Number six in a series of six.
Throne of Blood (蜘蛛巣城 Kumonosu-jō, "Spider's Web Castle") – 1957 – directed by Akira Kurosawa
The film was written by Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Akira Kurosawa. Asaichi Nakai - Director of Photography Masaru Sato – Music Yoshiro Muraki - Art Director Kohei Ezaki -
The Players are: Toshiro Mifune, Washizu (Macbeth) - Isuzu Yamada, Asaji/Lady Washizu (Lady Macbeth) - Chieko Naniwa, Forest Witch - Helene Shizue Fukuya, Castle Witch - Minoru Chiaki, Miki (Banquo) - Hiroshi Tachikawa, Kuniharu/the Great Lord (Duncan) - Takamaru Sasaki, Kuniharu’s son (Malcolm), Akira Kubo - Miki’s son (Fleance), Takashi Shimura, Noriyasu - (combination of MacDuff and Old Siward)
They elected to film this movie in a 1:1.33 frame ratio in classic black and white…complete with negative scratches and print dirt on my DVD…. with English subtitles. I’m used to bad sound on these 1950s transfers to video, but here the audio was perfect… although in Japanese. Why couldn’t they have done as well with the unintelligible track on Orson Welles’ Macbeth?
Originally, Kurosawa planned only to produce the film, and hand over the direction. But, Toho (the distribution company), could see that this movie would cost a bundle to shoot and insisted Kurosawa direct it. The production budget was never revealed. It actually did make some money, but not a lot. However, the critics liked it and it insured Kurosawa’s reputation as a major international filmmaker.
It seems to be impossible for the many directors who attempt to do a Macbeth adaptation to resist “improving” on the original. Making Lady Macbeth more or less ambitious and trying to justify the King’s murder is a tempting “fix”. In his movie Kurosawa gives it a try, inventing new scenes and dialogue.
They built the main castle set on the sides of Mt. Fuji for the exteriors and shot during the winter so they could take advantage of the foggy landscape. It was cold, exhausting work, but there was a US Marine Corps installation in the vicinity and a whole battalion of Marines helped in the construction.
The interiors, which made excellent use of negative space, were shot on sets built on various stages in Tokyo. Washizu's mansion was shot in the Izu Peninsula .… high in the Amagi Mountain Range.
The story is set in 16th century Japan, and our movie opens in a “flash forward” on a fog enshrouded monument marking what remains of the Spider’s Web Castle.
After their defeat of the enemy invaders, at the beginning of our story, Washizu (Macbeth) and Miki (Banquo) – heroes of the battle - are on their way back to the Spider’s Web Castle, when they encounter a Spirit in the form of an old weaver.
The special effects people did a terrific job in creating this white, translucent presence.
He intones – “A man lives but as briefly as a flower… his life is as meaningless as the life
of a butterfly.” The Spirit forecasts their destinies; they will each be given new
commands, and it will come to pass that Washizu shall become the Great Lord, but Miki’s son shall rule thereafter.
In a castle ceremony, both Washizu and Miki are rewarded by the Great Lord Kuniharu for their bravery on the battlefield and are given new commands. The Spirit’s prophecies are coming true.
Kurosawa has brought Lady Washizu’s repressed resentment of power-denied into the open. She is a brilliant, ambitious woman, bound by the restriction of a patriarchal society, and she is not going to let pass, what could be her best chance to gain the power she desires.
Washizu is very satisfied with the life he leads and sees no reason to disrupt his happy existence at his newly rewarded North Garrison. She reminds Washizu that the Great Lord gained the throne by murdering his predecessor. Lady Washizu is not to be deterred from her path. She reminds him that Miki could easily betray him and tell the Great Lord about the Spirit’s prophecy… and Washizu’s threat to the Great Lord’s rule.
When the Great Lord visits the North Garrison. Lady Washizu puts her plan into action and drugs the guards. She retrieves one of the guard’s spears and places it in Washizu’s hand. He murders the Great Lord Kuniharu… off camera. I find this quite unexpected as Kurosawa, a descendant or samurai warriors, has made some gory samurai flicks… we don’t even get the famous “bloody hand” shot that appears in all the other Macbeth movies.
