To regard the “First Murder” of the Judeo-Christian tradition as a parable on fratricide is to miss the greater point. The brother turning on his own does channel an uncanny dread, and yet the tale comments on the universality of the crime: how any murder is like killing one of our own. Such a theme is the heart of myth, the kind of pith found in the works of Japanese great Akira Kurosawa, why he has reworked so many classic narratives and why storytellers have chosen to adapt him.
Kurosawa inherited the statement on disastrous ambition par excellence when he adapted Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Macbeth into the 1957 film, Throne of Blood (original title, “Spider’s Web Castle”). Obviously introducing the theme into a new historical context, Kurosawa grounds this downward spiral through the presence of Toshiro Mifune, who personalizes the Macbeth role while making it greater than his historical moment.
Beginning with a monument to castle’s tragedy, a paced song on the soundtrack seems just as suitable for the conclusion of the filmmaker’s Seven Samurai (1954), in which regretful survivors mourn the loss of their five brothers-in-arms to a collectivist impulse, which meant sacrifice. Though soon Throne’s lyric reveals that the spirits are victims to “consuming desire,” and hence vengeance overshadows the communal impulse. Thus Throne stands distinct from Samurai, the former unique in abandoning collectivism, even if the choice comes with its karmic punishment.
After defeating enemies of their Lord Tsuzuki in battle, Washizu (Mifune, in the Macbeth role) and Miki (Minoru Chiaki, serving Banquo’s), two samurai generals, encounter a white prophesying spirit, occupying a mysterious cage, consistently spinning loom as it reveals the future events and is this haunt’s Sisyphean damnation. The spirit tells of Washizu’s destiny: that he will become Master of North Castle and, eventually, assume the role of Lord, along with rewards for Miki. When the first prophesy proves true, Mifune maintains strength that is collapsing from within via doubt. Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), his wife, urges him to follow destiny by murdering Tsuzuki, she assisting her man by drugging the guards as scapegoats. When Washizu calls treachery, Mifune captures fortitude buttressing regret, he the Cain that opposes trust and his own fellow citizens. Bursting onto the deck, his booming call could announce his own damnation to Onryō, the Fates now summoning towards him.
Kurosawa’s costly (to the production) but wise choice to film high on Mt. Fuji leaves the landscapes shrouded in fog, invoking at once confusion and a spiritual force stalking Washizu. Criterion’s new 2K transfer, especially in the Blu-ray format (which improves the boutique’s previous version), sharpens the fog within the depth of field instead of clouding it, the case with other available prints. After the murder, Kurosawa’s battle scenes reveal his most elaborate compositions, more to come with exteriors of the castle (the interior courtyard was constructed at Toho Studio in Tokyo, with volcanic soil shipped in). When the ghost of the dead appears to Washizu, the film stays true in spirit to the source material, though it eliminates the vengeance of a Macduff, he “from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripped” and not born of woman (one of Shakespeare’s countless puns that got on the nerve of Samuel Johnson). Throne promotes the source play’s moving trees motif, another prophesy first registering as absurd, as the final conflict. When ths prophesy proves true, the trees lumber through fog like vengeful ghosts in their own right, labored by the weight of death, but coming regardless. Though Washizu’s own men turn on him, shooting arrows that soon look like his plumes of death, the trees, shots of which are intercut throughout, appear like the harbingers of the piercing weaponry. Finding unity in visual motifs, Kurosawa proves the coming forest to be a worthy conclusion. The accompanying featurette, a segment from Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create, and Michael Jenk’s commentary offer plenty of insight, especially on Kurosawa’s use of Noh drama. Like the Das Neue Kino’s invocation of Nosferatu and Berlin Alexanderplatz, Noh is an element of history that likely helped viewers of post-war Japan connect with the past.
By following this release with The Hidden Fortress (1958), Criterion’s pair reflects the narrative opposition in the Shakespeare canon: that of tragedy, in which shaken order collapses into disorder, and comedy, when disruption in normalcy offers an improved resolution. While not a Shakespeare adaptation proper – though informed by the bard, nonetheless – Fortress commences with a broken kingdom, that of the Akizuki, rising up to reclaim itself with the help of General Rokurota Makabe (Mifune) and two ironic outcasts. (Like the Noh in Throne, reclaiming the past was timely for national viewers.) Much has been written of how the point of view is largely through their perspective, and how this approach inspired George Lucas to conceive Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) through the eyes of two tag-along droids. In Fortress, the narrative remains ironic viewed via Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara), and hence plays mostly as a comedy of wandering and, soon, oppression in service of the hero’s journey. Many regard Lucas’ film as direct remake, while I see the film’s true legacy in Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966), in which Tuco (Eli Wallach) and Blondie (Clint Eastwood) are odd-fellows joined in absurdist frontier quest.
Tahei and Matashichi encounter the General, as the two search for missing gold of the dynasty (they’re previously forced into slave labor to search for the same treasure). The General proves to be a master of the land who knows a shortcut around a steep hill that the duo barely traverse. When the General manhandles them, we see the power of class, a premise in this form of historical storytelling. (The same class distinction shapes much of the interaction between the ronin and the peasants in Seven Samurai.) Though the bullish force to motivate Tahei and Matashichi toward the goal – assist the princess Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) in rebuilding the clan – the General offers his own sister as a captured decoy for the princess, the kind of sacrifice that makes true mythical warriors.
Criterion’s 2K transfer of Fortress brings a new scale and texture to the dried hills and woods. As usual, Mifune shines and invigorates what remains secondary Kurosawa (less rewarding than Throne), but a solid primal adventure in its own right.
Matthew Sorrento is Interview Editor for Film International and teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. He is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012) and has chapters forthcoming in The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the War Film (on service comedies), The New Western (on Alex Cox), and Framing Law and Crime (on the documentary). Sorrento is the director of the Reel East Film Festival, to be launched in August 2014.
For more on Throne of Blood, see William Repass’ review here.