By William Repass.
Wind and mist over hills that turn out to be ruins. A funereal sutra chanted over the soundtrack. Beside a cluster of graves, the rough-hewn marker reads: “Here Stood Spider Web Castle.” These opening shots yield enough story material to piece together not only the outcome of everything to follow, but a few of the important Buddhist thematics as well: emptiness, futility, impermanence. And yes, Throne of Blood (1957; re-released in January on blu-ray by Criterion) also happens to be Kurosawa’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, transposed to Feudal Japan. But Western critics spill too much ink in the old game of compare and contrast. A fresh approach would engage the film on its own terms. You needn’t know a single pentameter of the source-material to appreciate the film as such. Throne of Blood is complete in itself.
Now mist fills all but the bottom of the frame, producing, literally, a frame without reference. The mist doesn’t take us back in time so much as altogether out of it. The castle of delusion is infinitely reborn. A comment, perhaps, on the nature history. Without historical context violence perpetuates, as dramatized in many of Kurosawa’s films. Either that, or time flows in a Nietzschean circle. Throne of Blood‘s highly-stylized narrative unfolds within this misty mythic frame, in which every action circles back to one pivotal scene.
Recalled to Spider’s Web Castle at their warlord’s command, generals Miki (Akira Kubo) and Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) find themselves lost in the Spider’s Web Forest. A sprawl of brambles separates the actors from the camera, as they charge in circles between trees—the violent thrashings of insects caught in spider’s silk. Miki’s banner is of a leaping rabbit; a pair of iron rabbit ears adorn his helmet. Not an image that evokes self-determination in the film’s deterministic universe. Washizu’s banner, on the other hand, is of a wriggling centipede; silken chain-links decorate his costume. (Kurosawa is not, perhaps, the most subtle of filmmakers when it comes to symbolism.) Our characters here, as in early Soviet Cinema, are types rather than personalities.
Eventually they come to a hovel in the heart of the forest, a rather cage-like hovel, ethereally lit. A spirit hunches inside, spinning and singing prophesies in an androgynous voice. “…Mens’ lives as meaningless as insects,” he sings. Those familiar with Buddhist iconography may recognize the dharmachakra (the cycle of rebirth and of perpetual suffering) in his spinning wheel. In any case, Kurosawa presents a clear analog between silk and the stories in which we spin ourselves, between prophesy and entrapment. Now the spirit ravels off a Delphic plot-synopsis: Washizu will soon replace the current warlord as ruler of the Spider’s Web Castle—but one day Miki’s son will rule. Then he vanishes, leaving behind a heap of steaming corpses, a karmic accumulation.
Miki and Washizu blunder their way out of the forest and continue their journey, into the mists surrounding the castle. Even cuts go unnoticed, breaking continuity as characters disappear in one direction and reappear from the opposite. The rest of the film has the look and feel of a play, in which Washizu stages the spirit’s prophesy, blindly, at the behest of a power-drunk of Lady Washizu (Isizu Yamada). Taking the spirit’s prophesy at face-value, she convinces her husband to murder the warlord and take his place. Unsurprisingly, she then urges him to murder Miki also. All this theatricality serves, importantly, to distance rather than involve the spectator.
When Washuzu hears that Miki’s son has assembled an army to overthrow him, as apparently prophesied, Washizu rides again into Spider Web forest. The spirit tells him he will lose the battle only if the trees of the forest rise against the castle. Reading this literally, Washizu believes the battle already won. Arrayed in his corpse-like armor, he shares the prophesy with his troops in order to encourage them. On the morning of the battle, however, they see the pines looming towards them through the mist and turn on Washizu, killing him with a storm of arrows. But (spoilers—as if the film hadn’t already spoiled itself) when the mist clears, they see the enemy army had merely cut down the trees and advanced under their cover, to conceal their movements from the battlements.
Indeed, Throne of Blood can be read as an indictment of narrative as self-fulfilling prophesy, even of history at large; man domesticates the mad horse, narrative domesticates madman. On the other hand, this spectator feels that Washizu could have avoided his ill-fated missteps, had he interpreted the spirit’s prophesies critically, as opposed to literally. This spectator spent a good deal of the film offering counteradvice at the screen. So in a certain sense, the film might be said to enact a critique of Film itself. Take this ethereal play of light and shadow too seriously, it seems to say, and the material world will seem to lose its materiality, and the spectator’s sense of agency along with it. But maintain a safe critical distance and film, as with every narrative form, can teach you a little something, here and there, about itself, and about the real world it appears to capture.
William Repass is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
For more on Throne of Blood, see what our Interview Editor had to say here.