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Playing at the film club: Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa)

Film Club: Throne of Blood (Kurosawa, 1957)

Throne of Blood arrows
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time, only for the page to flip over again, and start anew. In other words: happy new year, everyone!

Our film club kicks off this year with Akira Kurosawa’s Macbeth adaptation Throne of Blood. Hence also the Shakespeare bastardisation above. I do apologise.

The last two films that we watched, Ikiru (Kurosawa) and Biutiful (Iñárritu), featured protagonists whose fates were largely sealed. Those protagonists tried to make something out of their situation, one more successfully than the other. Kurosawa’s 1957 film Throne of Blood operates under a fairly similar premise. But while Ikiru was an inspirational tale, Throne of Blood could well be described as its cautionary counterpart. Strive to be more like Watanabe, less like Washizu.

If it’s even possible at all, that is.

Based on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Throne of Blood transports the Scottish play into medieval Japan. Kurosawa’s film keeps the original storyline fairly intact but takes liberties in language, presentation and perhaps also core message. With its aggressively cinematic form, the film replaces Shakespeare’s poetry with something like its visual counterpart. With its dynamism, it is far removed from the often stale stage-to-screen adaptations that plague the history of Shakespeare adaptations. And yet, the film also embraces theatre, just not that of Shakespeare’s tradition, but instead the heritage of Japanese Noh.

Kurosawa had wanted to make his Macbeth adaptation as early as the mid-40s, but had decided to put the idea on hold when Orson Welles released his version in 1948. A decade later, he returned to the project.

Pre-production of the film started in early 1956, a few months after Kurosawa’s previous film I Live in Fear had been released. Shooting began on June 29 and ran, apparently fairly undisturbed, until the end of the year. A quick post-production typical of Kurosawa followed and the film was released on January 15, 1957 with the title 蜘蛛巣城 / Kumonosu-jō, or “Spider Web Castle”. The general reception to it was mixed, or at least a little quiet for a Kurosawa film at the time. In Japan, Throne of Blood was neither a box-office hit nor a critical darling. It “only” managed a shared fourth place in Kinema Junpo’s annual list of best Japanese films. (Galbraith, 230-239)

The critical reception abroad was more immediate, however. Throne of Blood was quickly recognised as an important cinematic statement and cemented Kurosawa’s place as a auteur filmmaker for many. Because of its Shakespeare connection, and the fact that it has generally been considered one of the most successful film adaptations of the bard’s works, Throne of Blood has continued to attract a fair amount of interest also from writers outside of the typical Kurosawa circle. It is one of Kurosawa’S most thoroughly dissected films.

In purely technical terms, Throne of Blood may well be Kurosawa’s most perfect film, the one where just about everything works like clockwork, seamlessly together. Its influences go beyond Shakespeare and Noh theatre, and the film is recognised as particularly indebted to the cinema of Kenji Mizoguchi, with the distant, alienating camera and the film’s use of chorus as a narrative device often mentioned as particularly Mizoguchian. As for its themes, at the forefront we have ritual, fate and predestination, as well as the film’s message of a man struggling to free himself from his fate. It is a theme both universal as well as understandably contemporary for post-war Japan.

There is much more to be said about the film than the most commonly discussed aspects that I have outlined here. We too have naturally discussed Throne of Blood before, on numerous occasions, with some of the topics available here.

Information about the film’s home video availability can be found in the Kurosawa DVDs and Kurosawa Blu-rays sections, which admittedly need some updating (albeit the Throne of Blood information should be up-to-date). In many countries, Throne of Blood is also available through streaming services: check your local Google Play, iTunes and Amazon Prime services.

In February, we are going to pair Throne of Blood with Ralph Fiennes’s directorial debut, the 2011 Shakespeare adaptation Coriolanus. It should also be readily available for you: check out your local Google Play store, iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, and other places. It is of course also available in physical form: check out Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.


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Discussion

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Ugetsu

Great choice Vili, one of my favourites. Interesting point you make about it being Mizoguchian, I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but it does make sense.

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njean

When I first watched Throne of Blood many years ago, I loved it. With several subsequent viewings, I liked it less. Too much Mifune bluster, too much yelling, I thought. Watching it again yesterday, to my surprise, I liked it a lot. I still have reservations. I think the witch/spirit’s song goes on too long. For me, the effect of that wonderful scene is lessened by its length. The effect is also hurt by the repeated shots of Washizu and Miki just standing there and staring. Either think of something better, or limit those shots to one or two. I think the next sequence also goes on way too long; the endless riding around in the Spider’s Web Forest makes me want to hit Fast Forward.

