throne of Blood is Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth set, once again, in 16th Century Japan when warlords were contending with each other to rule the whole country. It’s a film that is triply reputable, combining Kurosawa, Shakespeare and Nōh theater—as a man traps himself in a web of ambition, greed, and self-deception.
Kurosawa liked to work with the same stable of actors and the movie features Kurosawa veterans, including Toshiro Mifune, Takeshi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Isuzu Yamada, and even a mustachio’d Ikio Sawamura in a small role. The production also included typically Kurosawa feats like bringing in Marines from a nearby American base to build the castle exterior in the forests of Mt. Fuji and real archers shooting real arrows at Toshiro Mifune in the final scene. In Throne of Blood, Captain Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and Captain Miki** (Minoru Chiaki) quell a rebellion and push back the never-seen rival Lord Inui for their Lord Tsuzuki (Takamaru Sasaki). Washizu and Miki are summoned from their border forts to Spider’s Web Castle, Lord Tsuzuki’s fortress hidden in a forest filled with fog and labyrinthine trails. Despite a long familiarity with the forest, the men become lost and realize that they have been trapped by a spirit. They defy the spirit with a fearsome display, charging through the forest brandishing their weapons, and arrive at a hut in the center of the woods where an old woman (Chieko Naniwa) spins thread on a wheel while singing about men’s vanity, greed, ambition and doom. Human bones and armor are piled in a gruesome mound nearby. The spirit tells them that they will both receive promotions for their deeds and that ultimately Washizu will become lord of Spider’s Web Castle and Miki’s son will become lord after him.
When Lord Tsuzuki rewards Washizu and Miki for their service exactly as the spirit predicts, the men are stunned and ambition begins to metastasize in Washizu. Tsuzuki comes to Washizu’s new post, the North Castle, ostensibly on a hunting trip, but in reality planning to attack and punish the neighboring Lord Inui. Washizu and his wife, the Lady Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), are displaced to the Forbidden Room where the leader of the rebels who allied with Inui was beheaded by Lord Tsuzuki’s loyal advisor Noriyasu (Takeshi Shimura). Tsuzuki refused the man’s request to become a monk instead of killing himself or being executed. Against this bloodstained background, the Lady Asaji feeds Washizu’s ambition and his fear that his closest friend, Miki, has told Tsuzuki what the spirit foretold. And Washizu’s centipede familial crest becomes ever more appropriate both for its association with war and with the giant human-eating centipede, the Ōmukade. Washizu is being consumed by his fear and his ambition. And he will destroy everything and everyone around him to become a great lord.
The story, while set in a different place and about 400 years later, follows the story of Macbeth. And the path of ambition and greed is as destructive for Washizu and Asaji as it was for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Kurosawa’s adaptation focuses on the appearance of virtue concealing the hunger for power. Washizu’s claims to virtue, first as a loyal samurai to his lord and then as the Great Lord of Spider’s Web Castle deserving the loyalty of his samurai, are revealed to be illusory. When Lady Asaji points out that Tsuzuki had become lord by murdering his own father, Washizu, pretending a loyalty he no longer feels, claims the lord was defending his own life. But with that bloodstain in the background reminding Washizu of what he risks, the cost of failure and how Tsuzuki became lord, Lady Asaji spins her own story, one she knows he wants to hear, that killing Tsuzuki is necessary to save his own life. And at the end, Washizu demands that his soldiers defend him and the castle against the forces of Inui, Noriyasu and Tsuzuki’s son, Kunimaru (Hiroshi Tachikawa). Washizu castigates his soldiers for planning to kill him and give his head to Kunimaru to save their own lives when they surrender the castle. But his men are not fooled by his appeal to the ideals of the samurai. A soldier shouts back, “And who killed our last Great Lord?” Everybody knows what’s up.
And then the men begin shooting arrows at Washizu in earnest in an incredible scene where real archers fire arrows at Toshiro Mifune.
(It reminds me of when I watched an episode of TV Ontario’s Saturday Night At The Movies and a guest film historian talked about Mifune doing similar things in, I think, Seven Samurai, saying, “That’s Japan’s most expensive actor!”). The film ends as it began with castles besieged by Inui and rebels, but this time Washizu is losing.
Throne of Blood focuses on the way the powerful mask their bloodthirsty ambitions as virtuous and ideal virtues in particular. It’s one of my favorite things about the film. But I also love its eerie, atmospheric style grounded in Nōh theater. It’s evident in the set design with the backgrounds of gold leaf clouds and the graphic bloodstain recalling the pine tree present on the back panels of Nōh stages as well as Throne of Blood‘s large open rooms and the walkway reminiscent of the Nōh stage’s layout. Nōh’s influence is also apparent in the chorus’ dire songs bookending the movie, the spirit’s songs and dance, the dancelike movements of Lady Asaji, the large courtly squared off formal kimonos, and the mask-like expressions of Mifune and Yamada. As in the conventions of theater, Washizu ignores the the spirit’s laughter as he ignores her songs about ambition, vanity and death. By the end he is not deluded, Washizu is bloodthirsty, bragging about how many he will kill. He has become trapped in a web far larger than his own and Lady Asaji’s scheming ambitions. And the stylized conventions of Nōh are perfect for conveying the revelation of the self Washizu hides behind a facade of the dutiful samurai.
Mifune’s expression is a wrathful glower as Washizu pursues his desire to become the next lord. Yamada’s face is as carefully neutral as a Nōh mask as she plays a glamorous courtly beauty with black lacquered teeth, smudged eyebrows and cunning schemes. There is little naturalistic about these performances, but I think the film is all the more powerful for it.
I also love the spooky, supernatural elements from the piles of bones and the whiteness of the forest spirit to Miki’s horse refusing to be saddled when it would take him to his death. Washizu is haunted by Miki at a banquet, first by Miki’s absence and then by his presence as a ghost or a manifestation of Washizu’s guilt and fear. Unlike Washizu, Miki had never plotted to make the forest spirit’s predictions come true. And so, unlike Washizu and Lady Asaji, his character is portrayed in a naturalistic manner, never wearing the mask-like expressions of Nōh, at least in life. But Miki’s appearance at the banquet is highly stylized, motionless, disheveled and ghostly white. It gave me chills when I first saw it and does still. And I love the eerie swaying as the forest moves toward the castle, coming to fulfill the spirit’s final prophecy that Washizu would never lose a battle unless the forest moved.
Washizu is best described by the words of this kind of stylized and abstracted world: wrathful, mad, demonic. As he dies pierced by countless arrows and wearing armor from 300 years before–or the Nōh stage–Washizu terrifies his men, descending the steps as his soldiers give away before him, prefiguring Lord Hidetora’s similar descent in Ran.*** But as Washizu dies, the film begins to resolve back more into our world. The branches are revealed to be cover held by soldiers to protect themselves from the castle’s arrows. Still the chorus sings, warning us that vanity, pride and ambition will destroy us.
*Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramsey’s Every Frame A Painting has a fantastic look the geometry of The Bad Sleep Well that you can watch here.
**Shout out to Miki’s bunny crest and helmet.
***As the bloodstain on the wall of the Forbidden Room likely prefigures the bloodstain on the wall after the killing of Lady Kaeda in Ran.
Carol Borden haunts your banquets.