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Throne of Blood: Fate, Free Will and Villainy

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    Vili Maunula

    Background: Macbeth

    From all of Shakespeare, Macbeth has received more of my attention than almost any other play, apart perhaps from The Tempest. Since I am something of a fan, this is quite a bit of attention, too.

    Whenever I see or read the play, I sooner or later find myself pondering over questions such as fate, predetermination, free will and individual responsibility. Unlike most commentators, I don’t necessarily see Macbeth as Shakespeare’s greatest villain, or indeed a villain at all, since for me a true villain should be responsible for his actions, and I am not quite so sure whether this is possible within the world depicted by the play, which I tend to consider fairly deterministic.

    Yet, this interpretation actually leads into some difficult questions, among them one about the very purpose of the play. I would like to think that a literary work has something interesting to say about the world, yet a predetermined world where everything follows a script and nothing really matters is ultimately rather uninteresting as a story, however interesting as an idea. It really is, to quote Macbeth himself, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Macbeth 5.5.2383-2385).

    Over the years, I have consequently begun to pay more and more attention to Macbeth’s soul-searching, his monologues, and in general what I consider his process of coming to understand the place that he inhabits in his predetermined world. In my current view, Macbeth’s tragic flaw is perhaps not so much his over-reaching power-hungry ambitions, but rather comes in the form of a realisation about the insignificance of his existence and his inability to affect his own destiny. Like I once in my rebellious youth proudly asserted to a room full of people not sharing my views, I consider Macbeth’s tragedy more epistemological than ontological.

    Although this is neither the time nor the place to go further into this particular topic, I wanted to briefly mention all this, since it is a package that I naturally carry over also into my experience of Throne of Blood, whether or not this is beneficial to me.

    Throne of Blood

    Kurosawa’s adaptation/appropriation of the source text differs of course from Shakespeare’s play in a number of key details. One of the most interesting and most often mentioned departure has to do with the character of Washizu (Macbeth), who, it is generally agreed, is presented as less of a villain in Kurosawa’s work than what is the general consensus over Macbeth. Another related observation is that Washizu in Throne of Blood is also less of an actor (in the sense of putting things into motion) than Macbeth, with quite a bit of the scheming and decision making given to his wife, Lady Asaji.

    In fact, Washizu is very similar to the protagonist that I see in Macbeth, indeed more so than the Macbeth that I read about in literary criticism. He is a man who has been thrust into a situation that he pretty much knows the outcome of and cannot seem to escape. I sometimes lie awake at night wondering if Kurosawa’s reading of Macbeth perhaps coincided with mine.

    Of course, the idea that Kurosawa’s film deals with fate is far from being a radical departure in the interpretation of the movie. Just about every film critic points this out, Richie going as far as to claim that the world of Throne of Blood is that of absolute predetermination where the “characters have no future. Cause and effect is the only law. Freedom does not exist.” (115) Echoing Richie’s views, Prince similarly suggests that the film comes with a total “absence of any moral dialectic”. (149)

    Yet, the more I have thought about Shakespeare’s work, the more this has started to bother me with Throne of Blood. After all, if we accept Richie’s interpretation, it brings us back to the problem that I mentioned earlier, namely the question what good is a work of art if the only thing that it can suggest is that “nothing really matters”, that it by and large “signifies nothing”? And while in the case of Macbeth I can see a way out of this problem by looking at Macbeth’s inner struggles and his attempt to deal with this very notion, this does not seem possible with Throne of Blood which, as many commentators have noted, does away with just about all of Macbeth’s inner reflections.

    So, for some time this was a problem for me, although admittedly perhaps one that I had only myself and my own stubborn over-intellectualising interpretations to blame. I am starting to see light at the end of the tunnel, however.

    I would now like to suggest an interpretation by which rather than presenting a world of predetermination, Throne of Blood actually sets out to problematise this very notion, and explores the question what real evil is in a world where one’s path is at least to some degree already laid out. The way I see it, rather than leaving us “with no loose ends” (Richie 115), Throne of Blood does what is very typical of Kurosawa’s films at the time and dangles those loose ends right in front of us, suggesting that we draw our own conclusions from them.

    Predetermination

    What marked something of a break-through for me was when I started to think about the differences in how predetermination is represented in the two works. Macbeth‘s “weird sisters” seem like such an obvious reference to the Fates (Germanic/Norse Norns) that one cannot but wonder what else they could be. And if they are the Fates, who see (and to some extent are) the future, it is fairly difficult to escape predetermination.

    But this is not necessarily the case with Throne of Blood, where we don’t have the trinity of Fates, but a lone old woman, perhaps a witch or a spirit — maybe the latter, as she does not seem to identify herself with the human when she exclaims “You humans! Never will I comprehend you.” (00:16:40- 00:16:50) Although I have done some research, I do not know enough about Japanese mythology to be able to conclusively say whether this character is some specific mythological stock character, or just something that Kurosawa made up. Yet, I at least cannot remember seeing her compared to any specific figure from Japanese folklore, and neither do I know of a character in Japanese mythology or folklore that would stand for fate in the way the Norns/Moirae do in Europe. But as I said, I have not fully done my homework here.

    In any case, it is clear that the forest woman is on one level or another able to predict what is going to happen. Even if you strip away everything that could be just a coincidence, a misinterpretation or a hallucination, the fact that both Washizu and Mikio are present to hear the woman telling them about their first promotions, which come true as soon as the two reach the castle, is a sign that she is onto something, and that in one way or another at least something about the future can be predicted fairly accurately. Yet, a crucial question is whether the woman actually sees the future, or only predicts it. In the latter case, the future is something that can be derived with fair certainty. In the former, and as in the case of the Fates, the future has already happened. I have no definite answer to this, but nothing so far definitely points to the idea that Washizu’s world is fully predetermined.

    It is actually curious how the woman herself avoids this very topic, never answering Miki, who directly asks her whether “you see the future as plainly as I see you?” (00:17:15). This is also arguably quite different from what takes place in Macbeth, where Banquo, perhaps feeling somewhat left out of the conversation, asks the sisters to address him directly (“If you can look into the seeds of time, And say which grain will grow and which will not”; 1.3.159-160), getting a response from them which could well indicate that indeed, they do see the future.

    Another notion that I would like to put forward is the possibility of localised predetermination. It is interesting that unlike the title of Macbeth, the title of Throne of Blood (or more accurately, the Japanese title “Spider Web Castle”) refers to a location. This is the castle, which gets its name from the maze-like Spider Web Forest that surrounds it. We are repeatedly shown and told that this forest is in some ways very special, almost magical. It protects the castle, but also seems to trap it. If the old woman whom Washizu meets is something like the spirit of that forest, she could well have some special powers over the castle, too. Perhaps she can predict or manipulate the course of events, but only locally, in the area engulfed by her forest.

    Choices

    What I am ultimately saying here is that due to there potentially being less predetermination at play in Throne of Blood than in Macbeth, villainy, which I have had to reject in the case of Shakespeare, is back on the table with Kurosawa. In other words, it is easier to hold Washizu responsible for his actions than it is (for me) to claim the same for Macbeth. That is, at least if we can hold onto the notion that Washizu has some say over his fate, or the ability to make choices.

    Yet, as I noted earlier, the film paradoxically seems to give us the impression that Washizu is in fact a lesser villain than his Shakespearean counterpart. He is, like I pointed out earlier, not very active, as many if not all of his major decisions are dictated to him by his wife. However, I think that this is in fact also where his villainy arises from, and it is what makes Throne of Blood more relevant to the time when it was made, as well as more in line with Kurosawa’s other contemporary works than is usually acknowledged.