Shocked by what he has just done Washizu returns, carrying the murder weapon, the guard’s spear. Appalled that he could be so careless, Lady Washizu takes the spear, returns to the scene of the murder, and places it in a guard’s hand.
Once the deed is done their descent into madness is
sure to follow.
Evidently Kurosawa recognized a weakness in Shakespeare’s story. If Lady Washizu could produce an heir they would not have to murder the Great Lord to gain the kingship. This problem is vaguely alluded to in Act 1, Scene 7 of the original play.
Therefore, it is here, one hour and 5 minutes into the play, that Kurosawa invents an entirely new scene. Lady Washizu now tells her husband that she is with child.
Washizu assumes the role of the Great Lord. At a celebratory dinner Miki does not show up. The performer that evening is an old man who dances and prophesizes…. “their
debt of royal treachery
swiftly brings their own
Miki’s ghost appears
and sends Washizu into
a delusional spiral.
Lady Washizu’s baby dies in her womb, and after several days the child was stillborn…. Lady Washizu dies off camera. When he hears of this Washizu screams “Fool”, to an empty room.
A few scenes later, Lady Washizu is resurrected by Japanese mythology. After she dies giving birth, we see her again as a ghost trying to wash the Great Lord’s blood from her hands.
As his madness descends, Washizu rides off into the rainy forest to learn his destiny from the Spirit. He demands to know if Miki’s son will become Lord of Spider’s Web. The Spirit pronounces, “You have finally come to the end of your wanderings. You have done well. “Until the very trees of Spider’s Web Forest rise against Spider’s Web Castle you will not be defeated in battle”.
The Spirit disappears and is
replaced by the ghost of Miki.
The ghost portends – “no man
of woman born shall defeat
Washizu in battle.”
Kurosawa has worked on many movies with Toshiro Mifune, who is well known for his physicality. Here he directs his leading players in the Noh tradition restricting Mifune to a single level of intensity… a wild eyed stare.
Isuzu Yamada is limited to an expression beyond total blankness, with the exception of one sequence near the end and, by then, her wild-eyed look seems grotesque.
I have to admit that my biggest handicap when judging this particular genre of films is that I’m a product of western culture, and I expect acting to be naturalistic and real. From this Occidental point of view, films based upon Japanese Noh theater look like “hyper-drama” – staged in formalistic, stylized movement and with melodramatic speech delivery.
One of the chief enjoyments of Shakespeare is his elegant use of the English language. Here, all that is lost in translation. His occasional use of paraphrasing is titillating to hear because of its approximation of the original and can bring a smile to your lips - “I have never seen such peculiar weather.”
It seems almost mandatory for current movie reviewers to praise black and white lighting techniques. They seem surprised that there’s an actual image up there on the screen. But not all black and white movies are deserving of such automatic praise. The lighting in this movie is not spectacular, it is simply typical of black and white style. And, the camera work leaves something to be desired; there were many, long, jerky pans, out of focus shots and hesitant tilts and camera moves. The protocol on the set demands that the camera operator mention to the director of photography, or the director, any perceived flaw in a shot. They discuss this, weigh the alternatives and then may decide to live with it. Especially if its being done under difficult conditions and might cause expensive delays.
I often have my own experience behind the camera in mind when I’m watching each scene…. would I have done the same thing?… or, even more frequently…how the hell did they do that? They used a perspective in this movie that I try to emulate whenever possible – following the action thru a screen of foreground objects. This technique was used to excellent effect by Kurosawa in the forest scenes.
It was Kurosawa’s intention to bring his experience and background in classic Noh theater to the medium of film. He uses the shrieking flute and exclamatory drums to great effect in this movie. Also, his choice of black and white lifts the viewer’s awareness out of the real and into the supernatural world of spirits. His use of the medium gives viewers the surprising combined sensation of mystery and gravitas.