Throne of Blood: a fine film let down by truncated plot and mostly sketchy characters

Akira Kurosawa, “Throne of Blood” (1957)

Often referred to as an adaptation of the Shakespearean play, “Macbeth”, this historical drama by Kurosawa is a fine film that is actually sourced from many different inspirations and influences, of which the play is a significant inspiration, and which also combines some features of Japanese Noh drama and the American Western film. “Throne of Blood” often hailed as a masterpiece but, truth be told, I found it less compelling than Kurosawa’s later “Ran” which also partly references Shakespeare (“King Lear” to be specific). Certainly if filming in colour, a bigger budget and a greater knowledge of Japanese military history and mediaeval fighting techniques had been accessible to Kurosawa in 1957, then “Throne of Blood”, technically at least, would have been a much greater film than it is. As it is, the film has to depend much more on plot and character than “Ran” does, and in this, it’s a much lesser film than “Ran” (and even then, the characters in “Ran” can be rather one-dimensional with the exception perhaps of Lord Hidetora’s fool). Part of the reason is that the plot of “Macbeth” is much whittled down in “Throne …” with a watered-down Macduff character to oppose the Macbeth character, Lord Washizu (Toshiro Mifune), and as a result a source of tension and interest is removed; another reason is that with his epic samurai films, Kurosawa intended to say something about the nature of war and killing in our age, and used a specific historical period in Japan – the period from about 1450 to some time in the early 1600’s (known in Japan as the Sengoku period, or Warring States period) when the Tokugawa shoguns took over the country and ushered in an unprecedented age of peace and prosperity- as a way of enabling people to view modern warfare and killing objectively, and this lesson takes precedence over character depiction to the extent that the characters appear clunky and one-dimensional.

The film opens with two warrior friends, Washizu and Miki (Minoru Chiaki), lost in a forest after successfully crushing a rebellion against warlord Kuniharu Tsuzuki (Takamaru Sasaki), who holds Spider Web Castle. After fruitlessly riding through dense fog and dark trees, the two men come upon a witch (Chieko Naniwa) who, chillingly, spins thread on her spindle in the manner of the Three Fates of ancient Greek mythology. The woman prophesies that Washizu and Miki will be promoted for their efforts and that Washizu and Miki’s son will become lords of Spider Web Castle. Naturally the two men are doubtful but the prophecy that they will achieve military promotions comes true and this leads Washizu to become uneasy, restless and not a little ambitious. His clever wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) realises the inner turmoil he’s going through and starts egging him on to realise his ambitions. Soon enough, Lord Tsuzuki comes to stay at the garrison where Washizu and Asaji have just moved in with their household and this affords both husband and wife an opportunity to kill him. They cover up their treason by blaming the murder on Tsuzuki’s guards. With Tsuzuki out of the way, Washizu becomes Lord of Spider Web Castle but the other part of the prophecy about Miki’s son begins to trouble him and Asaji, and they soon start acting in strange ways and doing things that alert others to suspect that they (Washizu and Asaji) are Tsuzuki’s real murderers. Eventually Asaji goes mad and Washizu rushes headlong into a war that will be his doom.

Mifune gives a great performance as Washizu, though much of the time his face is distorted into fixed expressions of rage, and even in the extended sequence where he is being hounded by arrows in a narrow corridor, he still looks often as angry as he does terrified. Yamada, made up in Noh make-up and costuming, is as emotionless and artificial as Mifune is as openly emotional, neurotic and panicky to the point where he starts to flail about with his sword and … oops! … someone’s cut in half and looking very dead. The two complement each other perfectly: Asaji knows how Washizu’s mind works and she guesses correctly that he wants Miki out of his way so she arranges for this to happen. She doesn’t need to say a lot to goad Washizu into killing Tsuzuki as she knows only social convention and the samurai code of honour are preventing him from fulfilling his ambition. The pity though is that these two characters are the only fully rounded characters in the film: all the others, Miki in particular, are so slightly delineated as to be moving wallpaper needed to prop up the plot. Miki may be a ruthless warrior but you wouldn’t know it from the way he is portrayed in the film. The code of honour that compels Washizu to treat Miki as his equal and which is part of the reason that Washizu has qualms about killing Miki seems superfluous. Miki’s son (Akira Kubo), who one might expect to be at least hell-bent on avenging Dad’s death, merely attaches himself to a rival warlord Noriyasu (Takashi Shimura), the would-be Macduff character who never gets to meet Washizu and avenge Miki’s death on the son’s behalf as the code of honour would require. Neither Noriyasu nor Miki’s son is more than window-dressing for the plot. Incidentally Shimura and Mifune had appeared together in a previous Kurosawa film “Seven Samurai” so it’s rather strange that Kurosawa decided not to pit their characters against each other in a climactic do-or-die fight that would allow Washizu to die nobly and gasp out some last words about how the gods play around with humans like toys, and Noriyasu in return spout something about maintaining samurai honour and restoring the natural order of the world to appease the gods.