    A central point that I would like to stress is that even if certain outcomes are from very early on known to the old woman, Washizu and the audience, the method with which those outcomes will be reached remains unclear until the events themselves take place. Although Washizu knows that he will eventually claim the throne, nothing indicates that the only way for him to do so is by force. He is bullied into the first murder by Lady Asaji’s suggestion that the current Lordship’s visit to Washizu’s North Castle is a plot to get rid of him. Yet, Asaji’s interpretation is only that, an interpretation, which seems to have little bearing on any actual visible facts, and more to do with aspirations for power and general paranoia.

    In fact, the Lord himself gives a rather believable strategic reason for his and his troops’ presence at the North Castle, namely his plan to attack Inui. Furthermore, he promises Washizu “honourable posts” once the enemy has been taken care of. Considering that the Lord is childless, that he seems especially fond of Washizu (see his reactions to the messages at the very beginning of the film), and that Washizu is already in a good position to succeed to the throne — after all, the Lord’s subsequent death makes Washizu the new Lord — I wonder if this could mean that the Lord is already considering making Washizu his legal heir? Or, what other “honourable posts” could a man in Washizu’s high position actually be offered? If this is the case, Washizu’s murderous act is really quite unnecessary.

    Similarly, and quite unlike in Macbeth, Throne of Blood carefully puts forward the two options by which Miki’s son could claim the throne after Washizu. The idea that Washizu originally discusses is that of making Miki’s son his legal heir, thus guaranteeing Miki’s loyalty and an eventually peaceful succession. This plan is, however, dropped when Lady Asaji announces her (quite sudden, perhaps nonexistent) pregnancy, putting forth a chain of events which ultimately leads to Washizu losing his throne far earlier and much more violently that would have been the case with a more peaceful, natural succession. Again, it seems, Washizu has made the wrong choice.

    All this is of course totally dependant on whether or not Washizu’s world allows for any freedom of will to begin with. And this is a question that you can perhaps never really give a satisfactory answer for — after all, whatever happens, you can always claim that it was predetermined to play out like that, a paradox very familiar to any closet philosopher out there. Consequently, there is no claim that I could make about the story that would actually be able to argue against predetermination. However, I think that it may still be possible to bring up relevant arguments, ones that are less about the story, and more about the way the story is told.

    One such point has to do with the way the film proper begins, right after the introductory song. In addition to brilliantly setting the overall scene by giving us a quick and cohesive idea of what is going on, the opening scene with the various messengers gives us an important piece of information: Captain Washizu is at Fort One, surrounded by hundreds of enemies. It is then explicitly stressed that there is absolutely no hope, that he is doomed, we might even say predestined to lose (00:05:45-00:06:00). And yet, only a few minutes later another messenger comes in and tells us that not only has Washizu broken Inui’s siege, but he has also moved on to Fort Two and helped Miki’s forces to break the siege there (00:08:00-00:08:10). Perhaps, what Washizu has done here is what he fails to do later on, namely broken away from a situation that appeared to have a fixed outcome.

    Of course, if we think about this only in terms of the story, we can still say that Washizu was predetermined to win in the end, whatever the odds against him were (which in a predetermined world would always have been 0). But rather than stopping there, the real question is what purpose that particular sequence plays in the telling of the story. Why does the film first feed us with one set of facts, only to immediately after refute them? Other than hinting at Washizu’s bravery, for which I feel the method used would be a relatively poor one, the sequence may seem slightly superfluous. What does the film gain by including it? Obviously, I would like to suggest that the sequence is there to establish the possibility of a character going against all odds and in one way or another changing the course of his personal story. In this case, then, the film is suggesting to us that not everything within its world is predetermined.

    Signifying Nothing?

    I have sometimes amused myself by trying to rationalise the various predictions and omens in Throne of Blood so that I could see just how much of the spiritual world we really need in order to explain the film’s events. This is perhaps in some ways futile work, since the songs at the beginning and the end of the film firmly place Throne of Blood into a legend, but please bear with me, as this is still kind of relevant to my general argument.

    If I count correctly, there are five actual prophecies, four of which we know to come true. Washizu becomes the master of North Castle, as well as the Lord of Forest Castle. Miki gets the second fort, and Washizu loses his battle when the Spider Web Forest begins to move. The only prophecy that is not shown to come true is that of Miki’s son taking over the Forest Castle, although we as the audience probably assume that this is what is going to happen once the dust clears. Note, however, that there is actually no concrete suggestion that this would happen, and if you try to rationalise the situation, I would say that Miki’s son is not going to be ruling over Forest Castle anytime soon, considering his age and the other more experienced commanders on line before him. I am not saying that the prophecy cannot come true, just that as far as I can see there is no real indication for it other than the prophecy itself. I would also like to point this out to those like Richie, who view Throne of Blood as a film with no loose ends.

    Moving now onto ghosts in our discussion of the spiritual, we have Miki pay a visit at Washizu’s assembly, apparently after he has already died. Considering the amount of alcohol in Washizu’s blood, however, a point that the film seems careful to emphasize, I see it an entirely plausible suggestion that what we see there is nothing more than an alcohol and guilt induced hallucination.

    Then, there are the various signs and omens. What constitutes an omen is a good question, but rather than dwelling on that question, I am more interested in how these various things are being interpreted. As I noted before, the Lord’s arrival to the North Castle was, regardless of a lack of any proof, interpreted unfavourably by Asaji, convincing Washizu that they are ill omens, and something to act upon.

    This is a pattern that seems to repeat in the film, which as a whole puts fairly much emphasis on interpretation, not surprisingly considering the theme of predetermination that it plays with. And when it comes to interpreting omens, perhaps the most important motive in the film is crows, which make at least three separate appearances, and which are by and large seen as evil or ill-bearing birds in Japan (citation needed, I know). The first instance of a crow in Throne of Blood is around 00:38:40, where a crow’s caw is interpreted as an ill omen by the servant inspecting the bloodied room. Two minutes later, around 00:40:30, the crow is heard again, and this time it is interpreted by Lady Asaji as an indication that Washizu should commit his murderous act. In both cases, the sign itself has been a single half-a-second sound coming from the natural world, not the supernatural, yet very much is read into that innocent sound, especially by Asaji.

    The third appearance of crows is the most spectacular, and I think underlines what I am arguing for here. It comes towards the end of the film where suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a group of crows burst into the castle. Again, interpretations differ, as Washizu’s aides see it as an evil omen, while Washizu himself considers it an excellent sign, indicating that the enemy is now trapped by the magical forest (00:42:00 – 00:42:30). Yet, it seems to me that both interpretations are nothing but empty talk, and the actual reason for the crows’ sudden arrival is the fact that, as we have been told, the forest is being cut down by Inui’s men, forcing the birds to flee. All this, I feel, emphasises the fact that these alleged signs are, ultimately, really signifying nothing at all, and that the various interpretations are based entirely on the whims of the individuals, and not on the actual physical world around them. Therefore, signs like these are mainly used as a way to further one’s own agenda, as they are blindly interpreted to fit one’s view of the situation, rather than objectively trying to look for the real causes behind them. This is very dangerous, for if you feel the world to be against you, you will interpret most anything that happens to you as a sign confirming that you have no say over matters, thus shifting any blame from yourself.

    Moving back to the spiritual world, there is then also the case of the two sides of the old woman that we get to see. On the first encounter, she is spooky, quiet, ominous. In her second scene, she is very different — loud, mocking, vengeful. Everything about her seems different from the first encounter, and not only that, but either she is very good at transforming into ghostly soldiers, or she is not alone. I wonder, are we actually even dealing with the same woman here as at the beginning of the movie?

