Sunday, June 2, 2013

Throne of Blood (Kumonosu Jo) 1957 **

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Long before Tony Montana went down in a blaze of bullets in Scarface (1983), Taketoki Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) went out in a flurry of arrows in Throne of Blood (1957). There are memorable death scenes, and then there are extraordinary comeuppances that fell insane Japanese feudal lords.  Of course, famed director Akira Kurosawa was quite adept at staging furious and glorious battle scenes, but for me Washizu’s timely end is unforgettable.

imagesThe premise behind Throne of Blood (also known as Spider’s Web Castle) is Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Kurosawa and fellow screenwriters Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Hideo Oguni do a wonderful job of refashioning Shakespeare’s play to feudal Japan.  Unfortunately, the corrupting power of unchecked ambition is a universal theme, so the machinations of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth seamlessly transfers to Washizu and Asaji (Isuzu Yamada). This timeless story is enhanced by an ambitious production design and expertly crafted costumes. 

The impenetrable Spider’s Web Castle was built high on Mount Fuji in a location known for its fogginess. The thick mist is a character in itself, in that it foretells when something ominous is about to unfold.  Whether it be whethroneofblood8n Washizu and his friend and fellow military leader Miki (Minoru Chiaki) get lost in Spider’s Web Forest and meet the creepy Forest Spirit (Chieko Naniwa), or when Lady Asaji plots to have her husband kill the reigning lord (Hiroshi Tachikawa), thick fog eerily seeps over the landscape. On building the castle, Kurosawa has said that it was one of the most difficult productions of his film career, as the location was quite remote and getting enough workers and materials proved difficult. Fortunately for him there was a U.S. Marine base nearby who helped build the towering set. 

throneofbloodHowever, the Marines could not be counted on to design and make historically accurate costumes for a cast of hundreds. That monumental task fell to Taiki Mori, who clothed hundreds of men in feudal battle regalia and designed delicate, intricate kimonos for Asaji and others. One particular kimono of Asaji’s is fashioned in such a way as to make her appear and move like an actual spider, which is apt, as she is no doubt something of a black widow, always spinning webs of deceit to ensnare her perceived enemies.

For a film called Throne of Blood you don’t really see a lot of bloodshed. Instead blood is used more metaphorically than anything (although we do see blood on Washizu’s hands after he kills the Lord).  This theme is epitomized when the Forest Spirit says, “If you choose the path of 62bloodshed, then climb to the very pinnacle of evil.” It’s interesting that he would say that, of course, because he’s the one who set Washizu off to capture a throne covered in blood by prophesizing that Washizu was destined to rule Spider’s Web Castle. 

While I was thoroughly enthralled with Washizu’s death scene, there is too much overacting in Throne of Blood for me. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing, or Kurosawa instructed Mifune to ham it up because he wanted to show the depths of Washizu’s madness, but there was too much bulging eyes and maniacal laughs for my liking.  Also, it puzzles me why Kurosawa incorporated Noh theatre into the story with Asaji’s restricted, orchestrated movements, but then at other times she is free to run about unencumbered.  Still, the ending is worth sitting through 105 minutes of overacting. 

10 comments:

  1. This is my default favorite Kurosawa film in large part because I love the story it's based on.

    You're right about the overacting--that's common in a lot of Japanese films of the period, but I tend to forgive it. For me, the biggest issue is that when the two men are lost in the forest, it just goes on and on and on and eventually becomes comic.

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    1. It is funny how long they roam around. How many times did they charge their horses back and forth? I like Seven Samurai more, but this is a close second, especially because of the ending.

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    2. My stand on Kurosawa is this: Kumonosu Jo is my default favorite. If I've watched a different Kurosawa film in the last six months, that becomes my favorite until I watch another one or six months go by.

      Too many great films to pick just one.

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    3. This sounds like how I feel about Hitchcock. LOL

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  2. It's so impressive to me that Shakespeare's story, which was written at a time when Shakespeare had absolutely no idea who the samurai were or how they lived, can translate so well to such an entirely different place and setting. I kind of have a thing about Shakespeare adaptations to film - if I get even a whiff of Shakespeare in a story, I'm automatically predisposed to liking it. And this one... this one is one of the best.

    The overacting criticism is very fair, but as Steve says, I tend to forgive it as well. I think you're right, it's seems to be a cultural thing.

    Thanks for the info on the production design and the costumes, that was interesting.

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    1. I'm a fan of film adaptations of Shakespeare. He transfers well because his plays usually touch onsuch universal themes.

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  3. Like Steve and Siobhan I didn't have an issue with the acting since I am used to it from other films of that era. Also, Macbeth in general seems to provide a lot of histrionics in many of its adaptations.

    I do agree with you that Seven Samurai is better, but I place Throne of Blood (and Ikiru) very close to it.

    By the way, the literal translation of the title was Castle of the Spider's Web. I speculated in my review that the title we know it as was an attempt to make it more sensationalistic to bring in more customers.

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    1. Shakespeare is full of histrionics (especially Othello). You're right about the title. I don't think many American's would have been interested in seeing a Japanese film called Castle of the Spider's Web.

      BTW< Ikiru is just too depressing.

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  4. You echo my sentiments rather exactly on this one!

    Seven Samurai was long my number one Kurosawa movie but nowadays I'm not as sure, both Ikiru and Derzu Uzala are amazing – and I still haven't seen Yojimbo!

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    1. I can't think of a Kurosawa film I didn't like.

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