Friday, April 9, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Throne of Blood" (1957)

I'd been wanting to see "Throne of Blood" for years, ever since I saw a short clip of a scene from the film where a Japanese lord is killed by his own men with arrows. It's an arresting moment, full of poetry and violence, as only the great Akira Kurosawa could compose.

After finally seeing the movie, I consider it one of the great director's minor works, even though I know it is widely considered one of his best.

The plot is a more or less straight adaptation of Shakespeare's "Macbeth," transposed to feudal Japan. An ambitious general is egged by his wife into assassinating the Great Lord, and usurps his position. But he is brought down by his own foolishness and suspicion.

Toshiro Mifune, in one of his 16 collaborations with Kurosawa, plays the lead role, Washizu. His wife, Asaji, is played by Isuzu Yamada. Washizu's lifelong friend and comrade is Miki (Minoru Chiaki).

On their way Spider Web Castle -- which is the film's Japanese title -- Miki and Washizu encounter a strange spirit. Bathed in white light and spinning a loom, the old ghost woman makes two predictions: That both men will be promoted that very evening, and that both Washizu and Miki's son will eventually become lord of the castle.

The two generals laugh at this, but indeed upon presenting themselves to the Great Lord they are promoted to the positions the spirit predicted.

Thus begins the deceit of Washizu by his wife. Whispering in his ear a la Lady Macbeth, Asaji convinces Washizu that it is only a matter of time before the Great Lord hears about the prophecy and dispatches him. His choices are but two, she claims: Serve loyally and wait for the execution to come, or dare to grasp the reigns of power and become the Great Lord himself.

His chance arrives when the monarch comes to visit at his fort. Asaji drugs the Great Lord's guards, and puts one of their spears into Washizu's hands. He leaves and returns, almost in a trance, with the weapon, and his hands, covered in blood.

War breaks out, with the Great Lord's son supported by his old enemy. Miki, who had been placed in charge of Spider Web Castle, clearly knows that his old friend murdered their sovereign. Still, he acquiesces to Washizu's ascension to Great Lord in order to keep the peace. Washizu, who is childless, agrees to appoint Miki's son his heir.

But still the scheming continues. After inviting Miki and his son to a celebration feast, Washizu secretly dispatches as assassin to slay them before they arrive. He sees the ghost of Miki in the empty seat where his friend should be, and goes into a panic that alienates his other guests.

Washizu seeks out the forest spirit again, who tells him that he will not be defeated in battle before the very trees of the forest rise up against Spider Web Castle. Renewed with confidence against such an impossibility ever happening, he boasts to his soldiers about the prophecy.

But when his enemies cut down the trees and use them as cover, the men turn on their lord and slay him with arrows.

This death scene, coming at the very end, is just a startling sequence. Wild-eyed, Washizu runs back and forth across the parapet of the castle as arrows rain in. Kurosawa's battle scenes are always amazingly authentic in addition to being kinetically precise -- those arrows really look like they're screaming in at full speed, even thunking into Washizu's armor.

Compare this movie with the battle scenes from "Ivanhoe," a Hollywood movie that is a contemporary of "Throne," which featured arrows that looked like they'd been dumped out of a canister.

There's an astonishing amount of smoke and fog throughout the movie. Clearly, Kurosawa is saying something about people's perceptions being obscured by hate, ambition, lust, etc.

I liked "Throne of Blood," but while there are many scenes that just crackle with Kurosawa's distinct energy, there are many more that just ramble on and on. In particular, his obsession with ranks of soldiers maneuvering on the battlefield gets to be very old, very fast.

Fortunately, the film ends with a scene of such power and electricity, it overpowers the movie's tendency to amble.

3 stars

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