    The second prophecy is also quite curious, although not so much in its content as in how it actually comes true. For, it has kind of bothered me that Inui, together with Miki’s son and Noriyasu, would choose to attack the Forest Castle at the end. The film does, after all, very early on establish that Forest Castle is practically unconquerable. When faced with Inui’s advance at the beginning of the film, the main strategist Noriyasu himself, played by Takashi Shimura, declares that they can survive a three-month siege with their supplies. (00:07:10-00:07:20) Yet, the push at the end of the film looks to me very much like an actual attack, not a strategic siege where you stay away from the enemy arrows. Or, why else would Inui’s men be concerned about hiding themselves behind the forest branches as they move towards the castle?

    And why hide themselves to begin with? You can perhaps make it more difficult for the enemy to see where the main force of the attack is concentrated, but certainly moving trees will give away the fact that something, at least, is coming towards you?

    One idea that would explain both the rather strange second appearance of the witch as well as the assault with the trees, is that the second encounter with the witch is not authentic, but set up by Miki’s son. We know for sure that Miki does not believe in the prophecy. In his words, “believing some poor forest hag and acting on her words, then thinking they have come true. This is lunacy.” (01:06:30-01:06:45) Could it be that Miki, in trying to bring an end to the chaos with as little bloodshed as possible, is setting up the second prophecy? This would explain both the mocking as well as the coincidence of the moving forest. Making Washizu believe that he is invincible, perhaps even counting on the probability that Washizu would let his soldiers know the prophecy, and then practically moving the forest, his plan would have a high probability of succeeding in breaking Washizu’s moral back. I would not bet my life on the validity of this interpretation, but considering the themes that I have been arguing for earlier, I would personally give it a chance.

    Conclusion

    There are two major points that I have tried to make here, albeit in my typical long and convoluted manner. One is that the world of Washizu is perhaps not quite as totally predetermined as has usually been suggested. And because of this, Washizu still has the ability to choose. He chooses violence, and ultimately suffers for it. And more importantly, his choices must be considered his own, even if persuaded to them by others, most notably Lady Asaji. And this really is what makes Washizu a villain. He lets his environment and the role that he has been given dictate his actions, leading to evil acts, instead of becoming more active in his own destiny.

    My second argument follows this, and has to do with the way we interpret our environment. As I have argued, in my view Throne of Blood shows us the way in which one, once he has decided his fate to be one thing or another, will interpret anything around him as a sign conforming to that idea, effectively leading one into a situation where one can safely refuse to accept any responsibility for one’s own actions. But by thinking that the world is thus fully in charge of your destiny, you obviously give up, and stop making your own decisions.

    With these points in mind, Washizu is actually very similar to Yusa of Stray Dog, Matsunaga of Drunken Angel, or Nakada of The Quiet Duel. All these characters find themselves in difficult situations that put enormous pressure on them, yet none of them would actually have to choose the wrong side, as their counterpoints Murakami, Sanada and Fujisaki are there to point out. The difference is that in Throne of Blood, Washizu is not paired with another character — instead, we are shown the actual process of his fall. This is different from Stray Dog, Drunken Angel or The Quiet Duel, where the wrong choices have been made long before the film actually begins.

    The bottom line is, you may be put into tough situations and be given difficult and seemingly predetermined roles by your environment, whether it is by your immediate family, your community, larger society, or in the case of late 1930s Japan your army committing atrocities in Southeast Asia. Indeed, men are not born equal, they are born in wildly varying circumstances, and life forces them to different directions, some easier and some more difficult. Yet, wherever it takes you, there is always some level of choice that is left to you regarding how you lead your life. And a man is ultimately judged by those choices, regardless of the type of situations in which they have been made. And this, I feel, is one way of viewing Throne of Blood.

    (As a final footnote, the way the characters stubbornly interpret the world around them is quite similar to literary and film criticism, where you will make up your mind for something to be one way or another, and then proceed to interpret everything in that work based on that assumption. The difference of course is that there is usually very little real harm in doing the latter, and you may even get a few fun evenings trying to put your thoughts together, like I have.)

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    Ugetsu

    Vili, all I can say on first reading of this is that this is by a very long way the best thing I’ve read on the film! Really fascinating, beautifully written! The only bone I’d pick with it is your idea that the second coming of the witch was a fraud perpetrated by Miki – I really don’t buy that (but it is an interesting idea). Otherwise, really fantastic insights.

    I was going to post an idea I’ve been playing around in my head since my last viewing of the film, but as I think it ties in to what you’ve written, I’ll outline my thoughts here. I was going to title it ‘Lady Asaji and the Demon’.

    First of all, one thing I love about your post is that it addresses the same ‘issue’ I had with the film on my first viewing i.e. that a plot based on the notion that everything is predestined is intrinsically uninteresting. It represents a very nihilistic view of life, and one that I am sure AK did not buy into. So I was struggling to find if there is something else in the film that I missed (and also Richie, Prince, and the various other writers on the film who all seem to agree on this broad point).

    It seems to be that Lady Asaji is the key to this. As Richie notes, the two female characters in the film (the witch and Asaji) are the ones drawn most closely in Noh terms. Richie interprets this as being something that applies to the female characters in the film, but I don’t really see why this should be. The scene that most stayed with me, and puzzled me, was when Lady Asaji goes to her ‘closet’ after talking to her husband. She seems to vanish, enveloped in the blackness, and then mysteriously rematerialises, more like a ghost that a human being. Is this a deliberate clue? Perhaps, the real demon, the real witch, is Asaji (or to be precise, has taken over her body). And the demon within her takes a real form – the unborn child. Why else is it that someone who from the very first scene is portrayed as a manipulative psychopath, suddenly goes mad with guilt only after the child is stillborn?

    To take this further, Vili exams how the film (via Shakespeare) borrows north European ideas about predestination. And of course, as so many of the critics have pointed out, this is mixed in with Shinto and Buddhist ideas, most notably the idea of ever repeating circles. But to me, the underlying driver to the story is not north European paganism, or buddhism, but Greek. I think Washizu’s fate is not predetermined, it is not predicted – he is instead, like the characters of the Iliad, just a plaything of the gods. Little more than a toy of bored Gods and Demons, delighting in using human frailties to amuse them, like children setting stag beetles to fight each other.

    To me, his final fate was the result of manipulation by the forest demons – and the main tool was Lady Asaji. I believe that she was, if not a ghost, but just a shell of a woman controlled by the demons, the tool by which Washizu is led to his fate. I think her ghostlike movements, rather than being a nod to Noh traditions as most critics have interpreted, is actually the clue that she is no longer really human. She is only human in the end, when she goes mad. The demon has left her, having achieved its malign purpose.

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    Vili Maunula

    Thank you for your comments, Ugetsu!

    Yes, the idea of Miki’s son setting up the second encounter with the woman/witch/spirit is not something I would necessarily consider the most plausible of my arguments. But there is something about that second encounter that just seems a little strange.

    Lady Asaji’s possible relation with the demon is something that actually was a part of my plan for the essay, but it didn’t make it into the final/current version. I don’t know if you are aware of this, or whether this is really even relevant, but there is actually a long tradition in Macbeth criticism that considers Lady Macbeth as one of the witches (usually Hecate, who makes an appearance towards the end of the play).

    In any case, that scene where Asaji vanishes into her closet, only to emerge again a moment later, is very interesting. I would say that there is clearly something going on in there, but what, I couldn’t say. She could be the witch, or a witch, or as you say possessed by the witch Washizu meets in the forest. The latter would, indeed, explain her going mad, among other things. I never thought of that, but it’s an intriguing idea!

