Introduction to Throne of Blood (Kurosawa, 1957) – Dukes cinema, 12/3/12

Bruce Bennett (Lancaster University, UK)

(This was the introductory public talk I gave for the screening of Kurosawa’s film at the Dukes cinema in Lancaster)Image

This film is by the most famous Japanese film-maker, Akira Kurosawa, and stars Toshiro Mifune, his regular collaborator and by far the most famous Japanese actor. Kurosawa and Mifune came to international recognition in 1951 when his period drama, Rashomon, won the golden lion prize at the Venice film festival. Rashomon tells the story of a samurai and his wife who are attacked by a bandit while travelling through a forest – the samurai is murdered and his wife raped and the film presents the incident in flashback from the perspectives of four different people during a trial. At the end of the film it is left unclear which of the four contradictory versions of events is correct and this ambiguous storytelling had a powerful impact upon European art cinema. It was as a result of this film’s success, compounded by the Seven Samurai in 1954, that Kurosawa, who directed his first feature film in 1942 and died in 1998, came to stand for Japanese cinema for international audiences.

Kurosawa and Japanese cinema

Kurosawa directed 31 feature films, many of them humanist dramas about the difficulties of contemporary Japanese life such as I Live in Fear (1955) about an old man who becomes obsessed by the threat of nuclear war, 1950’s Scandal, which is about a paparazzi photographer harassing a musician, the 1949 detective drama, Stray Dog, about a policeman who loses his gun, which is then used to commit a murder, or 1948’s Drunken Angel about an alcoholic doctor working in the post-war Tokyo slums. He also directed a number of literary adaptations, including a version of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, which I think is the best version of Dostoevsky in cinema.

However it is samurai films or jidai-geki (period dramas) with which Kurosawa, who was a descendent of samurais, is most closely associated – George Lucas named the jedi knights in Star Wars in recognition of his passion for the Kurosawa films he watched as a film student in the 1960s – and the international success of Kurosawa’s jidai-geki films led to accusations from Japanese critics and film-makers that he was a westernised director, whose films often reproduced a stereotypical tourist’s eye view of Japan for international audiences, characterised by views of Mt Fuji, tea ceremonies, cherry blossoms and hara-kiri.

Kurosawa refuted this and claimed:

‘If a work cannot have meaning for Japanese audiences then I – as a Japanese artist – am simply not interested in it.’

Nevertheless, one of the characteristics of Kurosawa’s films, and of Japanese cinema more generally, is a tendency to incorporate imagery, story structures, characters and visual style from other national cinemas. This is the case for any national cinema, of course, but Kurosawa was keenly interested in international cinema and one of his key reference points was the work of the American director John Ford who specialised in Westerns. He claimed that Ford’s 1946 western, My Darling Clementine was ‘a model of how cinema should be’ and wrote in his 1981 autobiography that he felt that the person he would most like to resemble as he grew old was John Ford. He met John Ford in London in 1958 when Throne of Blood was shown at the national film theatre and Kurosawa was delighted when Ford said to him, ‘You really love rain’, replying, ‘You really have seen my films’. His hero worship went as far as emulating Ford’s practice of wearing a flat cap and sunglasses on set. The influence of Ford’s films is evident in the depiction of landscape in Kurosawa’s samurai films, in the thematic preoccupation with rootless drifters and loners passing through villages and hamlets, the stand-offs and bursts of sudden violence, and the mythical, heroic, masculine view of history.

So, while Kurosawa epitomises Japanese cinema for international audiences, he is also a good example of the way in which any national cinema is involved in a constant exchange. For instance, his 1961film, Yojimbo (the bodyguard), an adaptation of a Dashiell Hammett western novel, was remade three years later by the Italian director Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars, while perhaps his most famous film, The Seven Samurai was remade as the American Western, The Magnificent Seven.

Adaptation

As an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Throne of Blood exemplifies this internationalism. Kurosawa had wanted to make a film of Macbeth for a long time but was initially deterred when he saw an adaptation by Orson Welles from 1947. He had been beaten to it. Kurosawa treated adaptations as an opportunity for experimentation and Throne of Blood was the first of two films he released in 1957, both of which were adaptations of stage plays and which are radically different in terms of style. The second was the Lower Depths, an adaptation of a 1901 play by Russian playwright, Maxim Gorky, which confines the action to a claustrophobic set and is heavy with conversation, while Throne of Blood by contrast is visually spectacular and makes dramatic use of landscape, as well as vast sets.

This is a very cinematic adaptation; although the play provides the narrative skeleton, dialogue is minimal and characters have been replaced, merged and discarded, and it is perhaps Kurosawa’s most stylised film. Rather than a reverent transcription of the text of the source material – a filmed play – the film takes Shakespeare’s play as a foundation on which to build something quite singular. The screenplay was written by Kurosawa and his three regular co-writers without any reference to the text of the play, which is an indication not so much of an arrogant disdain for the source material, as of their familiarity with Shakespeare. Indeed Kurosawa returned to Shakespeare much later with his 1985 film, Ran, which was an adaptation of King Lear.

Throne of Blood sets the drama in 16th century feudal Japan, the setting for almost all samurai dramas, but while there are gestures towards historical authenticity, the film is not really concerned with a realistic depiction of Japanese society of the period. The director insisted that the actors wore heavy, accurately reconstructed military costumes, and carried real swords rather than the lightweight fake weapons used in samurai films, because he felt that this would produce a distinctive performance – they would move differently. However, the guiding aesthetic principle of the film is simplicity and abstraction, rejecting the elaborate textural detail of his other historical dramas in order to reduce the film down to essential elements.

