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Throne of Blood: The Old Woman’s Song

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    Vili Maunula

    What are your interpretations of the old woman’s (or witch’s, spirit’s, kami‘s) song in Throne of Blood?

    Although this is related to the other topic that I started, I decided to give the song its own thread so as not to confine the discussion to the topics of predetermination and free will that we are tackling over there.

    In any case, here are the lyrics (from Criterion’s subtitles):

    Strange is the world

    Why should men

    Receive life in this world?

    Men’s lives are as meaningless

    As the lives of insects

    The terrible folly

    Of such suffering

    A man lives but

    As briefly as a flower

    Destined all too soon

    To decay into the stink of flesh

    Humanity strives

    All its days

    To sear its own flesh

    In the flames of base desire

    Exposing itself

    To Fate’s Five Calamities

    Heaping karma upon karma

    All that awaits Man

    At the end

    Of his travails

    Is the stench of rotting flesh

    That will yet blossom into flower

    Its foul odor rendered

    Into sweet perfume

    Oh, fascinating

    The life of Man

    Oh, fascinating

    Some brave soul has actually uploaded the whole scene to YouTube, so you can refresh your memory there as well.

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    lawless

    My initial superficial reaction is that this seems meant in part to replace Shakespeare’s famous lines about “life being a tale/Told by an idiot/Full of sound and fury” and that it sounds to some extent like Buddhist doctrine. I know Buddhism and Shintoism were historically intertwined – at least up until the Meiji Restoration, which ended state support for Buddhism – so a kami intoning Buddhist philosophy isn’t as contradictory as it seems.

    Does anyone know what Fate’s Five Calamities are? I’ve heard of the Eightfold Path and the Five Noble Truths, but this doesn’t ring a bell.

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    Ugetsu

    What strikes me about the song is how un-buddhist it is, despite the references to karma. It assumes all karma is bad, and there is an ignominious end to life, rather than the ‘wheel’ or ‘circle’ of life. I don’t know what the Five Calamities are, but five, along with seven, is one of the key numbers in Shintoism.

    If I was to make a wild stab at the thinking behind the lyrics, I’d say that it was a somewhat pessimistic Shintoist’s take on the medieval Christian iconography behind the original Shakespearean lines….. 🙄

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    lawless

    I must respectfully disagree about this being un-Buddhist. Buddhism teaches that this world is a vale of suffering and that we need to rid ourselves of our attachments to this world. This song strikes me as a clear statement of what happens when we don’t rid ourselves of our worldly attachments and thus do not escape the cycle of death and rebirth as something worse.

    Men’s lives are as meaningless

    As the lives of insects

    The terrible folly

    Of such suffering

    A man lives but

    As briefly as a flower

    Destined all too soon

    To decay into the stink of flesh

    Humanity strives

    All its days

    To sear its own flesh

    In the flames of base desire

    . . .

    Heaping karma upon karma

    All that awaits Man

    At the end

    Of his travails

    Is the stench of rotting flesh

    That will yet blossom into flower

    Its foul odor rendered

    Into sweet perfume

    I realize the song doesn’t refer to rebirth but then again it might be unnecessary to do so – the audieince would understand what she’s referring to.

    This discussion is informed by my research into Pure Land Buddhism, which posits that it is possible to escape the wheel of death and rebirth either by reciting the nembitsu (hope I’ve got that right – it’s been awhile since I read this stuff), an invocation of the Amida (or Amitabh) Buddha, or by calling upon the graciousness of the Amida/Amitabh Buddha in a manner reminiscent of Paul’s “by faith alone”. If this song does fit within Japanese Buddhist thought, it’s likely to fit within the Pure Land tradition, not the Zen Buddhist tradition. They’re quite different.

    As an aside – one of the benefits of fanficdom – the reason for the research is that a major character whose backstory as well as front story I hope to write about is the oldest son of a Buddhist priest (I know the term priest is used for Shinto clergy, but he’s not living in a monastery and his functions – mostly to conduct funerals and memorial services – are more like what would be performed by a priest in our culture). His father had expected him to take over the family-run temple. From all indications, the temple is within the Pure Land Buddhist tradition; it’s clearly not within the Zen tradition.

