|Throne of Blood |
Arguably the most visceral, violent, and visually astute cinematic reinvention of Macbeth, the 1957 masterpiece Throne of Blood is the latest in Akira Kurosawa’s canon to receive the Criterion treatment and, for Mifune enthusiasts, it’s been a long hard wait. Though devoid of goodies, the disc’s relative lack of supplementary materials is a small price to pay for the crystalline digital transfer and audio overhaul—arrows whooshing through the air never sounded so good.
Bringing new meaning to the term “atmospheric,” Kurosawa uses fog-engulfed vistas and tangled forests to stunning allegorical effect in the tale of warlord Taketoki Washizu’s rise to (and inevitable fall from) power as the Great Lord of Spiderweb Castle. It is perhaps the fall itself that remains lodged in the spectator’s mind—the image of an arrow-riddled Mifune as traitorous porcupine remains a gut-wrenching feat in an age of computerized warfare. And never has a structuring metaphor worked so well on such a diverse array of levels: the spiderweb, aside from its quite literal association with the Great Lord’s fortress and the woodland that surrounds it, weaves itself though nearly every component of the narrative and mise-en-scène. From the film’s depiction of the web-like intricacies of power politics to Washizu’s last futile stand, a fly caught in his own web spun of deceit, Kurosawa executes masterfully and subtly (budding Hitchcocks, take note) what few filmmakers can: a film that is at once eternally watchable and subconsciously resonant.
Far from mere adaptation, Shakespearean thematics are only enhanced by foreign and temporal relocation, from the influence of Noh theatrical aesthetics to the coy commentary on Japanese spiritualism. With the toil and trouble of the Shakespearean trio boiled down into one ghastly white specter, Kurosawa’s “Witch” embodies prototypical Noh archetypes (old woman, vanquished warrior), and yet never panders to parody. Indeed, the figure is no more haunting than when utterly still, endlessly spinning white yarn on a spindle, and lamenting the cyclical fate of humanity in mournful song: “Humanity strives all its days to sear its own flesh in the flames of base desire.” Part moral compass, part otherworldly fortune teller, the Witch veers furthest from the canonical tropes of Kurosawa’s most highly regarded work, but merely makes you appreciate his adaptability all the more: were he to have chosen horror tales over jidai-geki sword epics, we would still undoubtedly be singing the man’s praises today.
Gender politics are cast in a particularly harsh light, with renowned actress Isuzu Yamada (Sisters of the Gion, Yojimbo) turning in a chillingly calculated performance as Washizu’s ambitious wife, Asaji. Standing in stark contrast to her husband’s battle-honed quick temper (though it goes entirely without saying, no actor has ever channeled wrath quite like Toshiro Mifune, and to watch his Washizu go off the mental deep end is a treat indeed), Asaji is the epitome of control, wielded over men as well as herself. In prototypical femme fatale form, she’s ironically costumed almost entirely in white, the binding base of her garments forcing her to shuffle noiselessly through various testosterone-heavy environs, a threat that remains forever overlooked and underestimated. Certainly reflective of women’s function in Japanese society, Asaji’s eventual breakdown (“Out, out damn spot” in all its raw mania) is a startling cautionary note: allowed to emote only in madness, she becomes the literalization of Kurosawa’s morality tale.
Throne of Blood remains an essential addition to the Kurosawa canon not merely because of its deft reinvention of Western literature (though he indisputably does it better than most, especially in our age of Teesnsploishakespeare), but for its scope: aesthetically and thematically it remains Kurosawa’s most enjoyable meditation of the conflicting ideals of history and fate: one tangible, one ethereal, both shaping the nature of humanity. In the end, as in most of Kurosawa’s films, it comes down to the singular issue of choice. To make a choice is to guide one’s own destiny; to rely on destiny alone is to cause one’s own ruin. There is something reassuring in this universe that lacks moral grey zones, where even the strongest are rendered weak once they become unable to decipher right from wrong. Consequently, watching Washizu’s inevitable fall is not merely a cinematic orgy of bows and arrows, but a condemnation of power that remains eerily relevant in an age of conglomerates. Absolute power corrupts absolutely—or in this case, devours the human soul.