Friday, October 9, 2009

OctoberFlix #1: "Throne of Blood"

One more Halloween-themed series for your reading enjoyment! It occurred to me that it might be fun to look at some films that really fit the Halloween “mood,” but that aren’t thought of so much as the typical Halloween horror fare.

& what better place to start than a movie containing a witchy evil spirit, at least one ghost, a “cobweb” forest & castle, & two characters descent into
murderous madness. This is Macbeth set in a feudal Japan filled with Samurai warriors: namely, Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.

Kurosawa is without doubt one of my very favorite directors, & for me & a number of other folks, Throne of Blood is one of his best films. Shot in stark black-&-white, the characters often shrouded in swirling fog in a forbidding mountain landscape, the tone of austere tragedy is set from the beginning with shots of a wasteland, while singers intone a dirge-like song about the vanity of ambition—one of the film’s central themes. I should add that while Masaru Sato’s soundtrack is used very sparingly, it is always used to chilling effect. When there is no music, we hear the wind, or the sharp rustle of a silk skirt across the floor, or the crows cawing; this time viewing the film I really was struck by the use of these sounds—combined with silence—in creating an aural backdrop; these are punctuated by Sato’s score, which is built on eerie flute & ominous drum.

It is interesting to consider Throne of Blood both as it relates to Macbeth & in the ways it is very different. Although the plot line is quite similar almost to the dénouement, the most radical difference is that Macbeth is woven of words, & Throne of Blood is woven of images & sound. There are many periods of brooding silence—when the characters do engage in dialogue, it’s laconic & formal, whether it’s the language of retainers advising their lord or exchanges between the “Macbeth” & “Lady Macbeth” characters, Taketori Washizu (played by frequent Kurosawa leading man, Toshirô Mifune) & Lady Asaji Washizu (played by Isuzu Yamada). This terseness & formality works to underline even more those scenes where the dialogue reaches emotional peaks—when Washizu & Miki encounter the evil spirit in the woods, when Washizu erupts from a catatonic trance to a bloodthirsty frenzy following his murder of Lord Tsuzuki, or when Lady Asaji hysterically describes trying to wash both the blood stains & the blood odor from her hands.

In a sense, this contrast between tense, formal speech & emotional eruption i
s echoed not only in the contrast between silence & sound; it’s also enacted in the contrast between the many scenes in which characters are virtually frozen in tableau & those (actually infrequent) times when they explode into frenetic activity. This begins as soon as the sung prologue concludes, with the frantic arrival of the first messenger—after his emotional statement, we see the Lord & his retainers holding stoic poses as if in a still picture—the camera pans in front of them, but they don’t move at all. This contrast is perhaps most effective in the banquet following Miki’s murder; Washizu, Lady Asaji & all the retainers maintain stiffly erect poses; when the serving man pours wine for the retainers, he moves in the most deliberate fashion. However when Washizu sees Miki’s ghost (which no one else can see) he bursts into violent action, shouting & swinging his sword wildly as he careens about the hall.

Movement also conveys so much meaning in Throne of Blood (as in other Kurosawa films); whether it’s th
e stiff formal gestures used between the samurai or the wildly choreographed battle scenes. One particular motion that’s central to the film’s theme is circling—this begins when Washizu & Miki are lost in the cobweb forest after their impressive victory over rebel forces. They believe an evil spirit is “blocking” them, & no matter how fiercely they try to batter their way thru, they can’t make headway. Finally, they come to the hut of the “evil spirit” herself, where she sits singing & spinning thread; obviously, the wheel is of primary significance, since her song is a sort of sinister take on “vanity of vanities.” Worldly ambition seeks to move in a line—it seeks to construct a forward-moving narrative to explain itself, even as Lady Asaji constantly seeks to construct a narrative to spur on Washizu’s ambitions; the “evil spirit” on the other hand “spins” a narrative that isn’t linear, a narrative that shows how ambition itself ends in dust. The spirit states this is man’s lot, & Washizu’s attempts to break free of this ultimate circle only precipitate the doom he finds in “fulfilling” the spirit’s prophecy.

There are some truly remarkable scenes in this film. Both scenes in which
Washizu encounters the spirit (officially billed in English as “the Ghost Woman,” & played by Chieko Naniwa) are very powerful. The scene following Lord Tsuzuki’s murder, in which Yamada, as Lady Asaji moves with frantic energy, her silk robes scraping the floor, while Mifune’s Washizu sits unmoving with a fixed stare is also unforgettable.

In short, Throne of Blood is a film you really should see—it’s not scheduled on TCM, but it is available thru Netflix & no doubt your better neighborhood video stores—& what better time for it than a cold October evening when perhaps there’s a bit of wind whistling outside your own window?

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  1. Excellent writeup about a truly great film. The scene that stayed with me the most -- besides the very end -- is the one in which Mifune's wife obsessively washes her hands with nothing, trying to rid herself of guilt.

  2. I have become lazy, in my dotage. Mostly, I watch movies that entertain me. This sounds like a challenge - but it's no doubt worth the effort. Thanks, John.

  3. Hi K & Sandra

    K: Thanks! & yes, that's a great scene, too.

    Sandra: I'm big on entertainment too--after all, Eberle & I are just winding up our watching of Star Trek Deep Space Nine from beginning to end (Netflix--4 episodes to go!) This film really is quite gripping. Glad you enjoyed the write-up!


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