July 29, 2009
Throne of Blood (1957) *****
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Sometime soon, I really need to do a marathon of Shakespeare movies since my working knowledge of the subject is next to nothing. Because of this, I'm grateful that the Netflix envelope that Throne of Blood arrived in mentions that Kurosawa reimagines Macbeth by setting it in feudal Japan. The only thing I really knew about Macbeth going in is that he's some kind of leader, and his wife is crazy. Even now, after seeing Throne of Blood, I can't comment at all on the many parallels between the two stories. For all I know, everything parallels Macbeth, and for all I also know, very little does.
Thankfully, then, I am in an advantageous position to judge Throne of Blood on its own merits. No kidding whatsoever when I say that I've witnessed one of the greatest films ever made, even better than Rashomon! With geniuses like Shakespeare and Kurosawa behind this tale of deception amid ambition, perhaps I ought not to be surprised! As a matter of fact, at this point in the marathon, I think it might be for the best that Kurosawa decided to closely adapt such an epic piece of drama since I have had some problems with his narrative contrivances especially in Ikiru but also to a lesser extent in Rashomon. This time, the story works one hundred percent perfectly!
Toshiro Mifune once again delivers a performance for the ages as Taketori Washizu, a general in battle who is appointed by his emperor to be lord over one of the great houses of the kingdom. Just prior to this, Washizu and his lifelong friend Yoshiaki Miki (Minoru Chiaki) encounter a spirit in the forest who prophesies that Washizu will eventually become emperor himself. When Washizu tells his wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) of the prophecy, she talks him into murdering the emperor and fulfilling what she believes is his destiny. Of course, because the emperor is so heavily guarded, killing him won't be easy.
If Washizu commits the treasonous crime, he has two problems on his hands. First, he will have to live with the guilt of murdering a loyal and good emperor. Second, he can't be the one to be blamed for the murder or else he will be convicted of high treason. If the emperor is killed by Washizu and blamed on someone else, then Miki might tell of the prophecy in the woods which would immediately point the finger at Washizu's guilt. Therefore, he must carefully construct his plan, involving heirs, deception, paranoia and a stillbirth which send both Washizu and Asaji on a rapid downward spiral into madness. Eventually, Washizu must decide whether or not he embraces ultimate evil by choosing to make the prophecy come true.
Kurosawa patiently directs Throne of Blood, allowing each scene to establish a deep sense of mood. Take, for instance, an almost dialogue free scene in the foggy woods which last for more than ten minutes. Washizu futilely rides in circles trying to find his way even though he can't see anything in front of him. The entire time, Miki follows right behind, clearly emphasizing the loyalty and trust he invests towards his lifelong friend. Once they encounter the emperor and receive their rewards for winning in battle, the two are not seen together again on screen. Without the deliberately paced scene in the woods, their relationship could not have been established, and the sadness felt when one is forced to kill the other would never have registered at all.
Everything works from beginning to end, but some elements must be acknowledged for being truly extraordinary! First of all, the costumes are truly wonders to behold! The traditional Japanese armor and the garments signifying royalty display such meticulous beauty that I couldn't stop looking at them throughout. Also, Isuzu Yamada gives one hell of a chilling performance as Lady Asaji. Relatively, she doesn't have a lot of screen time, but I'm providing the undersell of the year when I say that she certainly makes the most of her moments to scheme and later to sink into pure insanity! Shakespeare would have been proud; I guarantee it.
The final sequence involves flying arrows which holds up as a truly exhilarating and disturbing conclusion. Real arrows were shot at the character whom I won't reveal, which accounts for the look of sheer terror on the actor's face! Personally, I also found the killshot truly memorable as well as surprisingly horrifying!
Once again, Kurosawa delves into the world of the dark side of the human condition, though this time he re-presents an even older meditation on the very same subject. It's truly sad what people are capable of doing in order to get ahead in life. Though Washizu clings to the fact that his destiny is laid out for him as spoken through the spirit, the truth is that he made his own bed, and now he has to sleep in it, though I'm guessing he won't be sleeping on his side! Throne of Blood is one of the truly grand achievements in the history of cinema!