I also wonder if Minoru Chiaki is right for the role of Miki. In the story he is as much a warrior as Washizu, but he is portrayed as rather bland. With his helmet on, he looks to me quite uncomfortable in his armor. The contrast between him and Washizu is very clear in the scene where they receive their honors after the encounter with the spirit. Helmets off, they come forward. Washizu is dark, bearded, and fierce. Miki is very light, clean shaven, impassive. Kurosawa must have wanted that difference, but for me it’s a bit much.

Finally, there’s the scene where Washizu and Miki dismount and sit, talking about what they’ve just experienced with the spirit. They are widely separated, and the castle is seen in the distance. The photography keeps us at a distance from them. Why? This is our first opportunity to get to know them, yet there are no closeups. There are plenty of closeups later in the film. Why not here? The result, to my eyes, is two suits of armor talking with one another. I get it that it’s like we’re watching the scene played on a Noh stage, but why is that a good idea at this point?

Enough complaining. My reservations are all about scenes early in the film. Thereafter, I’m hooked. I especially liked Isuzu Yamada’s portrayal of Asaji. The hand washing scene is beyond brilliant. We’d become used to seeing her impassive expression, yet here she is so tormented – how is it possible that it’s the same face? Another wonderful scene of hers is at 45:38. She has just given the spear to Washizu, and he rushes out to murder his lord. Left alone, she slowly sinks to her knees, looking after him. Almost imperceptibly her expression changes, and it becomes clear she’s thinking about (indeed, she’s literally drawn to) the evidence of the previous ghastly death in that room. With only tiny changes in her eyes and face, she is now expressing fear and terror. Remarkable. In still another scene she is photographed beautifully. She is going to fetch the sake that will make the guards drunk. She opens the door and slowly (43:04) walks into…..absolute darkness. She completely disappears. A few moments later she reappears out of the darkness, carrying the sake. Could there be a clearer depiction of the descent into evil?

I’ve read the lengthy discussion on this site from the previous viewing of Throne of Blood some years ago. One topic was the extent to which actions are predetermined by fate or are the result of character. Without getting into the argument, I would only point out that Kurosawa involves the viewer in the problem right from the beginning. The first things we see and hear about are the ruined castle and the story of past death and destruction. So we know from the start that things turnout badly. For us, that is predetermined. And we think, how did it come to this?

One last word. Criterion has provided two different sets of subtitles. The default setting is for Linda Hoaglund’s. It is interesting to compare hers with those of Donald Richie whose version Toho decided not to use. I give here their respective translations of the opening chorus.

Hoaglund: Look upon the ruins/ of the castle of delusion
Haunted only now by the spirits/ of those who perished.
A scene of carnage/ born of consuming desire
Never changing/ now and throughout eternity.
Here stood Spider’s Web Castle (translation of the writing on the pillar)

Richie: Behold, within this place/ now desolated
Stood once a mighty fortress/ Lived a proud warrior
Murdered by ambition
His spirit is walking still
Vain pride, then as now will
Lead ambition to the kill. (no translation of the writing on the pillar)

Interesting, no? Similar but different. The differences are much more pronounced in their translations of the spirit’s song. Criterion has also supplied essays by both of them on their approaches to making subtitles.

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Ugetsu

Those different translations are fascinating – I’ve never done a direct comparison, but the BFI subtitles for Seven Samurai are so different from the Criterion ones its almost like a different film (movie). I wish my Japanese was up to being able to say which is more accurate – my Japanese teacher told me that most Japanese films favour a sort of contrived ‘ye olde’ dialect for samurai films. Perhaps some Japanese speakers could comment on what is used in Throne of Blood.

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Patrick Galvan

From what I understand, though he lived in Japan for most of his life, Richie never learned how to read/write Japanese proficiently. There was this wonderful video interview with him (since taken down) in which he described as a Japanese as a language “so incredibly easy to learn how to speak and so impossibly difficult to learn how to read and write.” That might explain why he left the writing on the pillar untranslated.

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Ugetsu

I didn’t realise Richie said that – my experience is the opposite. I’m just a learner (second try after an aborted start 10 years ago), but I find learning katakana and kanji very interesting, but frustrating to listen to or speak due to all those very similar homophones, maybe my ear just hasn’t tuned into it yet. Maybe when I next visit Japan it will all come together for me (I can hope).

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Fortinbras

Thank you njean for a very interesting read.

I watched the film a few days ago, after first reading about it in various Kurosawa books. I haven’t watched it for some years now.
I like it very much and I’m always impressed by the ending, the scenes when Washizu is shot by arrows. I can really understand if Mifune had a bit of real fright shooting those scenes.

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Vili Maunula

You raise some really good points, njean!