    Ugetsu: To take this further, Vili exams how the film (via Shakespeare) borrows north European ideas about predestination … But to me, the underlying driver to the story is not north European paganism, or buddhism, but Greek. I think Washizu’s fate is not predetermined, it is not predicted – he is instead, like the characters of the Iliad, just a plaything of the gods.

    My intention was in fact rather to suggest that the film rejects Macbeth‘s Germanic ideas about predetermination, and allows for more personal freedom. Whether this is more in line with Greek mythology, I don’t know. To the best of my understanding, the Moirae (the Fates) in Greek mythology were actually even above the gods, whose fate was also determined by the three.

    Finally, something else that got left out from my original post. I wonder, and provided that you at least half-agree with my original post, do you think that it would be a stretch of imagination to claim that Throne of Blood is not an isolated case in Kurosawa’s contemporary output as a film dealing with issues like destiny, one’s role in the world, and free will?

    If you think about films made in this period, Ikiru (1952) is almost like a mirror image of Throne of Blood, as it portrays a man determined not to let his fate bring him down, while Record of a Living Being (1955) is very much about a character whose interpretation of the world around him completely traps him. Meanwhile, the film that followed Throne of Blood, The Lower Depths (1957), seems to mix this all up and is among other things about a bunch of characters who completely fail to see the larger world around them, and therefore remain stuck where they are? In fact, what you wrote about Seven Samurai (1954) in your excellent post a while back might also make it possible to think of that film in these terms — the samurai are, after all, stuck within their own class, ready to fight those battles that, as you so brilliantly pointed out, they will ultimately always lose?

    That would make five consecutive films which each at least on some level could be interpreted as dealing with this topic. Or am I over-extending my views here?

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    lawless

    About the witch – I assume she’s supposed to be a kami. I don’t know a lot about kami, and don’t know if this type of kami is a stock figure, but I believe (in part from my manga reading – see, it comes in handy) that she fits within a general typos or archetype within Japanese mythology.

    Great discussion! I was going to start a thread on Lady Asaji but I don’t know if it’s necessary given Ugetsu’s contribution to the discussion. It just seems like this movie deserves more than the two discussion threads it has.

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    Ugetsu

    I don’t know if you are aware of this, or whether this is really even relevant, but there is actually a long tradition in Macbeth criticism that considers Lady Macbeth as one of the witches (usually Hecate, who makes an appearance towards the end of the play).

    I have to say my ignorance of Macbeth and the literature around it is profound – I haven’t read or seen the play (apart from seeing Polanski’s version, but that was many years ago).

    My intention was in fact rather to suggest that the film rejects Macbeth’s Germanic ideas about predetermination, and allows for more personal freedom.

    I understood that – sorry if I implied you didn’t. I was thinking more of the general trend of writings on the film (I know you referred to it meaning to dismiss the idea, which I agree with – I just can’t bring myself to believe that AK bought into the notion of predestination for reasons you articulate much better than I can).

    If you think about films made in this period, Ikiru (1952) is almost like a mirror image of Throne of Blood, as it portrays a man determined not to let his fate bring him down, while Record of a Living Being (1955) is very much about a character whose interpretation of the world around him completely traps him.

    This is a very interesting idea and worth exploring. The obvious temptation is to connect Throne of Blood to Ran, but I think it makes more sense into seeing it as connecting to his movies from the mid-1950’s. There is certainly a common thread running through all AK’s lead characters. I tend to think of him like a musician using the same basic riffs to produce many different songs.

    Great discussion! I was going to start a thread on Lady Asaji but I don’t know if it’s necessary given Ugetsu’s contribution to the discussion. It just seems like this movie deserves more than the two discussion threads it has.

    I’d agree with this – with hindsight I should have posted my original comments on Lady Asaji separately. The more I think about the film, the more I think she is the most interesting character. As usual, Mifune’s charisma tends to distract us from the other characters.

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    Ugetsu

    About the witch – I assume she’s supposed to be a kami. I don’t know a lot about kami, and don’t know if this type of kami is a stock figure, but I believe (in part from my manga reading – see, it comes in handy) that she fits within a general typos or archetype within Japanese mythology.

    This isn’t a subject I know much about, but I’ve always assumed that in Japanese Shino based folklore, forest spirits were fairly neutral deities – neither good nor evil, all powerful or passive. My understanding is that they are (in common with the spirits of European paganism), just like a parallel universe of life, often mirroring human concerns. So I see the evil spirits in Throne of Blood as almost mischievous and malicious beings, playing around with mortals just for the hell of it.

    Incidentally, while watching Throne of Blood, I kept being reminded of Studio Ghibli’s wonderful Princess Mononoke. I know there is probably little actually connection between them, but as the source seems to be the same Shinto myths, its interesting to compare the Kami of that film with AK’s version.

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    lawless

    I don’t know about forest kamis but there seem to be kamis (or spirits) that are malevolent. Perhaps she’s part-demon? Or perhaps the witch is all demon, and is intended to tempt Washizu?

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    Ugetsu

    From a very quick search, there certainly is a tradition of some malevolent female spirits.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Nice posts!

    Vili, you said,

    “Finally, something else that got left out from my original post. I wonder, and provided that you at least half-agree with my original post, do you think that it would be a stretch of imagination to claim that Throne of Blood is not an isolated case in Kurosawa’s contemporary output as a film dealing with issues like destiny, one’s role in the world, and free will?”

    In fact, Vili, I think it is by far the strongest point to be made about the film, and you are on much surer ground than on any other point (than, say, when you think somehow that Miki was able to set up the witch for Washizu’s downfall!).

    Destiny, free will and one’s role in the world are core issues explored in most of Kurosawa’s films from Rashomon to Ran, on up to Madadayo!

    We may join Kurosawa’s characters in different places along the paths of their lives, but all must deal with issues involving one’s choices and outcomes.

    I’m the kind of person who sees relativism as being a condition of physical existence. Our understanding of the world is, by nature or design flawed and incomplete. We are subject to partiality that distorts our vision, and misinterpretation by others. Our self-interest often betrays us, as it does others. Perhaps the story is a cautionary tale against self-deception.

    I believe that we use symbolism, metaphor and allegory to indicate in the direction of the vast, ungraspable truth. For my two cents, then, the witch is a metaphor for our worst natures, and the crows are symbols not of evil but of our fears and superstitions. In fact, I think that Shakespeare is showing us the destructiveness of our passions and follies. And, worse-he shows us the despair that robs life of its meaning:

    Act 5, Scene 5:

    “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

    To the last syllable of recorded time,

    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

    Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

    And then is heard no more: it is a tale

    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

    Signifying nothing.”

    Of course, Kurosawa doesn’t use this dialogue. Shakespeare’s words were famously, his swords.

    But Kurosawa, the filmmaker action and image must speak louder than words. His inarticulate, fumbling, lost and confused Washizu is a character literally “in a fog”. A poor player, fretting and strutting his alotted time on the screen. The coda of moaning rocks-spirits of the destruction-tell the end at the beginning!

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    Ugetsu

    Finally, something else that got left out from my original post. I wonder, and provided that you at least half-agree with my original post, do you think that it would be a stretch of imagination to claim that Throne of Blood is not an isolated case in Kurosawa’s contemporary output as a film dealing with issues like destiny, one’s role in the world, and free will?

    I’ve been thinking of this a lot since you wrote it, and the more I mull it over, the more I think that Washizu falls right into the pattern of AK’s lead characters. We think of Washizu as being a puppet of fate, but in reality, isn’t he really given a whole series of distinct choices, and in each case, he picks the wrong one? And not just the wrong one, he is given a fairly rational option each time, but he always picks the ‘irrational’ one. Examples:

    1. The spirit predicts that he and Miki will be promoted when they get to Cobweb Castle. Both of them look astonished when they find the prediction correct. But isn’t this prediction nothing more than the ‘you’ll meet a tall dark man’ type prediction any charlatan psychic will make? After all, both of them carried out an extraordinary military operation, turning around a hopeless situation, and both were favorites of the Lord. It would have been pretty amazing if they hadn’t been promoted up a step.

