Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Film Review #179: Throne of Blood
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshirô Mifune, Minoru Chiahi, Isuzu Yamada

A couple years ago, Redhouse Arts Center screened Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950) as part of a special Master Directors Film Festival, six classics spread over a couple weeks that the daily paper declined to give much coverage because they were “just some old movies.” Attendance was uneven, yet a sizable number of the audience for Rashomon said during the talk-back session afterward that while they’d seen the movie before on DVD, they had braved dreadful weather at the last minute for the rare joy of seeing it on a big screen.

This movie gives us the ready shorthand term “Rashomon-like.” It hardly seems possible to imagine our culture’s understanding of point-of-view without this film’s presence, even though many people now actually haven’t seen it on any screen. In ancient Japan, a woman is raped in the forest and her husband killed. At the trial, four witnesses – we quickly see they’re defendants – give four accounts, each revealing a little more detail. These jostling flashbacks form the film’s narrative.

A big screen amplifies Kurosawa’s deep blacks and creamy whites, his astonishingly lovely screen compositions and masterful shots. One of the better known – film students diagram this – is the single-take, long, unbroken, pristine tracking shot that follows the man and his wife through the foliage, for which Kurosawa built a looping rail through the forest that would carry a swiveling camera to allow filming the couple’s progress without cuts. In a story about the difficulty of knowing the truth – indeed the depth of our yearning for truth – this single virtuoso scene packs enormous emotional wallop.

In 1957, Kurosawa is back in the woods, with another complicated tale of violence set in feudal Japan. Throne of Blood is Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth (in 1985 he returned to political tragedy with Ran, his take on Shakespeare’s King Lear). Throne of Blood is the classic, enduring tale of a once-honorable warrior who loses his way in familiar woods, perhaps befogged by a lust for power, and – egged on by a calculating and ambitious woman – betrays his friends and principles, achieving the throne but briefly before his downfall. And by the way it’s scary as hell.

There have been so many screen versions of Macbeth – just since 2001, the UK, Australia, Germany and India have each released new ones – that there’s not much point in worrying about plot spoilers. Anyway, two warriors on their way back to the Cobweb Castle after defeating some rebels lose their way in Cobweb Woods. Washizu is played by the great Toshirô Mifune, Kurosawa’s frequent lead actor, accompanied by fellow warrior and friend Miki (Minoru Chiahi).

In the foggy, rain-soaked woods, they come upon a ghostly old woman with a spinning wheel (Chieko Naniwa), who – counterpart to Shakespeare’s three witches –predicts Washizu will take over the throne but Miki’s sons will occupy it later. She also predicts nothing will harm Washizu until the Cobweb Woods move to the walls of the castle. Pretty much following Macbeth in bare outline, Washizu and Miki’s return to the castle brings about Washizu’s murder of his king – pushed forward by his wife, the Lady Asaji Washizu (Isuzu Yamada) – followed by his murder of Miki, his wife’s madness and an advancing army’s siege, during which they cut down the surrounding forest and use the tree branches as camouflage to approach the walls.

Throne of Blood is not justly famous for its translation of Shakespearean language. The DVD version that I watched with two friends Sunday night – even Laurinda willingly watched gore in honor of Halloween – carried subtitles so ham-fisted they had us cracking up at times. When flocks of crows invade Washizu’s throne room during the final siege, one character supposedly wails, “The birds are badly crying.”

But Kurosawa achieves his eloquent dread visually and with few monsters other than the manifestations of our own inner demons. So Washizu may be feudal, superstitious, but right along with him we are overtaken by this sight of misplaced black birds, a viscerally terrifying sign of doom. More than the conventional visitation of the ghosts of his victims, there are the trees oddly rustling across the foggy night plain. Or Washizu’s grisly end, shot down by his own archers for bringing this fate upon their castle.

Or right from the start, back to that early scene in the woods, when Washizu and Miki have lost their bearings and can’t believe it. Over and over – twelve times Kursawa varies this shot – they try galloping confidently into the trees, hoping the way home will appear and open to them. Everything unfolds from this.

This review appears in the 10/30/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Netflix currently has four Kurosawa titles available to “save,” suggesting a wavelet of re-release ten years after his death. “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not opening theatrically in Central New York & older films of enduring worth.