The Bucket LIst

2. Kumonosu-jō (Throne of Blood)

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Welcome back for our second installment of Bucket List, my new ongoing project to cross off as many films from the 1,001 Movies To Watch Before You Die lists as possible. And, we’re following up last week’s inaugural installment with just about as different a movie as possible. Last week we discussed Sullivan’s Travels, a comedy that I love wholeheartedly, that I’d seen before, and that I’d even written about before. And the random number generator that has programmed this list this week has given me a movie I’ve never even seen before. We’re taking a trip into the world of Japanese cinema this week, with perhaps the most towering figure from that world, Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa is one of those directors that I really need to do a deeper dive into, which will perhaps be a big part of this project, because while I haven’t seen many of his films, I’ve loved every single one of the ones I have seen. Kurosawa is obviously known as one of the most respected directors who has ever lived, and one of the preeminent creators of samurai films, despite the fact that he also made a whole slew of more contemporary dramas about then-modern life in Japan. But, I’ve only ever seen his samurai flicks, and they’re all great. They’re some of the most iconic films ever made, and have led to a whole litany of remakes, ripoffs, and parodies, because his movies really seem to contain something special about them that just seem to click for all sorts of different cultures. But, today’s film is a little different. Because Throne of Blood is Kurosawa’s take on one of the most famous plays ever written, William Shakespeare’s MacBeth, just transposed to feudal Japan. And it’s great!

Shakespeare’s plays, regardless of how you personally feel about actually reading them, are some of the most widely told and recognized stories in human history. And, that was no different in Japan. However, during World War II the plays were banned because they weren’t seen as being part of Japanese culture, and thus not worthy. However, once Japanese culture started to change after the war the plays were brought back into circulation, and Kurosawa decided that he wanted to try his hand at adapting his favorite of them, MacBeth. However, this decision was made around the same time that Orson Welles decided that he was also going to make a filmed version of the play, and Kurosawa ended up shelving that idea, figuring it would be best to give some space before another adaptation arrived. Kurosawa then went on to make some of his most famous films, including Rashomon, Ikuru, and Seven Samurai. And, after almost ten years had passed, Kurosawa began working on his MacBeth adaptation. He initially wasn’t going to direct the film, only produce it, but ended up being pushed into the director’s seat by his studio, Toho, who thought that the film could only be profitable with him at the helm. So, Kurosawa began combining the story of the play with his love of Japanese Noh Theater, trying to combine this towering piece of European playwrighting with his personal favorite style of Japanese drama. So, they headed up into the foggy mountainsides of Mount Fuji in order to find the right type of landscape that Kurosawa had envisioned, built the various sets of the castle right there on the mountain, and began the intimate filming process which included one of the craziest things I’ve ever heard from a movie-making process. Because, if you’re at all familiar with this film you probably know about the final scene, in which actor Toshiro Mifune is bombarded with arrows, which was apparently accomplished by actually bombarding Mifune with arrows. Trained archers fired volleys of arrows at the actor, capturing his actual fear and terror. And, in large part thanks to the terrific performance given by Mifune, Throne of Blood became one of the absolute best Shakespearean adaptations I’ve ever seen, and just another stellar entry in Kurosawa’s filmography.

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Throne of Blood tells the story of two samurai generals, Washizu and Miki, who are engaged in a long-running war under the order of a powerful lord known as Tsuzuki. Tsuzuki’s seat of power is known as Spider’s Web Castle, due to the fact that it’s right next to a massive labyrinthine forest known as Spider-Web Forest. And, while making their way through the forest to return to the Castle, Washizu and Miki come across something unexpected. A small hovel in the middle of the forest that is solely occupied by a very old woman, who they immediately recognize as a spirit. They take a moment to speak with the spirit, and she ends up telling them some predictions of the future. She tells them that due to their performance in the war they are both about to be given major promotions, and in the future Washizu will be made lord of Spider Web Castle, and someday after that Miki’s son will become the Lord of the Castle. Both men find the spirit to be amusing, and then return to the Castle to tell Tsuzuki of their ongoing progress. And, to both men’s surprise, Tsuzuki responds by giving both men promotions, the exact promotions that the spirit told them that they’d receive. They see this is a strange coincidence,  but Washizu really starts to ponder the implications after telling his wife Asaji about what has happened. She tells Washizu that they should do everything in their power to make him the lord of Spider’s Web Castle, and together concoct a plan to kill Tsuzuki. They drug the various guards watching over the Lord, and then Washizu kills Tsuzuki. Asaji then frames one of the guards as the murderer, and begins crying out for help. Washizu then kills the guard, seemingly killing the murderer and becoming a hero.