It would have been really worthwhile too if at some point during Washizu’s extended death scene, mighty and terrifying though it is, the samurai realised he has been manipulated by the witch through his blind faith in her “prophecy” and that he has thrown away his own life and the lives of people he cared for dearly as a result. All his achievements will be dwarfed by his treason and other crimes. There is nothing to suggest that Washizu and Asaji come to learn anything about themselves through their failings and misdeeds. I can’t remember from my own readings of Shakespeare’s plays whether he dealt with the idea of free will versus predestination. I have a feeling that he did, and that one play in which he might have done this is “Macbeth” so it should have been possible for “Throne of Blood” to combine both the notion of people trapped in a world where all their actions have been pre-determined by fickle gods or evil spirits and one character coming to realise that he has been exploited in this way and maybe should have resisted the witch’s words.

Though there are some great scenes – an early prolonged scene in which Washizu and Miki race around in circles in the fog demonstrates perfectly how enmeshed in the workings of fate they are and how their arrogance will undo them – the film does feel very cramped in its outdoor settings and use of black-and-white film. Even so, black-and-white film is used effectively to create creepy atmospheres and moods, especially in the forest scenes, and the weather becomes a significant character in the film, reflecting characters’ inner moods and thoughts, and portending what is to happen in the plot. “Throne of Blood” really does cry out to be filmed in colour, even if the range of colours that suit the film is in the dark blues, greys, blacks and blood-red, and with more panoramic filming techniques and appropriate film stock so you get a real sense of Japanese history and what the unsettled Warring States period might have been like.

Ran: stock characters make this film merely good, not truly great

Akira Kurosawa, “Ran” (1985)

“Ran” (“Chaos” or “Revolt”) was Kurosawa’s last attempt at creating and filming an epic historical drama set in Japan’s Kamakura period when feudal warlords ruled the country. At the time he made it, it was Japan’s most expensive film ever at a budget of US$12 million, financed mainly by French producer Serge Silberman. The film’s initial inspiration was stories about a 16th century daimyo (warlord), Mori Motonari, but the screenplay was also influenced by the famous play “King Lear” by William Shakespeare.

The film revolves around aged daimyo Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) and the consequences of the decision he makes in dividing his lands and the responsibilities that attend them, among his three sons prosaically named Taro, Jiro and Saburo (“one”, “two” and “three”, played by Akira Terao, Jinpachi Neru and Daisuke Ryn respectively), while retaining his titles, the symbols and privileges of his position. Taro and Jiro happily agree to the arrangement but Saburo, foreseeing trouble as Hidetora had not exactly been a model dad or a just ruler, objects. For his disobedience, Hidetora angrily banishes Saburo who is then forced to take refuge with Fukimaki, one of two rival warlords – the other named Ayabe – wishing to marry their daughters to him. Saburo allows one of his retainers, Tango (Masayuki Yui), to continue serving Hidetora in disguise.
 
Hidetora plans to spend his twilight years boarding at Taro and Jiro’s castles in turn. It’s not long before Taro, egged on by his wife Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada),whose family was murdered by Hidetora, finds a way to boot out Dad and his retinue so the aged man seeks Jiro’s help. Jiro, forewarned by Taro, also finds an excuse to refuse hospitality so Hidetora finds refuge in Saburo’s recently abandoned castle and lands. Alas, even this isn’t to the older sons’ liking as they join forces to storm the castle, killing nearly all of Hidetora’s followers and forcing him to flee into the wilderness. While exulting in the destruction, Taro is killed by Jiro who had been plotting all along with his generals to usurp Big Brother.

Hidetora’s fool (Peter) and Tango locate the old man and help him find refuge with a hermit who turns out to be Tsurumaru (Takashi Nomura), young brother of Jiro’s wife Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki). Years ago, Hidetora had killed the young siblings’ parents and blinded the son. Confronted by the evidence of his evil deed, Hidetora begins to lose his sanity and leaves the shelter. Meanwhile back at the Jiro ranch, Jiro is approached, seduced and manipulated in turns by his brother’s widow, Lady Kaede, who has shrewdly guessed his ambitions and persuades him to repudiate and kill Sue and marry her instead. Sue is forced to flee for her life so she finds Tsurumaru and they go to their parents’ abandoned castle ruins. Hidetora and his two followers have also arrived there and on seeing the young people, Hidetora descends further into madness and runs onto the plains of Azusa.

