One Throne, No Games
This week I was all set to check out the new Fassbender-starring adaptation of Macbeth, but I was struck down by something unpleasantly medical the very day I had planned to see the film. Never wanting to let the Post go 24LAS-free, this presented me with a bit of a problem, and the best solution I’ve been able to come up with is to share a review of another Macbeth from a few years ago. Not that it’s actually called Macbeth, I should probably say: the film in question is Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (J-title: Cobweb Castle).
Once you get past the fact that the film transposes the Scottish play to feudal Japan, this is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the classic story. When rebellion breaks out, things initially look grim for the lands administrated by Lord Tsuzuki, but the insurrection is dealt a stunning blow by Tsuzuki’s top generals, Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and Miki (Minoru Chiaki) and the day seems to have been saved.
However, while travelling to Tsuzuki’s castle to receive their reward for this good service, Washizu and Miki find themselves caught in a strange, almost supernatural storm, and encounter some kind of forest spirit. The spirit makes a number of prophecies – Washizu will be promoted and eventually come to rule Cobweb Castle, although Miki’s son will take over the position in the fullness of time.
When the spirit’s prophecies seem to be coming true, it’s enough to start the seeds of ambition sprouting in Washizu, previously a loyal soldier. His wife’s intervention probably has something to do with it, too. But he soon learns that while cold-blooded murder does not come easily to him, one death inevitably seems to lead to more...
As you can see, the plot is sort of comfortingly familiar, and so is much of the cast – if you’ve seen many other Japanese films from this period, anyway. Three of the Seven Samurai appear (in addition to Mifune and Chiaki, Takashi Shimura plays the film’s Macduff-analogue, though his role is reduced from the original play) and there is an early appearance by Akira Kubo, the human lead of many superior kaiju movies. Making a big impression as Washizu’s wife Asaji is the very distinguished actress Isuzu Yamada: Washizu is somewhat conflicted for most of the movie, which helps to keep him relatively sympathetic, but Asaji is essentially pure evil, ruthlessly manipulating her husband into carrying out killing after killing. (It’s not surprising that the Sith witch appearing in many recent Star Wars spin-offs took her name from this character.)
That said, the film does make numerous amendments to Shakespeare – replacing the witches with a single forest spirit, having Asaji give birth to a stillborn infant partway through, and significantly altering the ending. The whole ‘no man of woman born’ bit is excised, and rather than being killed by Shimura, Mifune is instead shot down by the arrows of his own men (an eye-popping piece of practical effects work – those are clearly real arrows going very close to the leading actor). But the spirit of the story survives very much intact, helped enormously by a typically ferocious performance from Mifune. You can believe in this man as a deadly warrior, but also as someone easily led astray by his own inner demons – given the right encouragement, anyway.
While this is still very recognisably Macbeth, it is also a distinctively Japanese film, largely filmed on location in the desolate landscape high on Mount Fuji. ‘Bleak’ doesn’t really begin to describe this film, which opens with a choral dirge about the foolishness of mortal ambition – it doesn’t contain a single lighter moment, nor the slightest flash of levity. This we can probably attribute to the influence of Noh theatre, which may also be responsible for the rigorous formal nature of many of the scenes. Certainly this is a film which often seems to be in no hurry at all to get anyway – there are seemingly endless shots of the two warriors riding in and out of a bank of fog near the beginning – and many moments seem to continue on longer than you might expect them to.
It’s a bit of a departure from Kurosawa’s usual energetic style, but he proves quite capable of mastering it, as you would expect. This isn’t quite as epic a film as Seven Samurai, but the battle scenes, with their massed warriors in outrageous helmets and sashimono banners, do seem to me to be looking ahead to the truly epic movies (Kagemusha, Ran) he was to make many years later.
This is not one of my favourite Kurosawa movies, I have to say: the dourness of its tone and its stately pace are not really to my taste. But it is still very clearly a superb piece of film-making, a Shakespeare adaptation executed with deftness and intelligence. It’s films like this which account for Kurosawa’s position as a colossus of world cinema.