not in our stars, but in ourselves
I have been sadly negligent of Akira Kurosawa in my film-watching capacities, and you all my spit in my eyes and tell me what a terrible person I am for it. After watching Throne of Blood (1957), I’d be right there with you, spitting away. On paper, it is an adaptation of Macbeth, set in feudal Japan. On the screen, it is much more than mere adaptation. It is gorgeous cinema, full of delicate shadows, thick fog, mysterious forests, and every possible shade of grey. I don’t know nearly enough about Japanese history or theater to be able to offer any insight into those particular thematic elements, although I have no doubt that they add additional dimensions of richness and texture to the film; I can simply tell you that, as a film fan and an amateur Shakespeare buff, I was in heaven.
The plot is directly from the Bard: Lord Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and Lord Miki (Minoru Chiaki) are courageous generals riding home from a successful battle to be honored by Great Lord Tsuzuki (Hiroshi Tachikawa). While riding through Spider’s Web Forest, they find themselves lost. They hear strange laughing and singing, and follow the sound to an eerily glowing hovel. In it, a strange old woman (Chieko Naniwa) sits with a spinning wheel, prophesying that Washizu will, that very day, be Lord of the North Garrison – and will soon be Great Lord of Spider’s Web Castle himself; and that Miki will, that very day, be commander of the First Fortress. After riding through seemingly impenetrable fog, the men finally arrive at Spider’s Web Castle.
When they arrive, Great Lord Tsuzuki elevates each of them as the old woman foretold, and the men exchange the best “oh shit!” look I’ve ever seen exchanged in all of filmdom. Back at his new home in the North Garrison, Washizu tries to convince his conniving wife, Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), that there’s no way he should push his luck and attempt to do anything else to make the prophecy come true. She is insistent, however, and when the Great Lord just happens to spend the night, she helps him engineer Tsuzuki’s murder. From then, Washizu is Great Lord of Spider’s Web Castle – and deeply feared for his homicidal paranoia. Everyone sort of gets the right idea about him when he throws a banquet to honor Lord Miki and Miki’s son, and Washizu starts freaking out because he sees the recently slain Miki’s ghost.
You all, I hope, are familiar enough with Macbeth to know the rest of the story. Asaji can’t get the blood off her hands; Washizu believes he won’t be defeated until the forest rises up to beat him; and then – oops! the approaching army covers itself with trees as it approaches. The end.
Now, perhaps I haven’t seen enough adaptations of Macbeth to be able to say this with much authority. But I would agree with Harold Bloom in proclaiming this to be the greatest film adaptation of the play ever produced. You lose the language, but you gain quite a lot in return. In Japanese, the title is Kumonosu-jō – or Spider’s Web Castle. As Washizu and Miki discuss early in the film, the castle is “guarded” by the ensnaring Spider’s Web Forest. Kurosawa frames much of the forest action through twisted, weaving branches – as if the men are already trapped. And indeed they are: the spider’s web traps each man more firmly, the more he struggles to get out. By the end, when Washizu’s men have turned on him and shot countless arrows to try to bring his reign of terror to an end, he is ensnared in another visual spider’s web of arrows.
It’s not only a deft touch thematically, but extraordinary in terms of its execution: Kurosawa had real archers firing real arrows at Mifune, who gamely soldiered through the scene and indicated which way he was about to turn by flailing his arms – so that the archers knew not to fire in that direction, not just yet. It’s hard to imagine any Western film production from after the 1920s ever risking so much just for the sake of great cinema – but here they did, and the payoff is huge. (In case you need any sort of refresher on the life and limb that silent film comedians, especially, were risking, have a look at this uncommonly good Buster Keaton fan video.)
I would love to be able to go into more detail about the various historical and theatrical threads in this particular spider’s web, but alas: I am but a cinematic dilettante, in many ways, and so I’ll leave it to all of you to educate me on those points. There’s plenty more Kurosawa coming up in future weeks and months, and I think that next week I’ll be watching a hell of a lot of work by Keisuke Kinoshita (for my not-quite day job; but more about that in a couple of days), so hopefully I’ll pick up on more of it soon.
This, like Black Narcissus, is one of those things that I’ve been meaning to do for a very long time. Now that I’ve finally seen it, I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get on with it.
(See? I told you I’d do things other than Weimar cinema.)