The Case for Global Film

Discussing everything that isn't Hollywood (and a little that is).

Kurosawa #8 Throne of Blood (Japan 1957)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 16 December 2010

Miki (Kubo Akira) and Washizu (Mifune Toshiro) approach the witch (who wears a noh mask).

Throne of Blood is one of the best-known films by Kurosawa Akira. It was highly-praised in the West but not so warmly received in Japan. The reasons given for this difference in reception are (1) it is an adaptation/version/’re-imagining’ of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (2) Kurosawa used elements of noh theatre in a jidaigeki or period film, which in Japanese Cinema would traditionally have been influenced by the more populist kabuki theatre. The result is that the film ‘as a film’ has been rather obscured by the metatext about its status as Shakespeare and ‘Japaneseness’. That’s a shame because it is a great Kurosawa movie with a terrific performance by Mifune Toshiro and a wonderfully imaginative representation of time and place – forests, castles and windswept and fog-bound heathland.

The following notes have been adapted from material given out on a recent study day on Kurosawa:

Setting

This version of Macbeth is transplanted to the early part of the Sengoku period of civil wars in Japanese history (1467-1573). This assertion is partly based on the absence of firearms. These were important in the wars of the later 16th century that eventually produced the settlement of the Tokugawa Shogunate (otherwise known as the ‘Edo’ Period – Edo is the old name for Tokyo). During the long period of civil wars, the Japanese Emperor was confined to Kyoto and warlords vied for power in different provinces across Japan.

Although many Japanese filmmakers are associated with jidaigeki, these tend to be based on traditional stories that had become kabuki plays during the Edo period. Kurosawa was an innovator in staging much more historically accurate (more realistically detailed) films from the Sengoku period and the final warring period before the triumph of Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1603. Seven Samurai, Hidden Fortress, Kagemusha and Ran are the other Kurosawa films with this period setting.

The actions of the characters in Throne of Blood are consistent with those of the period in Japanese history – although as Stephen Prince (2003/2010) points out, the wars were perhaps not as bloody as Kurosawa makes them. But he was creating them from a 20th century perspective – informed by his own experiences of war and disaster.

Noh and kabuki

Japanese cinema developed roughly in parallel with cinema in the West and filmmakers such as Kurosawa were influenced by the Western films they saw in the 1920s. Japanese films were much more closely associated with Japan’s three traditional theatrical forms, noh, kabuki and bunraku (a form of puppet theatre) and the modern theatre associated with the contact with the West from the 1860s onwards (shinpa/shingeki).

Noh is the earliest of these forms, dating from the 14th century and is associated with drama and dance performed for the aristocracy in a refined and austere manner. Actors play heavily ‘typed’ roles and individuality is hidden behind masks. Movements are restrained and sometimes paradoxical, so that a small movement can signal a major dramatic act.

Kabuki is a later form developing in the 17th century during the Edo period and designed more as popular entertainment. In many ways, kabuki is the opposite of noh with its appeal to a popular audience in large theatres. Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro (2000) suggests that noh is a classical form and kabuki is a baroque form. Kabuki has been seen as similar to Elizabethan drama in its appeal to audiences and its dealings in spectacle. (Noh is more concerned with words: actions are often ‘off-stage’). Not surprisingly, perhaps, it was kabuki rather than noh that became the source of plots for Japanese period film dramas, especially action films. The same companies who owned the early cinemas and started to make films were also engaged in promoting kabuki shows in their live theatres. Kabuki might be said to be the more ‘earthy’ Shintoist response to the Buddhist austerity of noh.

It is interesting therefore that Kurosawa chose noh rather than kabuki as a prominent aesthetic influence upon Throne of Blood. The clearest examples of this in the film are in the depictions of the witch in Cobweb Forest and the central performance of Yamada Isuzu as the Lady Macbeth character, Lady Asaji. Although Kurosawa didn’t require his actors to wear noh masks as such, he showed them appropriate masks and asked them to study the facial expressions. They also wore make-up that shaped their facial features to resemble masks. In the case of the witch, she first appears as the old lady ‘yaseonna’ and in later scenes as the mountain witch, ‘yamauba’. Yamada was shown the shakumi mask – ‘the face of beautiful middle-aged woman on the brink of madness’. Mifune as Washizu was also shown the heida mask of the warrior.

