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Akira Kurosawa's Pandemic Film: A reading of The Mask of The Black Death

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    Vili Maunula

    With everything that’s been going recently, my thoughts have kept returning to Kurosawa’s unfilmed screenplay The Mask of the Black Death. Written in the mid-to-late 70s, at a time when Kurosawa was also developing Kagemusha and Ran, The Mask of the Black Death narrates a story about a deadly pandemic and the consequences of self-isolation and social distancing that it forces people into. In it, Kurosawa offers a harrowing vision of what an epidemic disease can do to a society when things go wrong. It is a warning that we should definitely heed today.

    As with Ran, The Mask of the Black Death was loosely based on the work of a Western author. This time around, Kurosawa reached to Edgar Allan Poe’s 5-page short story “The Masque of the Red Death”, which he took as a starting point by turning its underlying premise into a 120-page screenplay treatment. The project was never further developed by Kurosawa, although some parts of it did leak into his other films and there has also been talk in recent years about the unfilmed draft being turned into an animated feature.

    The opening image of The Mask of the Black Death certainly resonates with familiarity when read in spring 2020. It describes a road block manned by gloomy, frightened soldiers, their mouths and noses covered by haphazard masks, their faces illuminated in the darkness only by nearby bonfires. They are there to keep outsiders away, to protect those inside from a deadly disease that is ravaging the world. No one is welcome in.

    A group of other soldiers have attempted to eradicate the disease outside in the countryside and now want to come back to the safety of these protected areas. Their captain explains how they have kept their mouths and noses covered, have touched neither food nor water outside, are willing to burn everything that they are wearing and bathe in vinegar. They need to get back in. They even have a letter from the Duke that should grant them access.

    But no, no one can enter. Not even heroes. The sealed letter that they have from the Duke is worthless, in fact entirely blank, and therefore gives them no access. Borders have become impenetrable and these heroes are entirely discardable in the eyes of the frightened society protected within.

    When the soldiers then try to enter a nearby castle instead, they again encounter a similar tale. Not only are they driven away, but the iron gates are actually welded shut to prevent the entrance from ever opening again.

    And so these abandoned soldiers are left wandering in the disease-ravaged countryside, slowly going mad.

    Kurosawa’s screenplay is not quite a screenplay. It actually makes a point of saying so at the beginning, instead calling itself a “story” and a starting point for a more developed scenario. Every now and then, one comes across some surprising literary qualities. Many scenes function almost as word paintings, and one scene is even described through the work of an actual painter: “If Brueghel had described a district ravaged by the black plaque, the picture would probably look like this,” this scene starts with, referring to the 16th century Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

    It is a very visual story, and nowhere more so than within the Duke’s Castle. In contrast to the opening scenes’ battered, colourless countryside where the silence of death and misery lingers amongst various shades of grey and black, the bulk of the story happens in this castle, a secure fortification inside which six rooms of abundance host its self-isolating inhabitants, each room identified by its own colour and largely frequented by a specific higher social class. If you thought that Dodesukaden was a full-on celebration of primary colours, Kurosawa’s vision for The Mask of the Black Death seems to have been even more extreme.

    The castle’s people, protected from the disease that is running wild in the rest of the world, spend their time enjoying lavish and virtually never ending dinner parties, as they have nothing better to do while in self-isolation. Things begin to change, however, when the Duchess falls ill. Suddenly, rumours erupt of the disease now having reached the castle.

    “An abnormal disaster drives men into an abnormal state of mind,” Kurosawa at one point writes. We have people fighting over resources, some feeling suffocated by the psychological panic caused by an uncertain future, others spreading false conspiracies, and many using the ongoing disaster as an opportunity to engage in political manoeuvring and furthering their own power positions. And yes, I am still describing the screenplay, not today’s news headlines.

    The Duchess’s illness, and the potential presence of the disease inside the quarantined castle, leads to a series of in-fighting and internal struggle. At a time when these people should come together, across social classes, imaginary borders and inane political soap boxes, they instead curl strongly inwards, with themselves and their loved ones now the only things that really matter. Others be damned. Perhaps it is, in the end, an understandable human reaction. But it is certainly not shown as producing anything positive.

    The Duke, a somewhat unstable and authoritarian figure who is more interested in his own image than the well-being of his people, seems completely unable to lead his duchy in any meaningful way. Despite the ample time that these people in the castle have had in their relative safety, and the many warnings from outside, they have not prepared for this disease, not at all. In the end, the Duke, accused of trying to hide the Duchess’s disease from the public, ends up being ousted and thrown into the dungeon by his brother who takes his place.

    Most of the story, had it been filmed, takes place in almost real time, within the span of just a couple of hours. It demonstrates how, under the pressures of extraordinary circumstances, things can happen very quickly once they are set in motion. Safety can turn into total chaos with just a few wrong moves, when proper checks and procedures are no longer in place.

    The Duchess, of course, does not actually have the disease whose name should not be mentioned within the castle walls. But when this is discovered, it is already too late, and politically too risky, to tell this to the people. Instead, she must be sacrificed to retain the illusion and the new status quo’s grasp of power.

    The story ends with an extraordinary mixture of beauty and the macabre, with the presentation of what would certainly have been a very striking ballet performance if filmed, and in the midst of which the character of the Black Death itself finally enters the castle. With his entrance, everything decisively crumbles into total, irreversible disarray. When, at the very end, Kurosawa finally lifts the mask of this bizarre character and reveals his true identity, it is very much done with the director’s typical dry humour.

    Speaking of humour, as is so often with Kurosawa, the screenplay appears to contain some self-referential winks to his other works. But perhaps more interestingly, the text also describes a technique that Kurosawa ended up using in Ran, with extended periods of crowd chaos displayed with no sounds generated by the actual events, and instead only a haunting soundtrack providing a counterpoint to these muted actions.

    Kurosawa’s The Mask of the Black Death shows how a society faced by a deadly catastrophe turns inwards, at a time when it should do the exact opposite. It functions as a warning and a reminder that we should all be in this together, that we should look after one another and search for common solutions and ways forward. That we should distance ourselves from each other only physically, not emotionally. The alternative simply isn’t human.

    If you are interested in reading Kurosawa’s The Mask of the Black Death, the script, together with an English translation, should be found at the Akira Kurosawa Digital Archive. Unfortunately, as I’m trying to get into the service, the server seems to be down at the moment, or requires a login whenever it does work. Hopefully, this is only a temporary hiccup, for the archive is certainly an extraordinary resource.

    A quick search would suggest that Scribd also hosts a copy of the English translation. But as it needs a login (and I already have a copy), I haven’t tried it.

    Edgar Allan Poe’s original short story is also available online, but it bears fairly little resemblance to Kurosawa’s work, other than the setting.

    Stay safe and stay healthy, everyone.

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    ssj

    thanks for the detailed summary, vili.
    will definitely take a gander at the script. . . if i can navigate the archive.

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