Tango returns to Saburo who then prepares his army and returns to the family territories to find Hidetora. Jiro, forewarned by messengers (dontcha just love the Pony Express that operates around here? where can we get fast express delivery like that?), leads his army to meet his brother’s. In the battle, Saburo’s disciplined forces rout Jiro’s with gunfire; in the meantime, Saburo receives news of Hidetora’s whereabouts so he personally goes off to retrieve him. Jiro guesses at what he’s doing so he dispatches assassins to follow after. He then receives news that Ayabe’s army is advancing on his castle so his army hurries back with Saburo’s forces on his tail. Jiro and his generals manage to get back to defend his stronghold. One general, Kurogane, who had earlier defied Lady Kaede, confronts her and finds out she has intended all along to destroy Hidetora and his two sons, so he kills her. Anchorless, Jiro and his generals find themselves and their exhausted, depleted army facing the full onslaught of Ayabe’s fresh forces.

Saburo finds Hidetora and they joyfully reconcile but Saburo is cut down by one of Jiro’s unseen assassins. Overcome by the disaster that has resulted from his rash decision, Hidetora collapses and dies. By this time, Sue and her maid have also been killed to fulfill Lady Kaede’s wish. This leaves Tsurumaru stranded at the family castle ruins, clinging to a painting of Amida Buddha that Sue had given him – which he accidentally loses down a cliff-like wall.

It’s a splendidly shot film with great visual beauty and dynamics: Kurosawa often uses landscapes to enhance a sense of extreme isolation, as in the scenes where Hidetora and his fool hide out in the ruined castle, or to suggest chaos falling in on Hidetora when he is first cast out into the wilderness. Even the weather and the time of day are important: the film opens during a bright part of the day with thunderclouds gathering overhead and ends during sunset with a blood-red sun. In the film’s opening scene, Hidetora and his sons, mounted on horses, are standing at right angles from one other looking for something and this scene portends the division, conflict and chaos to follow. There is close attention to technical detail, at least in battle scenes and those scenes that take place in castles, some of which were built for the film, though it’s possible Kurosawa took some liberties with actual historical details for the purpose of the film. The use of guns suggests the film’s events occur during the late 1500’s / early 1600’s which coincide with Shakespeare’s life-span and it’s likely the battle between Jiro and Saburo’s forces is partly based on the Battle of Nagashino of 1575, which Kurosawa dramatised in “Kagemusha” (1980), in which the use of guns overcame cavalry.
 
Nakadai as Hidetora is credible in the way he deteriorates mentally and physically; his make-up, based on Noh play conventions, reflects his gradual downfall. At the same time he becomes less of a stock character and more of a human being with feelings and weaknesses. The problem I have with Hidetora is that, unlike Lear in the Shakespearean play, Kurosawa passes up an opportunity to have him become a more caring and compassionate person towards his fool and others. Perhaps Hidetora is restricted by his social role not to care for others lower on the social scale and indeed most characters in the movie are one-dimensional stereotypes restricted by their social niches. This is true particularly of Lady Kaede whose make-up, stylised movements and monochromatic clothing render her a highly artificial and refined alien creature nursing a demonic hatred for Hidetora’s family; she’s the least human of the whole cast. Did her upbringing as well as Hidetora’s treatment of her and her family turn her into a devil? Hidetora’s fool on the other hand, moves naturally and expresses the full range of human emotions including courage and grief, and is clearly the one sane person in a highly dysfunctional world. Harada and Peter’s performances as these two characters are by far the most memorable in the film, not least because these characters behave outside the accepted gender norms for their society and class.

My impression of “Ran” is of a world of people trained and restricted by their roles in life to act as unthinking ants for the amusement of indifferent gods, an ontological view expressed by a minor character in the film. The collapse of this society is total with the unnecessary death of Sue, so devoted to Amida Buddha and forgiving of Hidetora, and Tsurumaru’s total abandonment when he loses the painting. The conclusion  is melodramatic, perhaps overdone – even Shakespeare didn’t obliterate all his main characters in “King Lear” – but it certainly illustrates an extremely pessimistic, nihilist view of the universe. Even in this world though, I still think there’s room for character development for Hidetora and maybe his sons, and this would have made “Ran” a classic film rather than merely a very good one: the tragedies that befall them would have been so much greater and more painful, and the universe become more harsh and uncaring, if the men had come to regret their actions and tried to make amends to others, only to be smacked down for their efforts by capricious gods.

The Life of Oharu: unsentimental historical drama of one woman’s downfall

Kenzo Mizoguchi, “The Life of Oharu”, Shintoho (1952)

This is an excellent film about a depressing subject: I only wish colour film had been available to director Kenzo Mizoguchi when he made this film so that he could have used it as an element in portraying the downfall of main character Oharu. The story could have been any other fictional historical sappy soap opera about a woman who through a series of incidents and plain bad luck is condemned to a life of ruin. Mizoguchi instead gracefully invests the film with pointed social commentary about the way women, even women of nobility, were treated in mediaeval Japan, drawing attention in particular to their lack of autonomy over their lives and their bodies.