    2. Washizu is given a perfectly rational explanation for the unexpected arrival of the Lord and his army at the North Mansion. But he chooses to believe (against his own instinct), Lady Asaji’s paranoid interpretation.

    3. He believes the worst of Miki, despite the clear evidence that Miki is not particularly ambitious and is not the type who would indulge in plotting.

    4. He interprets the flying birds as a good omen, rather than (as a good military man should) question whether this implies that the enemy are cutting trees in the forest.

    I’ll have to watch it again to find more examples, but I do think that the structure of the movie gives Washizu a whole series of choices, and in each one he unfailingly takes the wrong one – and more than ‘wrong’, he chooses the paranoid and mystic, over the rational.

    *disclaimer* This posting was made late at night after several glasses of wine, so might be complete bollocks *disclaimer*

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    Jon Hooper

    I really enjoyed reading this; certainly one of the finest essays I’ve read on my second favourite Kurosawa film. I made some quick notes as I read through; even though I disagreed on some points I find myself wholeheartedly behind the idea that Washizu is responsible for his fate. Thanks for posting this, Vili, it inspired me to make some time to write something and get involved in the board, even if my thoughts are as usual rushed.

    I don’t necessarily see Macbeth as Shakespeare’s greatest villain, or indeed a villain at all, since for me a true villain should be responsible for his actions, and I am not quite so sure whether this is possible within the world depicted by the play, which I tend to consider fairly deterministic.

    This is an interesting point, because it is indeed freedom of choice that makes a villain a villain, and a hero a hero. This is not that sort of story, as I see it, but it’s interesting in another way, because it makes us think about human nature and humanity’s tendency to repeatedly fall from grace. The real problem is in drawing the line between what is truly deterministic and what is down to choice. I think there always is a choice for Washizu. At any time he can turn away from the course he has taken, he can halt his descent, but does not. That things always turn out the same way may be rooted in man’s tragic fallibility, and though man does possess the ability to rise above his baser nature, he so rarely does so.

    I would like to think that a literary work has something interesting to say about the world, yet a predetermined world where everything follows a script and nothing really matters is ultimately rather uninteresting as a story, however interesting as an idea.

    The idea predominates, I think, over the story. It makes a point, just like Ran does, and its truth holds us just as the twists and turns in a less predictable plot hold us. The goal of this kind of work is not to surprise us. Therefore I do not see why it may be dismissed as “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”, just because it repeats an age old truth. Having admitted that the outcome is inevitable, though, I do think there is something that always gives us the feeling that Washizu may break from the pattern, even though at the same time we know he will not. The possibility that he may free himself exists in our minds, just as in another kind of story, the possibility that the hero may be overcome by his antagonists, exists in our minds while the narrative is unfolding. This possibility prevents the film from becoming too much of a sermon, from seeming too much like a mechanism.

    Macbeth’s tragic flaw is perhaps not so much his over-reaching power-hungry ambitions, but rather comes in the form of a realisation about the insignificance of his existence and his inability to affect his own destiny.

    I take the more traditional view, but this is fascinating nonetheless. In either Washizu’s or Macbeth’s case, why, I wonder, would a warrior who amasses ever greater power, who lords it over ever greater castles, be inclined to think about the insignificance of his existence? What worries Washizu, in my view, is the evil in his own heart. The conflict is rather between the scheming, treacherous, power hungry part of his being, represented by the wife, and the more noble, loyal, martial side of himself. The one is represented, in the landscapes the film depicts, in rain and fog, in cobwebs and shadows, the other in the daylight world. His wife’s admonition, “without ambition a man is not a man” is thus ironic, because, at least according to the film’s way of seeing things, ambition belongs to the feminine sphere, martialism to the masculine.

    He is a man who has been thrust into a situation that he pretty much knows the outcome of and cannot seem to escape.

    Do you mean then that he foresees his own death, his own tragic fate? I don’t see it that way myself. I think there is conflict as he sinks further and further into treachery: he sees himself falling, but he does not see his end, even though he should be able to.

    it brings us back to the problem that I mentioned earlier, namely the question what good is a work of art if the only thing that it can suggest is that “nothing really matters”, that it by and large “signifies nothing”?

    I don’t arrive at this conclusion at all. Why should it mean nothing? If one believes that man has been programmed to do evil, that he is utterly trapped without chance of delivering himself, fair enough we can despair. But even if the pattern is endlessly repeated, even if the same fate is continually spun out, that does not mean that the freedom to change one’s actions does not exist, or that the film is saying so. It may be a simple way of seeing things, but I think of this as being a series of choices, the wrong choices, which lead to a downward spiral. Washizu could save himself. The more he descends into treachery, the harder it is to extricate himself. But the possibility that he can exists for us, and didactic as it may seem we can learn from it.

    where we don’t have the trinity of Fates, but a lone old woman, perhaps a witch or a spirit

    I find the figure of the woman fascinating. As to whether she predicts the future or has seen it, I think of it being more a case that she knows Washizu’s heart, his secret desires. Like Asaji she is there to voice the part of his mind that lies beneath the martialism. What lies in the centre of Cobweb Forest is of course what already lies in the labyrinth of Washizu’s own heart; the witch simply gives voice to what is already there, just as Asaji does. And as Washizu acts out his secret desires, he becomes increasingly enslaved, he becomes increasingly lost in the labyrinth. We could say that never is man less free than when he serves himself.

    Although Washizu knows that he will eventually claim the throne, nothing indicates that the only way for him to do so is by force.

    There is a marked distinction in the film, I’d say, between the use of martial force of the kind seen on the battlefield, and the kind of treacherous murder Washizu enacts.

    Captain Washizu is at Fort One, surrounded by hundreds of enemies. It is then explicitly stressed that there is absolutely no hope, that he is doomed, we might even say predestined to lose (00:05:45-00:06:00). And yet, only a few minutes later another messenger comes in and tells us that not only has Washizu broken Inui’s siege, but he has also moved on to Fort Two and helped Miki’s forces to break the siege there (00:08:00-00:08:10).

    Brilliant observation. As I read on, I see that while I disagree about certain things, your assertion that choice exists for Washizu all the way through is also my own. I do believe it gets harder for him as he goes on, but it never leaves him.

    Considering the amount of alcohol in Washizu’s blood, however, a point that the film seems careful to emphasize, I see it an entirely plausible suggestion that what we see there is nothing more than an alcohol and guilt induced hallucination.

    I don’t know if we need to find such a rational explanation for the hallucination. One can take it for a real ghost, of course, but why not say that these are illusions that Washizu has built up in his own mind. If he is drunk on anything, it is power. He has become paranoid, and the world of the film has come increasingly to reflect his inner state, peopled by phantoms and by aberrations of nature. On the one level it is the external world the film takes place in, but on another it is Washizu’s psyche being projected onto the landscape.

    Yet, it seems to me that both interpretations are nothing but empty talk, and the actual reason for the crows’ sudden arrival is the fact that, as we have been told, the forest is being cut down by Inui’s men, forcing the birds to flee.

    Excellent point, even if one does not have to take it quite so literally. On one level, yes.

    Everything about her seems different from the first encounter, and not only that, but either she is very good at transforming into ghostly soldiers, or she is not alone. I wonder, are we actually even dealing with the same woman here as at the beginning of the movie?