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    cocoskyavitch

    The Buddha leaves his palace to see:

    the old man (old age)

    diseased person (disease)

    corpse (death)

    and the fourth is a dignified hermit or sadu, and this indicates release from suffering. So what are the five calamaties? Google it and I get Hebrew lore:

    ” Tisha B’Av – The destructions. The fast commemorates two of the saddest events in Jewish history — the destruction of the First Temple (originially built by King Solomon), and the destruction of the Second Temple. Those two events occurred about 556 years apart, but both in the same month, Av, and, as tradition has it, both on the ninth day. In connection with the fall of Jerusalem three other fast-days were established at the same time as the Ninth Day of Av: these were the Tenth of Tevet, when the siege … “.

    unfortunately you need to buy the rest! So, would Hebrew lore feature in the witche’s song? By the way, that witch is awesome scary, and her spinning wheel movements are mesmerizing!

    I’m buggin on the 5 though. Four horsemen of the apocalypse, more than five books of the apocrypha, there is mention of the “five pestilences” in Chinese medicine, referring, generally to all sorts of epidemic diseases…the five deadly venoms is a kung-fu movie…and NY Times lists five calamaties that may befall the wage-earner: accident, illness, premature death, unemployment, and old age.

    I vote then for five calamaties to be:

    accident, illness, premature death, poverty, and old age

    Heck, what about this:

    The Buddha summarises Dukkha in what is known as the Five Grasping Aggregates.

    Herein, lies the deeper philosophical meaning of Dukkha for it encompasses the whole state of being or existence.

    Our life or the whole process of living is seen as a flux of energy comprising of the Five aggregates, namely the Aggregate of Form or the Physical process, Feeling, Perception, Mental Formation, and Consciousness. These are usually classified as mental and physical processes, which are constantly in a state of flux or change.

    ~ from http://www.buddhanet.net/vesak.htm

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    Vili Maunula

    Interesting points, everyone! I’m afraid I have no idea what the Five Calamities are, either. But that’s a very good question, lawless! The Five Aggregates that Coco suggested actually seem somewhat fitting.

    A quick web search, which to be honest I am not very comfortable using for this sort of research, brings up references to something called “The Five Precepts”. Wikipedia calls it “the basic Buddhist code of ethics”. It seems to be part of Mahayana Buddhism which, if I’m not mistaken, is practised in Japan.

    I don’t know if these precepts can somehow be viewed as “calamities” (perhaps they would seem as too limiting for a non-human?), but it’s actually interesting that Washizu seems to commit at least four out of five of them (he takes life, takes what is not his, lies and drinks excessively), and we also have some suspicions that Asaji commits the last remaining one (sexual misconduct).

    Ultimately, I think that we would really need a deeper understanding of the original Japanese, and go beyond the subtitles. Unfortunately, I don’t seem to have a Japanese script for Throne of Blood, and I can’t find any subtitle files for it, either. Unfortunately, the woman’s monotonous singing and my poor comprehension of Japanese don’t allow me to transcribe from the film, either. Bummer.

    By the way, the search for a Throne of Blood script was not totally fruitless, since while going through my Kurosawa stuff I stumbled upon the unfilmed 1941 script A German at Daruma Temple (達摩寺のドイツ人), which as you may remember was supposed to be Kurosawa’s first own production but the production was shut down in pre-production stage by the government censors. Anyway, it was certainly interesting to find it in one of the books! I knew it was published, and I think Kurosawa won some prize for it too, but I didn’t know that I actually had a copy.

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    cocoskyavitch

    “…killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication”- according to Vili’s link. Hmmm. It works for me. In the context of the witch song, it’s an Eastern Ten Commandments halved. What is left out? Honor thy mom and pop, (maybe not good for achieving Buddhist detachment?) Honor No other God (Well, yep, that one’s gotta go) no idols (wow, the temples would look so empty without the 1000 images of the Buddha wall…) keep the Sabbath holy (Uh…no such day) no blaspheming (Uh ok, so there are some very big differences).

    And what is emphasized in the witch song? The ephemeral nature of existence and the cyclical movement of life, suffering, decay and death then new life out of the rotting death…I don’t know if I think specifically Mayahanan or Theravadan Buddhism is relevant to this-it seems enough to know that the basic tenets of samsara, dukkha and karma indicate Buddhist ideas. I think that the witch is a cautionary character, something like a Tibetan Buddhist hungry ghost…I see that there are Japanese versions, too, although I am not an expert in this-beings who, due to their lusts or passions are insatiable indeath-they may feed off fear from the living-and I think that’s her function here.

    I also think she is the cautionary tale of the futility and meaninglessness of such passions as killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication-and that the cycle of ignorance perpetuated by these grasping actions mean you will never break free of these desires, and continue to repeat a futile cycle.

    I think that’s partly why this film works so well, it has the feel of a moral tale-much in contrast to “sound and fury, signifying nothing”. It signifies quite a bit!