I think the witch/spirit’s song goes on too long. … I think the next sequence also goes on way too long; the endless riding around in the Spider’s Web Forest makes me want to hit Fast Forward.

My interpretation here has been that the scenes were specifically designed to make you uneasy. In most places, the film is really tightly edited and economical, and the scenes before these are definitely like that, so I would think that there is meaning to these sections being built as they are.

Finally, there’s the scene where Washizu and Miki dismount and sit, talking about what they’ve just experienced with the spirit. They are widely separated, and the castle is seen in the distance. The photography keeps us at a distance from them. Why?

Although they don’t necessarily fully realise it yet, Washizu and Miki are really talking about how the castle and what it stands for will end up dividing them. It already does so, in the framing. The gulf between them has appeared. They have become smaller, mere pawns for the fates.

Or at least that’s one way to interpret the framing.

Criterion has provided two different sets of subtitles.

Now, do I remember incorrectly, or did Donald Richie specifically model his translation on Shakespeare’s Jacobean style? I don’t have the Criterion set myself so I could well remember wrong.

By the way, any idea what’s the deal with horses turning around in circles in this film? In a number of scenes where you would expect a rider to sit on a standing horse and deliver his lines, the horse is instead doing circles in one place, agitated and uncontrollable. Is this thematic and echoing the wheel of time that we saw with the witch? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

It seems like this is particularly common early on and late in the film, with the middle of the film featuring calmer horses, where also the story is a little calmer for a moment.

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Mugibuefan

Is Throne of Blood better viewed as: (1) a (perhaps free-form) adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth? (2) primarily a cinematic Noh play with some connection to Shakespeare’s Macbeth? or (3) something sui generis? This has been argued on all sides by critics, depending on their background, either in literature or cinema. I wonder what the contributors to this forum think. The problem with (1) is, I agree with those who feel the essence of Macbeth is in Shakespeare’s language as being necessary to properly illustrate the “inner” conflict issues of the protagonist, which therefore limits the appropriateness of any foreign cinematic “adaptation” (2) I’m not familiar enough with Noh other than to note, as others have, its undoubted influence on the structure of the movie (3) It could certainly be appreciated merely on its own merits, without necessarily characterizing it as primarily either (1) or (2), although noting some influences or similarities.

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njean

Vili, here’s what Donald Richie said about his subtitles, in an essay in the Criterion booklet.
“When I did the subtitles for Throne of Blood, a film so stylized that the art director had to create an entire historical vernacular for it, I turned to an equally heightened diction, thinking it would both support and to an extent create the artificiality that Kurosawa was aiming for. I read the minor Jacobean playwrights, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, John Webster, Cyril Tourneur, particularly plays like ‘The Revenger’s Tragedy,’ until I understood their bloodthirsty solemnity. This I attempted to re-create in my titles for the film.
Though transparency is a worthy aim, there is also something to be said for the opaque – it all depends on the film being translated. I felt that this Kurosawa film, so claustrophobic, characters hemmed in at every turn, could be supported by a noncolloquial diction, one that required an amount of contemplation. I hoped that the language would put a brake on the emotions just as the dramaturgy of this particular film does.
Hence my Jacobean experiment. Whether it is successful of not, I have no idea, because these titles were never used and, until now, have not been seen. The distributor who originally commissioned this translation decided eventually to go with the original Toho titles, done by one of the people there.”

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Mugibuefan

I think njean’s quotation from Richie is inclined to support the comment I made above regarding option (1). It may not have been the distributor’s reasoning, but the attempt at a “Shakespearean” or “Jacobean” (the latter not being of the same literary class as the former, but still from English literature of the time) translation of Throne of Blood, which could be interpreted (although it is not clear this was part of Richie’s intent) as an attempt to bring it more in line with contemporary Shakespeare may have been seen as ultimately unsuccessful. A brave try by Richie however.

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Vili Maunula

Mugibuefan: I would say that all three approaches are valid and can lead down interesting interpretive paths. That said, I know very little about noh theatre but my understanding is that in Throne of Blood its influence is in the end quite concentrated on specific visual aspects, rather than wider form or content. But, as I said, I know very little about noh.

What comes to Shakespeare, language is pretty much all we have from him. We know relatively little about the specifics of how his plays were performed and what those performances looked like. Still, the plays were written to be performed, so any production is always going to be part Shakespeare, part something else. In theory, there’s also the question how much of Macbeth is actually someone else than Shakespeare: the version that got printed likely includes at least some bits from his contemporary Thomas Middleton’s plays.

In the end, I suppose everything is an adaptation. Including the act of interpreting a film like Throne of Blood. Or, indeed, subtitling it.