Contrasts and clashes: Mifune

The whole film is built on a rhythm of contrasting styles, moods and tones. One of these can be seen in relation to the playing of Mifune Toshiro. Mifune was Kurosawa’s leading man in most of his films between 1948 and 1965. Casting Mifune is one example of the ways in which Kurosawa innovated. As an actor, Mifune stood out in two ways. First was his sheer physical vitality. He literally ate up the screen space. Kurosawa claimed that Mifune could convey the same meaning in a third of the time that it took all other Japanese actors. He seems the least likely actor to be in a noh play – far too coarse and brutal, always seemingly teetering on the edge of breaking out into violent action. (But Kurosawa tells us he was a sensitive man of refinement.)

Mifune dominates the screen with his physical presence – here presented in the context of the fog and stylised forest.

The second point was that Mifune’s accent was Manchurian and because he spoke as he acted – often violently – he offered a complete change to actors coached in kabuki theatre who enunciated clearly. One interesting aspect of the film is therefore the contrast between the acting styles of Yamada and Mifune in the internal scenes.

Japanese visual art: the pen and ink school

The history of Eastern painting is quite different to that of the West and up to the late 19th century, different forms of Japanese art were very popular in the domestic market. Kurosawa himself was interested in both Western painting styles and traditional Japanese modes. Stephen Prince (2010) describes this aspect of Throne of Blood:

The striking emptiness of the spaces in the film – the skies, the dense roiling fog that obscures mountains and plains – is a cinematic rendition of sumi-e composition. This style of pen-and-ink drawing leaves large portions of the picture unfilled, making this ‘emptiness’ a positive compositional (and spiritual) value. Kurosawa believed that this style of picture making resonated deeply with the Japanese, and he was eager to infuse the film with this aesthetic. (Production designer Yoshiro Muraki’s castle set was black and was built on the dark, volcanic soil of Mt. Fuji in order to heighten the sumi-e effect, the contrast of dark and light. Although based on historical sketches, the castle is not of any single period.) As a positive value, this pictorial and spiritual ‘emptiness’ is set against the human world of vanity, ambition, and violence, which Kurosawa suggests is all illusion. The Buddhist arts of Noh and sumi-e enabled him to visualise this disjunction between the hell of life as we poor creatures know it, subject to our strivings, our desires, and our will, and the cosmic order that negates them.

Contrasts and clashes 2: Camerawork and editing

Kurosawa has been highly praised by critics for several reasons – not least his command of the full panoply of the filmmakers’s art – camerawork, mise en scène, editing (which he did himself on this film) and sound design. Across his 30 films he demonstrates many different and styles and the ways in which he has absorbed and transmogrified styles from a variety of film movements.

In Throne of Blood, the film is predicated on the structure of static sequences, almost in tableau, broken up by scenes of dramatic action with a change of composition, shot size and camera movement. The great proponent of studying the formal characteristics of Japanese Cinema is Noël Burch whose controversial book on Japanese Cinema was published in 1979. (The book was controversial because of the use he put his scholarship to in terms of the politics of film studies in the 1980s.) Burch refers to the contrasting scenes in Throne of Blood (or ‘Cobweb Castle’ as he terms it in a direct translation) as ‘lyrical agitation’ on the one hand and ‘tense stasis’ on the other.

Burch also discusses Kurosawa’s debt to Eisenstein and the concept of the ‘shot-change’. In simple terms this means a style that contrasts with the invisible nature of Hollywood’s ‘continuity editing’. The shot-change celebrates the visible transition from one shot to another, possibly through deliberate ‘mismatching’ of eye-lines or as in Throne of Blood in the use of Kurosawa’s favourite device of this period, the ‘hard-edged’ fast wipe which abruptly takes us from one scene to another in the most visible way possible (cf the gradual fade out/fade in or the unobtrusive straight cut). This is one example of the way in which Kurosawa confirms the ‘artificiality’ of film, emphasising its constructedness. The use of noh acting devices is another. See too the distortion of space in the sequence of the funeral procession approaching the castle.