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    Vili Maunula

    As I noted in my post on the origins of the old woman, the character of the witch is apparently based on a character in the Noh play Kurozuka.

    In the script found here the old woman / demon is given the following lines:

    None so forlorn as those in wretched solitude;

    To this weary world comes autumn

    And the dawn winds pierce me through.

    There is no gentling of the heart;

    Yesterday in emptiness come and gone

    In the sleep of night alone, I exist.

    How uncertain, this life of man.

    Later, she remarks:

    How miserable, to be born in human form and yet

    to wake and sleep in this foresaken spot;

    such a sorrow racks the heart.

    And a chorus soon adds:

    Though I prolonge my days in this inconstant world –

    day and night, no moment free from toil –

    if in my heart I am set on the true path

    then even without prayer

    how can I fail to attain Buddhahood?

    (kuse)

    A momentary gathering of earth, water, fire, wind,

    still, I linger on;

    returning with the karmic wheel of birth and rebirth;

    travelling round the five paths, six paths of existence;

    all due to a single heart’s confusion.

    When I think of the vanity of our lives

    never again to return to our youth;

    old age, finally, inevitable;

    I feel no attachments and yet

    my unavailing heart

    harbors resentment in vain.

    These lines probably served as an influence to the old woman’s song. I’m still not sure what it all means in the concept of the film, though!

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    cocoskyavitch

    I think, Vili, the film’s concept is one Kurosawa always had: we must choose wisely, as we are caught in this cycle of birth, life and death in a vale of suffering with regret and sorrow, we must choose wisely our actions if we hope to rise above this pain.

    It is noted that a true path leads to Buddha. The rest is temporal, illusory-all passions causing pain ultimately, and all is meaningless.

    I think that this is core meaning and is the same with Ozu. All of the mono-no-aware feeling is born from the temporal nature of life-including beauty and its transience. It is the meaninglessness that underscores all of Yasunari Kawabata’s writing (in my humble reading of his work). And, very oddly, I think it is the world view shared (in Macbeth) by Shakespeare, too!

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    Vili Maunula

    Coco is probably right.

    I have started to think about the way the song in the film ends. Just before the last few lines, we have:

    At the end

    Of his travails

    Is the stench of rotting flesh

    That will yet blossom into flower

    Its foul odor rendered

    Into sweet perfume

    This is an interestingly uplifting part in the otherwise gloomy and almost mocking song. Is man’s life then perhaps not quite as meaningless as she insists at the beginning of the song? What is that “sweet odour”?

    Sometimes flowers are, of course, just flowers. And perhaps what she is saying is that the only good that ever comes out of our existence is that our bodies, when they decay, can provide fuel for the nature around us to blossom.

    But in my world, flowers don’t have to be just flowers, so I started to think about a possible metaphorical meaning behind those lines. Perhaps because I find it such an interesting idea that the stench of something rotting here begets “sweet odour”.

    I wonder, is this some kind of a Buddhist thing — one’s ultimate ascension to enlightenment? Or, is it perhaps just saying that although our existence as a whole is meaningless (as the song notes earlier), the lives that we lead do still contribute to something. Like a flower, a life is (or creates) an aesthetic and a sensory object, and while everyone’s existence still remains meaningless, one person’s life (marked by death) can serve as that aesthetic object to be observed and learnt from. One’s struggle, with the sweet odour that it ultimately produces, can make the struggle of others just a little bit easier.

    Of course, only if the others actually take the time to stop and smell that flower.

    In other words, we can (and actually will) be examples, and perhaps should live accordingly.

    Or, maybe they are just flowers.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Or, perhaps, Vili, they are lotus blossoms, that famously grow from the mud and filth to open, clean, above the water, with an intoxicating scent (I like one in particular that smells to me like “Orange Tang”-the astronauts’ beverage).

    Buddha’s seat of wisdom is the lotus.

    Buddha’s message is the lotus.

    Buddha is the lotus.

    But of course, just a flower, too.

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    Squirrel

    Fleetingness of this ukiyo is always present in Noh – alongwith other, more human and low ideas. What one is to reach in this word is a harmony with cosmos, which is the model for yūgen idea of Noh. I Noh this ideal is to some extent attained–both through monomane and characters living their past again and bringing another level of interpretation. My idea is that, through the witch from Kurozuka is evident to be nothing but a demon eating flesh, Washizu fails to see that the road he takes leads to nowhere. He lets ‘trails deceive him’. He does never get to another level of interpretation. He does not see what Miki’s ghost trying to indicate. He’s but a warrior–in a position he’s not to be in.

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