Njean, thanks for the quote! So, I remembered it correctly, more or less. I should probably hunt down my Criterion copy and watch the film with Richie’s subtitles. I’m fairly sure I had the Criterion DVD at some point but somehow now I only seem to own the Australian Madman print.

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BMWRider

Just finished rewatching and will add my thoughts later. If anything the film club encourages me to revisit films I have not seen in sometime.

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BMWRider

So I have probably watched Throne of Blood two or three times at most. It is not one of my favorite Kurosawa films, though I do not think that the problem is with him. Honestly, I think it is my lack of appreciation for the in your face style tragedy that Shakespeare wrote. I love the development of the characters, I enjoy the acting, but in the end I always want to throttle the characters and demand that they use their intellect. I have the same problem with Romeo and Juliet as well as Hamlet (I had the same problem with the critically acclaimed Sons of Anarchy based on Hamlet).

So before watching Throne of Blood yesterday I decided to watch it from a different POV. I watched for two things, the black and white version of the human sweeps that AK used later in (in color of course) Kagemusha and Ran, and for the performance of Mifune. On the first part I was not disappointed to see the movements of soldiers used in mass to paint a picture. I will admit to imagining what it would have been like had Kurosawa had access to a Hollywood budget. But, my appreciation for his mastery of using the movement of his actors to set the tone of battle was only heightened. It is much more difficult to convey that in B/W than color. Again AK’s skill as a director especially concerning battle scenes is amazing.

I feel Mifune does a brilliant job of portraying a man that is sinking into madness. Yes his bluster does wear thin (a tool he also used in Rashomon), but he ensures the viewer see his mounting insanity. I think most of us wish we could tell Washizu to stop. Something struck me yesterday, just as Eve tempted Adam with the fruit of knowledge, Asaji tempts Washizu with the fruit of power. In the end she pays dearly. Since Asaji really is the more ambitious of the two and ensures that Washizu completes the job, she pays by living with hands that cannot be washed of the blood she shed.

So on the whole, I am not the biggest fan of this film, but there are many elements I enjoy. I am glad to have found more that I can enjoy and appreciate the Club for providing the opportunity to do so.

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chomei

If ever a movie conveyed the concept of ” the fog of war,” this film certainly does. Nothing is clear, either fog or darkness are almost always present.

One of the few ” clear” scenes is the scene before the lord arrives at Washizu’s estate. He’s happy and so are his men. He had achieved everything he ever wanted. He is satisfied but not his wife. And isn’t Asaji a bit too one dimensional? Of course almost every Kurosawa woman is one dimensional, but she’s perhaps the most.

Buddhism is a faith based on deeds. Buddha tells us that “We are heir to our deeds.” Fate is not what pushes Washizu, it’s his own pride and greed. Perhaps the witch isn’t “real” at all, in any sense, but the result of the intense emotions of battle and the men’s sheer exhaustion. When they are in sight of the castle they are too tired to ride there.

Even though it’s from King Lear, I think this quote is applicable, “As flies to wanton boys are ‘men to the gods, they kill them for their sport.”

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Fabien

As for me, this additionnal watching of Throne of Blood gave me an increased pleasure based on (slightly) acuter sight and knowledge.

One thing that particularly struck me then is the sense of choreography.
More than the disciplinary rhythm and gestures found in military contexts.
Different from the deeply rooted dance pillar of Noh, as explained in interviews in the bonuses of my dvd. (From AK french editor Wild Side.)

In this film, there are strong moments, marked by harmony or by tension and rupture, when characters perform impressively meticulous series of moves which, at times, are successively swift then slow, or vice versa.

The first moment I thus noticed is a view of Washizu and Miki pompously receiving katanas and new charges from the lord.
Immediately followed by a view upon the fields and peasants collecting their crops.
These two views being opposed not only in the essence of the scene, but in the timing and shape of the moves (the latter being, in my eye, rounder and sweeter albeit quicker).

There is also a noticeable series of moves when the three soldiers guarding the room of the sleeping lord resheath or put away their weapon, one after the other, although we could have expected, in a real context, silmutaneity.

Other choreographically impressive moments are blatantly noh-inspired dual scenes with Asaji and Taketoki, but also, for example, when maids kneel down just before Taketoki and the crazed hand washing scene, or, yet, the rise of intendants and officers facing the bird invasion.

I have other thought threads, but I will try to find adequate and existing discussion threads to fulfill them.

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lawless

I have to admit, characterizing the women in Kurosawa’s films as one dimensional sticks in my craw, although it’s accurate with respect to Asaji and the madwoman in Red Beard. I address this further here. As the linked discussion notes, Kurosawa’s male characters often don’t have particular depth either and his female characters aren’t as superficial as commonly alleged.

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