    In my theory everyone and everything we see are, on a certain level, just extensions of Washizu’s consciousness. Or they are the world filtered through his ambitions and paranoia. She is changed because he has. Whispers and secret longings have become mocking expressions of vengeance and defiance.

    But by thinking that the world is thus fully in charge of your destiny, you obviously give up, and stop making your own decisions.

    Nice point, though I think perhaps it is more a case that Washizu continually makes decisions. It is just that he makes the wrong ones.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu’s discussion about Washizu’s wrong and irrational choices made me wonder whether his irrational choices are due to “magical thinking” where everything is about him and his ambitions.

    The preceding discussion reminds me about the opening and closing of the movie. Is it possible that some of this – the witch, the fog, Lady Asaji’s paranoia, Washizu’s irrationality – is due to the castle itself or the forest in which it’s located? There’s certainly a strong implication that Spider Web (or Cobweb) Castle itself is haunted or imbued with the force of some malevolent spirit. It reminds me a little bit of the places in Shirley Jackson’s best-known novels, “The Haunting of Hill House” and “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”.

    I agree with Jon Hooper that the witch knows the secret desires of Washizu’s heart and crafts her “predictions” to match them.

    I don’t find the explanation that the crows were fleeing the wood while it was being chopped down by the soldiers overly literal; in fact, that was the explanation that came to mind when I saw the trees being chopped down. (I should have remembered from my previous viewing of the film; after all, I knew they used the trees as shields. That’s an important plot point!)

    Finally, and in a somewhat different direction (I’m still not sure whether I should use this to start another post), what do we make of the fact that Washizu is being manipulated by his wife?

    We could, and might, say it’s another example of men, like director Kurosawa, blaming women for the evil men do (see the story of Adam and Eve), but we could also ask what outlet did an obviously intelligent and ambitious woman such as Lady Asaji have other than scheming? Perhaps her paranoia, even her evil, is an outgrowth of the limited choices she has.

    She may have a comfortable life by the standards of the time, but the only

    way she has to live it is to rule over her household. The only act that would improve her status would be to produce a son, which may explain the outcome of her (possibly imaginary) pregnancy. So perhaps this is also (although maybe not intentionally) a cautionary tale about the cost of boxing people in based on gender (or class, or any other category), which would ring true with what we’ve discussed about Seven Samurai>

    We could also start a lively discussion about whether the pregnancy was real or imaginary and what happened to Lady Asaji in the end. I could go either way on the pregnancy but in some ways think it more fitting if it had been real. It may have in some respects obviated the ambition and need to kill their Lord but it also would have brought hope and, if a boy, prestige. In some respects, her ambition is consistent with the supposed personality of a barren woman who has nothing else to do but scheme, and barrenness would help explain her sour personality. Having this hope taken away from her would be more crushing than not having it in the first place, hence the illness and descent into madness (or further madness).

    Many think, or assume, she killed herself, but if I remember correctly the movie says nothing directly about her fate one way or another. One has to believe, however, that with her husband stuffed full of arrows like a pincushion, she most likely committed suicide to prevent being killed or captured.

    Thoughts?

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    Ugetsu

    We could, and might, say it’s another example of men, like director Kurosawa, blaming women for the evil men do (see the story of Adam and Eve), but we could also ask what outlet did an obviously intelligent and ambitious woman such as Lady Asaji have other than scheming? Perhaps her paranoia, even her evil, is an outgrowth of the limited choices she has.

    If I’m not mistaken, Richie says in his ‘hundred years of japanese film’, that there is something of a sub genre of films made that imply that Japanese women are the ‘real’ powers in Japan. Ichikawa’s ‘Ten Dark Women’ (a film I’ve always wanted to track down) is one of these. I think there is quite a strong current in AK’s films that wives and other women in powerful mens lives have a strong, subtle influence – there was a discussion about this in one of the threads in Red Beard.

    It didn’t occur to me that the pregnancy might not be real – I thought that since the midwife reported the miscarriage, it must be real. But of course, maybe she is covering up the fact that there was no baby at all. I am still attracted to the notion that the ‘baby’ was in fact the evil spirit, although I don’t know if there is anything in Japanese mythology to support the notion that a spirit could take hold of a person in that way. What leads me to this idea is the timing of the ‘miscarriage’. The trap has been set, so the spirit, having led Washizu astray, can now return to the forest, leaving the unfortunate Lady Asaji behind as a shell of a human being. While Prince says that her final handwashing is ‘pure Noh’, I don’t necessarily agree – to me she looks human and ‘flesh’ for the first time, while previously she was somewhat ethereal, ghostly.

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    cocoskyavitch

    A detail muddled in my mind is the anecdote regarding the forest. Who was it so disappointed by the forest not actually moving…seeing a play, perhaps, and being let down? Was it Tolkien? Was it something to do with his writing of the Ents going to war or was it Kurosawa thinking about Macbeth and his film? I’m a bit unclear.

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    Jon Hooper

    It was indeed Tolkien, whose dislike of Shakespeare apparently grew partly from his childhood disappointment when reading MacBeth. He craved a world where the trees really did come to life, and so of course Shakespeare badly let him down.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Odd how much that was bothering me.

    Thanks, Jon, for settling that bit of brain real estate!

    I would just note that I find Kurosawa’s filmed vision of those trees swaying as they advance really eerie and scary! Tolkien would, perhaps have enjoyed that.

    And, is the whole thing about those trees moving something that undercuts the “magic” of the witch, of the prophecies? Is it something that brings us back down to reality, explainable phenomena and the sordid, dull fact of human desire and madness…or is it something that is the “joke” or hingepoint of the story…like the prophecy in Oedipus Rex or the “I am no man” statement after being told “No man can kill me” in Lord of the Rings? Hmmm.

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    Jon Hooper

    It seems to have brought Tolkien down to reality, but perhaps he missed the “joke” as you put it, and as you say he put a similar one in Lord of the Rings regarding the witch king. Isn’t there such a “joke” in Macbeth? I have very little recollection of the play sadly. I think such linguistic jokes hinge on a character being satisfied with insufficient information, so that he or she fills in the blanks for himself. A fatal mistake, of course, and one that is paralleled, in the Lord of the Rings, in the palantir’s ability to offer glimpses of what appears to be the state of things, but in fact is only a narrowed perspective. But we should get back to Kurosawa I guess.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Cool observation about the palantir, Jon! And, you put your finger right on the crux of the matter: the hubris which is a hero’s downfall

    …”…a character being satisfied with insufficient information, so that he or she fills in the blanks for himself. A fatal mistake, of course,”

    That’s exactly the joke! And, I think that the joke in Macbeth is the prophecy that that he is invincible until the forest moves!

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    Vili Maunula

    Wow, thanks for all the replies, there’s been some really interesting discussion here!

    And it’s also really good to hear from you again, Jon!

    Coco: you think somehow that Miki was able to set up the witch for Washizu’s downfall!

    I don’t actually necessarily think so, it’s just something that I suggested. 🙂 And it’s still the only even remotely plausible explanation for the forest prophecy that I can think of that doesn’t require either the spiritual world or a huge coincidence.

    Anyway, for future reference, half the things that I write about I don’t fully agree with, but if I feel something to be an idea interesting enough to throw out there, that’s what I’m going to do. Often someone else will be able to convince me that there is actually some validity to what I wrote, although that doesn’t currently seem to be the case with the idea of Miki setting up the second prophecy. 😉

    Ugetsu: I’ve been thinking of this a lot since you wrote it, and the more I mull it over, the more I think that Washizu falls right into the pattern of AK’s lead characters. We think of Washizu as being a puppet of fate, but in reality, isn’t he really given a whole series of distinct choices, and in each case, he picks the wrong one? And not just the wrong one, he is given a fairly rational option each time, but he always picks the ‘irrational’ one.

