Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Akira Kurosawa | 蜘蛛巣城 (Throne of Blood)

the spider who knits the net
by Douglas Messerli

Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryūzō Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, and Hideo Oguni (screenplay, based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth), Akira Kurosawa (director) 蜘蛛巣城 (Throne of Blood) / 1957

It is rather amazing that, perhaps, the best adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth would come from a Japanese director, the great Akira Kurosawa. Translating Macbeth’s foggy Scotland heaths to the equally foggy Mount Fuji and Izu Peninsula, but resetting it in the more ancient culture of feudally-controlled Japan, the director brilliantly makes it almost appear that the great English bard, had he known of the Japanese feudal world, might himself have chosen to set his play into this context.
       Certainly, the early scenes, when having bravely saved the day in battle for King Duncan (Tsuzaki Kunimaru, performed by Hiroshi Tachikawa), his loyal warriors—Washizu Taketki as Macbeth, starring the great Toshiro Mifune and Miki Yoshiaki, the Banquo played Minoru Chiaki—rush forward by command to visit the castle, titled “The Spider’s Web,” almost insistently losing their way in the forest surrounding the castle, race their horses in various opposite directions as they attempt to find their way to their inevitable rewards. The maze in which they are both caught parallels the lives they shall soon suffer.
     The nearly endless sound of the horse’s hooves, as they run forward and backwards in search of the exit out of the nettles, sets the pace for this constantly shifting work, in which, at any given moment, alternates between the old and newer rulers and their ministrations.
      I have always thought the Three Witches "Double, double toil and trouble" invocation over a stewpot of frogs and newts was more than a bit silly, particularly in Verdi’s operatic version of the work which I saw at the LAOpera. Kurosawa resolves this scene of ridiculousness with the sudden vision of the two lost souls of a single spirit (Chieko Naniwa), who magically weaving their fates together, tells them of the future: that today Washizu will be named Lord of the Northern Garrison and Miki will become commander of the first fortress. Moreover, Washizu soon after will become the Lord of the Spider-Web Castle, but that Miki’s son will eventually inherit that role.
       In Kurosawa’s version, the witch’s prediction sounds less like the witches’ terrible predictions than a kind of Jean Cocteau-like enchantment. These figures are now doomed by the weave and warp of a magical history that cannot be undone.
       Indeed, those fore-tellings do come true, encouraging the power-hungry Lady Macbeth (Isuzu Yamada) to literally fast-speed the rule of her husband as predicted through the murder of the King. In this cinematic reading of Shakespeare’s classic, she might almost be perceived as the perfect wife, determined to help her husband rise in the ranks from his humble and faithful obedience to a position, given his courage and bravery, she believes he deserves.
       Yet her evil deeds, serving a drug to the King’s guard, placing a knife with which Washizu has murdered Tsuzaki Kunimaru in one of the sleeping guard’s hands, and screaming out the facts that she herself has incited, is one of the most horrific actions captured on screen. The guilty Washizu is almost lost in the ruckus of his wife’s behavior. If he has rather unwillingly killed the King, she has become a kind of trumpet to deflect their own guilt. In a sense, she has already turned mad, and her later almost catatonic behavior as she washes her hands over and over seems inevitable.
       Similarly, the couple must now become determined to kill Washizu’s dearest, now-suspicious friend; and, even worse, once Washizu discovers that his wife has become pregnant to kill Banquo’s young son, the foretold future leader—all to no avail, since he later discovers his wife produces only a still-born, much like their own absurd attempts to gain power.
       If, in the original Shakespeare play Lady Macbeth’s hand-washing anguish is at the center of the work, in Kurosawa’s version, Washizu’s (Macbeth) drunkenness is what truly betrays him, as in a dining stupor he encounters the ghost of his formerly beloved friend, Miki, whom he has ordered to be killed. His behavior, as with so many couples, is quickly covered up with the easy excuse the he is simply drunk, speaking “out of his mind” so to speak.
      Desperate for a solution to his terrible visions, this Macbeth retreats again to the forest to call up the single “witch-weaver” who explains to him that only when the entire forest rises up to attack him will he lose his life. But we already know from those early scenes of the film, the forest has already done that, has confused him and forced him into the terrible actions he and his wife have since untaken.
      If he cannot imagine the forest attacking him, he soon must face it when the opposing forces of Miki’s son respond with branches cut in the middle of the night to disguise their approach. Since Washizu has shared the “ridiculous” prophecy with his own soldiers, when the forest does actually seem to rise up, his supporters turn against him, shooting him down with arrows somewhat like St. Sebastiane. As evil as we know him to be, there is something tragic about Kurosawa’s representation of his slow, very slow death. This was, after all, a hero who has been corrupted by visions and his own ambitious wife.
       In many respects, Kurosawa seems not only to adopt—at least in English translation—the cadences of Shakespeare’s original, but enhances the original, allowing us to further comprehend the horror of a man provoked to advance beyond his own limitations. Washizu is a strong soldier, but not a natural leader as we perceive in his early confusion during his attempt to even enter the sacred court. He has given up his natural role in order to fit the prognostications of a ghost, an imaginary figure, apparently, of his own imagination and desires.

Los Angeles, January 28, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (January 2020).

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