It starts with Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka) as a teenage daughter of a family on the brink of entering into the nobility, doing whatever young women of her class were supposed to do to make themselves attractive potential brides to the feudal lords; a page (Toshiro Mifune in an early role) of a lower social class is attracted to her and sneaks into her quarters but their affair is discovered by officials. The page is executed and Oharu and her family are banished into exile. Depressed, Oharu attempts suicide but, perhaps ironically given that she lives in a society that condoned self-murder in certain circumstances, this option is taken away from her. Instead she’s packed off as concubine to Lord Matsudaira to bear him and his infertile wife a son. Oharu does so but Lady Matsudaira, jealous of the lord’s attention to the young mother, dumps her back on her father with small compensation. In the meantime, Dad has racked up a sizeable debt in anticipation of great favours from the Matsudairas and Oharu is forced to work as a courtesan at a high-class brothel.

An incident in which a client is exposed as a fraud leads to her being thrown out and Oharu then goes to work for a couple. A series of incidents that revolve around the wife’s baldness and Oharu’s past leads to Oharu being dismissed from service. Then for once, Fate smiles on Oharu in the form of a fan-maker who agrees to marry her. Unfortunately Oharu’s husband is murdered by robbers while on a business trip. Needless to say, Oharu’s not entitled to any of the fan-maker’s estate so she attempts to join a nunnery. While training as a novice, Oharu’s past catches up with her again, resulting in her expulsion from the temple. All known options now exhausted, Oharu becomes a prostitute but not a successful one at that, descending lower and lower on the social scale of prostitutes as she ages and her beauty fades.

Next thing you know, salvation from a life of hardship and humiliation beckons but at a price: Lord Matsudaira has died and the new lord – Oharu’s son – offers sanctuary and an old age spent in comfort if she will agree to live under his restrictive conditions. Oharu is taken to his residence under heavy guard but, keen to see him, manages to evade all the soldiers and gets lost. As a result, sanctuary is withdrawn and Oharu becomes an itinerant beggar.

Mizoguchi presents Oharu’s life in a way that forces the audience to decide how much of Oharu’s ill luck is due to her fault or the fault of others who through foolishness, jealousy, lack of empathy or contempt close off her options and leave her with nowhere to go but down. There are occasions when Oharu is able to hit back hard at her oppressors, often to humorous effect, but while revenge can be sweet, her actions backfire on her and result in yet more degradation. Sometimes she’s very wilful and proud, and other times she is passive, too passive: the suggestion is that she defends herself when she shouldn’t and gives in when she should be assertive. You want to take her by the shoulders and shake her for some of the things she does and the scrapes she gets into: wouldn’t it be better, after all she has suffered, to take up her son’s offer, resign herself to his scolding and live in comfortable exile? Yet somehow I feel that by becoming a beggar, Oharu at last achieves something she never would have had if she had accepted the new lord’s sanctuary, remained a Buddhist nun or replaced Lady Matsudaira: the freedom to move around the country, to experience the changing face of nature, and to be her own person.

The elegant and understated way in which the film is made, with the use of long tracking shots that frame the individual at a distance from the camera, imbues it with a sense of the individual’s helplessness vis-a-vis an oppressive and unforgiving society that judges and punishes people harshly for even minor social blunders. Tanaka as Oharu moves gracefully as though in a Noh play, emphasising the character’s ability to cope with her misfortune and put up with the money-grubbing, status-obsessed people around her. We see the honest, natural beauty of her soul which contrasts strongly with the corrupted and rigid patriarchal society in which she has to live and suffer. It’s all the more gut-wrenching then to see how people, men and women alike, and secular and religious as well, use their social status, even when it is declining, to heap opprobrium and indignity on this woman. At the same time, one can’t help but think that her soul becomes more refined and unearthly the more the dirt is dished out on her; in her very early scenes with the page, Oharu treats him with disdain due to his lower social position so it’s obvious if her life had turned out differently, she would have been a coarser person.

It could have been a much better film with the use of colour but Mizoguchi was working on a small budget at the time he made the movie. I can imagine Mizoguchi using different shades of various colours to emphasise Oharu’s downfall so bright clean colours might have been used early on and paler or dirtier colours used later in the film. The settings and backgrounds could then have become more important as indicators of mood or to indicate a critical moment in the film. As the film’s pace is steady and unhurried throughout, some viewers are likely to find it slow and a bit boring, and the use of colour would have allowed those viewers to take in more of film’s backgrounds and take less notice of the pacing.

Anyone who thinks that life in Japan was better than it is now for most people should be directed to see this film – in its unassuming way, “The Life of Oharu” effectively demonstrates how very brutal and inhuman society was to women and other vulnerable people who through no fault of their own found themselves destitute and at the mercy of others.