Washizu is made the Lord of Spider’s Web Castle, fulfilling the prophecy, and immediately starts to get suspicions from Tsuzuki’s son and adviser. They attempt to get Miki on their side, trying to get him to see that Washizu is responsible for the murder of the Lord, but he believes in his friend. And, in reward for that loyalty, Washizu decides that he’s going to officially declare Miki’s son as his heir, since he and Asaji don’t have any children. Asaji doesn’t really like that plan though, and ends up telling Washizu that she’s recently become pregnant, causing him to hold off on the announcement. And, what’s more, Asaji think that Miki will now become their enemy, hoping to install his son as the Lord of the castle in order to fulfill the prophecy, and she ends up saying that they’re going to have to find some way to kill Miki and his son. They send some men to kill Miki and his son, leading Washizu to become increasingly paranoid. And, during a banquet he ends up seeing the ghost of Miki, and has a complete freak-out, swinging his sword around and even yelling about how he’s killed Miki. Asaji tries to tell everyone at the banquet that it’s okay, and that Washizu is just upset because he’s extremely drunk, but it’s all a little suspicious.

And, to make matters worse, during Washizu’s drunken bout of confession, the men sent to kill Miki and his son return. They have Miki’s head with them, but they apparently were unable to kill Miki’s son, who has escaped and sworn vengeance. Washizu becomes increasingly paranoid about everything, fearing that Miki’s son will come and kill him and fulfill the prophecy. And, this is made even worse when Asaji gives birth to a stillborn baby, meaning that they could have just named Miki’s son as the heir and not murdered his father. So, due to this fear, Washizu decides he needs more information from the spirit. He heads back into the forest, and actually ends up encountering the spirit again. She tells him that he will remain the Lord of the Castle until the very trees of the forest rise up to stop him. And, feeling like that’s impossible, Washizu returns to the Castle and strengthens his troops with the news that he’s invulnerable. However, things quickly then fall apart. First he finds Asaji in a catatonic state after all of her various needless crimes have finally hit her, and she’s realized what terrible deeds they have done. And, second, he gets word that the trees indeed have risen up. His men flee in terror, and end up joining Miki’s son’s army, recognizing that Washizu killed Tsuzuki, and that this whole thing has been wrong the beginning. Washizu is then left alone as the armies begin firing volleys of arrows at him, using trees from the forest as shields and siege weapons, finally striking Washizu dead as Miki’s son takes control of the castle.

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This definitely isn’t a groundbreaking statement, but Akira Kurosawa could direct the hell out of a movie. Like I said, I’ve only seen a handful of his films, but as I slowly start to see more of his work it really solidifies what a special creator her was. I feel like it could be easy to dismiss some of his work as “just another samurai movie,” but while I have exclusively seen his samurai films it’s incredible how different they all are. He’s able to tell stories in different genres all through this one lens, making it so that watching something like Throne of Blood really doesn’t feel all that similar to something like Yojimbo. This film, as makes sense with the source material, really is more of a quiet, contemplative film that some of the other Kurosawa films I’ve seen. Washizu isn’t running around scamming a bunch of mob bosses in this film, he’s slowly going mad and bringing everyone around him down with him. Which, still makes for an entertaining movie, largely thanks to the terrific performance from Toshiro Mifune. That man was just an incredible actor, and seeing him devolve from a cocky military leader into a complete lunatic by the end of this film is an absolute treat. Plus, as mentioned before, seeing him flee from a barrage of real arrows is truly a remarkable thing to see. It’s not my favorite of the Kurosawa’s I’ve seen, and perhaps is more the type of movie that you need to be in a particular mood to check out, but it’s still one of the best Shakespearean adaptations that I’ve ever seen.

Kurosawa is a director whose work has really influenced a lot of other creators. I mean, just Seven Samurai alone has been adapted, at least in part, a staggering amount of times. There’s just something about the stories that he’s created that resonate with people, regardless of culture or era. So, it’s that much more fascinating to see Kurosawa, a person with a skill for making universal stories, try his hand at an equally universal tale. One its face you maybe wouldn’t think that a story about a Scottish king would be something that could easily translate to feudal Japan, and yet this film pulls it all off beautifully. Because the story of a ruler who is willing to literally kill his best friend in order to preserve his own power, at the expense of his own sanity, is sadly a very universal idea. All of our cultures seem to have dealt with mad rulers, so the tales of MacBeth have been able to come back again and again, across most cultures. A well-told story can transcend all manner of differences between people, and if something has become so ingrained in human culture it makes sense that it can be transposed to all sorts of different genres and styles. So, seeing a timeless story this well told is a very special experience, and one that I highly recommend people check out. If you’re new to Kurosawa, if you want to see a MacBeth adaptation done in a way you maybe haven’t ever seen before, or if you just want a good samurai flick to check out, I urge you to cross this off your list as well.

 

Throne of Blood was written by Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, and Hideo Oguni, directed by Akira Kurosawa, and released by Toho, 1957.

 

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