Monday, May 16, 2005

Throne of Blood d. Akira Kurosawa, 1957

Throne of Blood - a loose adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth - deals less with the corruptive nature of and transfixing greed for power (an idea mined by Roman Polanski in his adaptation) than the ultimate pointlessness of humanity's busy machinations. Bookending the film is a medium shot of a shrine, whereon the inscription reads, "Here stood Spider's Web Castle." Here, once, a castle stood. Many women and men died for the ascension of power to that castle's throne. And now that castle is laid to waste, like the piles of bones surrounding its ruins.

In Macbeth it is very clear that Macbeth is Macbeth. Meaning that, even though he does represent humanity as a whole, his primary purpose as a character is to be Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor, and King of Scotland. Kurosawa's characters are more protean than this; they are types - broad character sketches - that stand instead for all humanity. Ergo, Throne of Blood is something of a morality piece, a cautionary tale whose purpose is, at least in some way, didactic. The lesson, then, is simple: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. When Washizu's (Kurosawa's Macbeth character, played by the great Toshiro Mifune) army turns on him, he cries out, "It is high treason to kill a great lord." And they reply, "Who killed the last great lord?" Indeed, it was Washizu himself - what goes around comes around.

As with Macbeth, death pervades Throne of Blood. The Weird Sisters are replaced by a solitary spirit in the form of an old man; an old man who sits at a spinning wheel reminiscent of the wheel of justice. Surrounding this man are piles of bones adorned with the raiment of war. Here the idea of reciprocity is furthered. All die - here the soldiers of war, and later, with the former great lord, Miki (Banquo), Asaji (Lady Macbeth), and Washizu, the nobility die too. Seen in the context of inevitable death, Washizu and Asaji's actions are tragic - laughably pitiful in their inconsequence, but horribly terrifying in their intention. (It should also be noted that Kurosawa's Lady Macbeth is given an even stronger role than Shakespeare's, commenting perhaps on the traditional debutante stature of women in Japanese society.) The impermanence of the very thing Washizu is chasing - the castle, as signified by the beginning and end of the film - makes it clear that not only is his life (and therefore humanity as a whole) ephemeral, but so are his dreams and aspirations. This is a theme that Kurosawa would revisit throughout his entire career, most notably in his other Shakespeare-based film, Ran.

Throne of Blood is less an adaptation than one master riffing on another. No one has ever directed a camera better than Kurosawa, and his wide vistas interspersed with pensive close-ups are a perfect match for the psychological study/war extravaganza that is Macbeth. Shakespeare wrote, tongue-in-cheek although it is now taken as gospel truth, "To thine own self be true." In Throne of Blood, Kurosawa syncopes the proverb, "Be true," an idea far closer to Shakespeare's heart, I imagine, and one that should be much closer to that of humanity as well.


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