An example of Kurosawa’s dramatic mise en scène with its sparse decor and low-key lighting – and its overall resemblance to a scene from a noh play.

What does it all mean?

If we understand all these facets of the film, what do we make of Kurosawa’s approach to what is a familiar story? Stephen Prince offers us a particular reading:

The Noh masks point to a huge difference between this theatrical tradition and Shakespeare’s, one that helps give the film many of its unusual qualities. Noh is not psychologically oriented; characters are not individualised. Its characters are types – the old man, the woman, the warrior, and so on – and the plays are quite didactic, aiming to impart a lesson. Kurosawa, therefore, strips all the psychology out of Macbeth and gives us a film whose characters are Noh types and where emotions – the province of character in the drama of the West – are located here as absolute types. Emotion here isn’t an attribute of character psychology, but a formal embodiment in landscape and weather. The bleached skies, the fog, the barren plains, and characters going adrift against and within these spaces – this is where the emotion of the film resides. It is objectified within and through the world of things. As a result, the film has a definite coldness; it keeps the viewer outside the world it depicts. Kurosawa wants us to grasp the lesson, to see the folly of human behaviour, rather than to identify or empathise with the characters.

. . . If Kurosawa strips the psychology from Macbeth, he also strips out Shakespeare’s political conservatism, refusing to give us the play’s reassuring conclusion (flattering to James I) in which a just political authority triumphs. In Kurosawa’s film and worldview, the cycle of human violence never ends. Thus the film’s many circular motifs describe the real tragedy at the heart of the history that Throne of Blood dramatises. Why do people kill each other so often and through so many ages? Kurosawa had no answer to this question. But he showed us here, through the film’s chorus, its circularity, and its Buddhist aesthetics, that there may not finally be an answer within this world. The aesthetics and philosophy of Throne of Blood take us well beyond Shakespeare, and that’s why this is a great film. Its accomplishments are not beholden to another medium or artist. Kurosawa gives us his own vision, expressed with ruthless, chilling power, and it’s the totality of that vision, its sweep and its uncompromising nature, that move and terrify us and that we are so seldom privileged to see in cinema.

Conclusion

I confess that I don’t care much for Shakespeare. I’m sure that I am missing out, but I’m too old now to start over. It does mean, however, that I can watch Throne of Blood objectively, not worried about ‘fidelity’ to an existing text. At the same time, because I’ve seen other film versions, I know the basic story so I can focus on how the events are presented. It seems to me that Burch and Prince make persuasive arguments. Throne of Blood is certainly one of Kurosawa’s major achievements – and a film to which he would return with varying success in the later works, Kagemusha and Ran. Its strengths are in the careful structuring of the narrative, the strong and coherent visual style, the location and settings and the direction of a group of highly-skilled actors led by Mifune on top form.

In a lengthy essay on Throne of Blood, Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro (2000) explores the questions about both the Shakespeare adaptation and the supposed ‘Japaneseness’ of the film in some detail, marshalling a range of theoretical ideas. I don’t have space to explore these here but I’d like to quote Yoshimoto’s conclusion which ties in nicely with some of the discussion above:

Despite its use of noh and other types of traditional Japanese art, Throne of Blood has little to do with the affirmation of Japaneseness. Nor is it an attempt to create a new national film style. Instead, Kurosawa simultaneously tries to expand the possibility of film form and re-examine the specific history and genre conventions of Japanese Cinema. Throne of Blood is a unique film made by a true innovator of cinema. (Yoshimoto, 2000:269)

References

Noel Burch (1979) To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema, Berkeley: University of California Press (this book is now available as a pdf on free download from the University of Michigan

Stephen Prince (2003/2010) Throne of Blood: Shakespeare Transposed’

Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro (2000) Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, Durham NC: Duke University Press

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