    Indeed. That’s where I was trying to go with what I wrote, but you managed to sum it up much better here. 🙂

    Ugetsu: 1. The spirit predicts that he and Miki will be promoted when they get to Cobweb Castle. Both of them look astonished when they find the prediction correct. But isn’t this prediction nothing more than the ‘you’ll meet a tall dark man’ type prediction any charlatan psychic will make? After all, both of them carried out an extraordinary military operation, turning around a hopeless situation, and both were favorites of the Lord. It would have been pretty amazing if they hadn’t been promoted up a step.

    But do note that the prophecy is not only about the promotion in general, but it also gives the exact details: that Washizu will on that very same day be made Lord of the North Garrison, and Miki commander of the First Fortress. Unless there was some sort of a predictable pattern to these promotions (Miki does, after all, get Washizu’s old place), and a tradition to promote heroes on the day of the battle, it seems to me that there is just too much detail in that prophecy to simply call it a good vague guess.

    Me: He is a man who has been thrust into a situation that he pretty much knows the outcome of and cannot seem to escape.

    Jon: Do you mean then that he foresees his own death, his own tragic fate?

    In Macbeth’s case, I would say yes. But I don’t think that Washizu ever really goes as far as to consider these things. He isn’t much of a thinking man.

    Me: it brings us back to the problem that I mentioned earlier, namely the question what good is a work of art if the only thing that it can suggest is that “nothing really matters”, that it by and large “signifies nothing”?

    Jon: I don’t arrive at this conclusion at all. Why should it mean nothing? If one believes that man has been programmed to do evil, that he is utterly trapped without chance of delivering himself, fair enough we can despair. But even if the pattern is endlessly repeated, even if the same fate is continually spun out, that does not mean that the freedom to change one’s actions does not exist, or that the film is saying so.

    I feel that true predetermination is far more than something like simple programming to do evil. It is a universe where future actions already exist, and cannot be changed. For someone observing such a universe from the outside, the characters have no free will. They are, to borrow from Macbeth, just “poor players” strutting and fretting on the stage, unable to break free of their own stories. I feel that there is very little to learn from such a story.

    Paradoxically, I still think that there is a whole lot to learn from films, theatre and literature. Even if the actions of their characters are all very much predetermined.

    In any case, note that I am not suggesting this to be the message of the film. In fact, my whole point was that freedom of choice does, indeed, exist in Throne of Blood.

    Me: But by thinking that the world is thus fully in charge of your destiny, you obviously give up, and stop making your own decisions.

    Jon: Nice point, though I think perhaps it is more a case that Washizu continually makes decisions. It is just that he makes the wrong ones.

    But does he, really? Others (primarily Asaji) seem to be making those decision for him, and the various omens and signs around him also have an influence. I would actually say that Washizu is remarkably poor at decision making for someone plotting to grab power!

    lawless: We could also start a lively discussion about whether the pregnancy was real or imaginary and what happened to Lady Asaji in the end. I could go either way on the pregnancy but in some ways think it more fitting if it had been real.

    Ugetsu: It didn’t occur to me that the pregnancy might not be real – I thought that since the midwife reported the miscarriage, it must be real. But of course, maybe she is covering up the fact that there was no baby at all. I am still attracted to the notion that the ‘baby’ was in fact the evil spirit, although I don’t know if there is anything in Japanese mythology to support the notion that a spirit could take hold of a person in that way.

    As I passingly hinted in my original post, I suspect that Asaji’s announcement about her pregnancy is false. Considering the context in which it is made, and everything we know about her manipulative self, it is just too difficult for me to believe her there.

    I don’t, however, see that this would automatically mean that there couldn’t be a real miscarriage. The film is very vague about how much time passes between scenes. You may get the feeling that the whole story takes as little as only a day or two, but I suspect that it is far more. Perhaps she managed to get pregnant after announcing her pregnancy. Although that begs the question how exactly, as it is hinted that the Washizu + Asaji combination is unable to produce a child. Did she acquire someone else’s services?

    I do like Ugetsu’s idea about her being taken over a spirit and the baby being a product of that. Unfortunately, I can’t offer any extra information whether such things could actually happen with Japanese spirits.

    Ugetsu: If I’m not mistaken, Richie says in his ‘hundred years of japanese film’, that there is something of a sub genre of films made that imply that Japanese women are the ‘real’ powers in Japan.

    I wouldn’t wonder why, either. At least in modern Japan, or the part that I lived in, women pretty much seemed to run their families single-handedly. Men appeared to have quite little say over family matters or finances.

    Coco: And, is the whole thing about those trees moving something that undercuts the “magic” of the witch, of the prophecies? Is it something that brings us back down to reality, explainable phenomena and the sordid, dull fact of human desire and madness…

    I would say yes. First, we see the trees moving towards the castle, which is a very magical, beautiful and somewhat scary image. But then the film goes on to pretty much destroy this awe inspiring scene by showing us the soldiers who are carrying those trees. I would say that the film is clearly playing with us, and not only that, but it is fittingly as the very last thing that it does briefly making us into a Washizu — we first interpret those moving trees as something mystical, something other-worldly, mainly because we have been primed to interpret them that way. If that final scene with the advancing soldiers wouldn’t exist, that would also be our final impression not only of the scene but also the film itself, and think how differently we would be viewing the movie then! But with the moving trees ultimately explained, the film seems to stress the fact that we should be careful with our interpretations.

    By the way, I wouldn’t call reality, explainable phenomena, and the human desires and various madnesses “dull”. But maybe that’s just me. After all, I get far more kick out of reading about physics experiments than hearing about ghosts, spirits and UFOs! (Not that I’m not interested also in those things.)

    Coco: the “I am no man” statement after being told “No man can kill me” in Lord of the Rings?

    Back when I saw the LotR films, I was wondering whether this scene was a nod to Macbeth‘s “Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn / The power of man, for none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth.”? (Macbeth is ultimately killed by Macduff, who was born by caesarean section, and therefore not “of woman born” — this is the basis to Kurosawa’s forest scene.)

    (And the reason I mention the LotR films and not the books is that I’ve never actually been able to finish the books. I’ve managed all the way to Moria three separate times, but I just can’t go further. I know it’s a heresy to say this, but Tolkien’s writing style bores me to tears. Well, more Tolkien left for you guys, eh!?)

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    lawless

    Japanese women are responsible for running the household and paying the bills, so Vili’s observation is accurate. That means they would probably know how much their husbands pay to support their mistresses as well! This also means that no matter how non-deferential Yoko Ono is, in many ways she was a typical Japanese wife. (From what I’ve read, she has is a very shrewd with regard to business and finance.)

    While it’s changing, historically Japanese wives were expected to be mothers and household managers and not lovers. They have more of a connection, and spend more time with, their children than their husbands, who often dont come home until late. They don’t typically socialize as a couple either.

    As for Tolkien – I love LotR but have to admit the Moria sections can get tedious. I’m not sure how much is his writing style and how much is the content, though. When there is at least a glimmer of hope his writing style, or at least some of the content, is sprightly, noble, or otherwise interesting (like the chapters with the Ents) but “Two Towers” can be a slog.

    I have the same problem with Rowling and Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince. The interest of the writing suffers when the subject is unrelentingly dark or unpleasant.

    What I’d suggest with respect to LotR is skimming and/or skipping over what you don’t like to get to the next sections you can tolerate. It is worth it to read about Minas Tirith and the final minutes of the Ring. As you know, in the end Frodo isn’t able to give up the Ring willingly, but Gollum’s lust for it is finally put to good use. That scene, and some others (when Aragorn appears with the Black Ships, the scouring of the Shire), are worth reading.

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    cocoskyavitch

    I actually was teethed on Tolkien as a kid. I recounted what I had read each babysitting session to the kids across the street. I am pretty sure they found the stories riveting, because they would beg me for more, even when I told them I hadn’t yet read any further!

    Tolkien was not so popular a Don as Lewis when they were at Oxford-in fact, from all I’ve read they say you could hear Lewis bellowing from down the hall, while Tolkien’s class was a bit of a snore fest. So, there is the boring teacher thing (my chosen career! Yikes!) And, yet, despite the pedantry, and the occasional slog and tough going, thanks to Tolkien’s writing I was introduced into a landscape of imagination that has been very dear to me these many years.

    I am really surprised, though, to hear that Vili can’t make it through Tolkien. Vili, Tolkien was a philologist! Maybe I am wrong, but that’s cousin to a Linguist, isn’t it? I find Tolkien’s work taught me all kinds of stuff about old English, lead me to read Beowulf, and to look for roots of words when reading. His gift to me is not simply one of the beautiful story of friendship (which is relevant to my love of Seven Samurai) and adventure, and the necessity of retaining a sense of wonder, but also gifts of curiosity about language!

    I would disagree with Lawless, then, and suggest a full reading, not a skimming or skipping. There’s good stuff in there.

    Anyway, just a point to make-the “reality” I spoke of was “explainable phenomena” relevant to what made the trees move. In other words, the loss of magic was the loss of mystery as revealed by the mechanism of illusion-creation. I am not saying that reality always is without mystery. I am saying that the specific loss of “magic” in this case is like pulling away the curtain and seeing the little man instead of the illusory image of the Wizard of Oz.

    I will stand by this comment: “…the sordid, dull fact of human desire and madness”. This is how I see things, although that may seem odd, it is sincere.

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    lawless

    I don’t disagree that a full reading is best, but since Vili keeps getting stuck in the same place I was suggesting skimming from that point on until he reaches something he can read in detail. I’m willing to settle for second best; to me it seems better to have read (or tried reading) all of LotR while skimming the less interesting parts than to have stopped defeated.

    I suppose Vili should speak for himself, but I gather that the kind of linguist Vili is – if I’m not mistaken, studying functional linquistics – is much different from a philologist like Tolkien. Kind of like the difference between geometery (which I hate) and algebra (which I love), one being dedicated to the concrete and measurable and the other to the conceputal. Also, functional linguistics asks how we understand and use words, not what specific words people use in different and related languages and how to trace their usage. The former is more like philosophy and anthropology; the latter is more like a cultural history of words and the concepts underlying them. I can see why someone steeped in the philology of Norse myth would come across as dull.

    I think Lewis is the better thinker of the two, and in some ways more creative, but I like Tolkien’s novels better. They’re rollicking good stories; you generally can’t say that of Lewis’ novels. Lewis’ novels are more didactic, and I didn’t find his science fiction (not my favorite genre anyway) all that convincing.

    The only fiction work of Lewis’ I think holds up well to scrutiny (and I haven’t read it in years) is Till We Have Faces, a retelling of the tale of Psyche. I have a fondness for The Chronicles of Narnia but let’s face it, they’re a little didactic and old-fashioned for today, although I’m still fond of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and several of the others (“The Silver Chair”, mostly for the Mugglewump and the way in which they miss the message they’re supposed to see and follow, and the ones containing the creation and the end of Narnia).

    On the other hand, Lewis wrote some of the most lucid and logical (although somewhat dispassionate) Christian apologia around, such as Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain and two of the most interesting, creative, and wacky religious-cum-Christian works I’ve read: The Great Divorce (with its image of God taking a rough washcloth to the denizens of Heaven and giving them a thorough and sometimes painful scrub) and The Screwtape Letters. I wrote a college paper comparing the Satan in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov to Uncle Wormwood (or whatever his name was) in The Screwtape Letters. Since Dostoevsky was Kurosawa’s favorite writer (or at least one of them), do I get points for bringing the discussion back to Kurosawa?

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    cocoskyavitch

    You do, Lawless,-bonus points! I’m gonna dance around a bit and then circle back, myself:

    Edit by Vili: I have moved the rest of the post here, since the discussion is veering quite far from the original topic of this thread.

    Let’s try to stick to the “one topic, one thread — one thread, one topic” mantra as well as we can. It’s not like starting new topics costs anything. 😉

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    Jon Hooper

    Last point about Tolkien, if I’m allowed – I agree that it’s probably not good to skip bits, but in my experience Tolkien is one of those love him or loathe him authors, and if Vili wasn’t converted by the time the Company got to Moria, he never will be. Lewis described Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, by the way, as very good and very moral .I wish I could see what Kurosawa saw in Doestoevsky myself (sorry). Making a further link back to Kurosawa, I remember reading that the battle scenes in Jackson’s The Two Towers (I think it was this one) were Kurosawa inspired, but I can’t remember where. Maybe it was that skateboarding elf scene lifted straight from Ran?

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    Vili Maunula

    Jon: Last point about Tolkien, if I’m allowed – I agree that it’s probably not good to skip bits, but in my experience Tolkien is one of those love him or loathe him authors, and if Vili wasn’t converted by the time the Company got to Moria, he never will be.

    I think so, too. I’ll close the topic by saying that three chances are more than I would give most books, so I think I will just conclude that I find Tolkien utterly boring and uninteresting and live with that.

    I will probably be subjected to a shower of arrows for saying so (see, how I linked back to the topic there! :razz:), but that’s how I feel. The world he came up with is kind of neat, though.

    And yes, Tolkien was a linguist of sorts, although very different from what I do/did (lawless’s maths comparison is pretty valid). I seem to remember that Tolkien also had some crazy nut case theories about genetics/race directly influencing language, but he of course came before the Chomskian revolution in linguistics, so I guess it’s not entirely fair to criticise him from where I am standing.

    Jon: I wish I could see what Kurosawa saw in Doestoevsky myself (sorry).

    Me, too! I just put down The Idiot, one-third through the book, and I don’t think that I will be able to pick it up and finish it in time for our next month’s discussion of Kurosawa’s adaptation.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Don’t ….like….Dostoevsky…..I’m going to shoot myself with arrows!

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    Jon Hooper

    Me, too! I just put down The Idiot, one-third through the book, and I don’t think that I will be able to pick it up and finish it in time for our next month’s discussion of Kurosawa’s adaptation.

    Phew, that’s a relief. I thought I was going to be the odd one out here for not been so enamoured with Dostoevsky. It’s strange, because he seems to have some kind of Messiah like effect on some people. My nephew, whose taste is almost exactly like mine, was absolutely bowled over by him. He recommended I start with The Idiot and though I did finish it I kept thinking I was missing something. I gave up on Crime and Punishment once and eventually went back and finished it. But with very little reward.

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    lawless

    My reaction is the same as Coco’s. I will admit, however, that Dostoevsky suffered from his own strain of diarrhea of the pen and wrote in a discursive style that could seem meandering, especially in Brothers Karamazov. Crime and Punishment is written more tightly, although Sonia (I think I have her name right) is one of the most unconvincing prostitutes in all of literature (the archetypal prostitute with a heart of gold).

    I only read The Idiot once a long time ago and didn’t like it as well as Brothers or Crime and Punishment, ditto The Possessed, which I barely remember. But Crime and Punishment is surely a precursor of the modern thriller/suspense/crime novel and Brothers Karamazov touches on many subjects of philosophical importance, the problem of evil not being the least of them. It contains some of the best arguments in favor of and against the existence of God I know of.

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