Donald Richie, a US historian of Japanese cinema, has said of the film’s stark style, for example,

‘There has rarely been a blacker and whiter black and white film. Kurosawa purposely restricts himself. The only punctuation he allows himself is the simple cut and the simple wipe. There are no fades, no dissolves, nothing soft, nothing flowing.’

The sound design is similarly simple. The score is by Masaru Sato, who scored many of Kurosawa’s films, but music is used much more sparely here than in other films, appearing as percussive rhythms, chanting, musical accents and rhythmic interruptions. Diegetic sound is very prominent as a result – the sound of a kimono swishing across the wooden floors, the sound of clanking armour, the clatter of horses’ hooves, the screeching of birds, and the swoosh of arrows flying through the air – and silence also hangs heavy.

If the costume design aspires to historical authenticity, the make-up and performance styles are far less realistic. Toshiro Mifune and Minoru Chiaki, who play the protagonists Lord and Lady Washizu, are made up in the style of actors from classical Japanese Noh theatre, and Chiaki moves and strikes poses in the extremely formal, non-naturalistic manner of a Noh actor, whose movements follow very precise conventions.

Mifune’s acting style could not be more different – he is one of the most physical performers in cinema and Chiaki’s emotional restraint is a radical contrast with Mifune’s frantic, kinetic, performance. Kurosawa made 16 of his 31 films with Mifune and was first drawn to the actor when he happened across him performing in an audition in the 1940s in Toho Studios in Tokyo. He said he was transfixed and that, ‘It was as frightening as watching a wounded or a trapped savage beast trying to break loose’. Mifune is a very powerful physical presence in all of Kurosawa’s films that feature him – he stalks round the sets, stretching, yawning, eating, scratching himself,  continually adjusting his costume as if he’s constrained by clothes, laughing suddenly and roaring his lines. This film, which is partly about a man being driven to insanity, provides a perfect context for this intense performance style.

The film makes a feature of the foggy landscape around Mt Fuji, the thick forests and black volcanic sand but this wild landscape is sharply contrasted with the austere, geometrically precise, almost empty interiors that resemble stages across which a few objects are very carefully placed. Kurosawa trained as a painter and as a result the shots in his films are very carefully composed with as much attention paid to abstract graphic qualities as to the content of the image. Actors are treated as part of the overall visual design of the image and are frequently required to pose almost immobile.

Staging and direction

There are also a couple of very unusual features of Kurosawa’s technical approach to film-making that are notable in relation to the look and effect of this film that help to explain why his films are so notable. The first is that Kurosawa spent much more time than was usual for the period rehearsing scenes with his actors – they rehearsed for a month, much of the time in full costume, so that when it came to shooting scenes, Kurosawa claimed he didn’t need to watch what the actors were doing.

‘While the cameras are rolling, I rarely look directly at the actors, but focus my gaze somewhere else. By doing this I sense instantly when something isn’t right. […] I believe this is what the mediaeval Noh playwright and theorist Zeami meant by “watching with a detached gaze”’.

A second unconventional technique is that Kurosawa filmed using three cameras placed at different angles to the action, something he began while shooting the action sequences from Seven Samurai and continued to do for the rest of his career. This is extremely wasteful, and therefore expensive, in terms of the amount of footage produced – film-makers traditionally almost always use a single camera, repeating a scene and reshooting from each angle separately – but it also meant that Kurosawa would often only do one take. The intention behind this is to produce an intensity in the performances that would be dissipated if actors had to do take after take, and it also means that actors cannot direct their performances towards a single camera, which potentially results in a less theatrical quality of performance.

One of Kurosawa’s virtuoso strengths as a director is in shooting technically complex action sequences – such as battles and chases  – of which there are several in this film. These are technically complex both in the sense that large numbers of actors and animals are moving quickly back and forth across large spaces and also in that this action has to be filmed and edited together into sequences of shots that are coherent and continuous. Kurosawa’s action sequences emphasize the confusion and the chaos of battle. He frequently uses low camera angles and obstructed views – shooting through the legs of passing horses and soldiers or through tree branches for instance – fast panning shots and tracking shots following charging horses along forest paths, and cuts together shots of movement going in opposite directions. Battlefields in Kurosawa’s films are often drenched in torrential rain, or enshrouded in smoke and fog to add to the sense of disorientation.

Throne of Blood was intended by the studio, Toho, to exploit Kurosawa’s growing success as a director of prestigious period dramas and to outshine the generic samurai films that were being churned out by competing studios. It turned a profit but was not a significant commercial success. However, it was well-received by critics both abroad and in Japan and is the film that cemented Kurosawa’s reputation as an internationally significant artist. The reviewer for Time magazine said of the film on its US release,

‘No doubt about it now, Japan’s Akira Kurosawa must be numbered with Sergei Eisenstein and DW Griffith among the supreme creators of cinema. Throne of Blood is a nerve-shattering spectacle of physical and metaphysical violence, quite the most brilliant and original attempt ever made to put Shakespeare in pictures.’

Kurosawa’s later assessment of this film is rather more modest, ‘I keep saying the same thing in different ways. If I look at the pictures I’ve made, I think they ask, “Why is it that human beings aren’t happy?” […] Throne of Blood, on the other hand, shows why they must be unhappy.’

References:

Stuart Galbraith (2002) The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune (Faber and Faber)

Akira Kurosawa (1983) Something Like An Autobiography (Vintage)

Donald Richie (2005) A Hundred Years of Japanese Films: A Concise History (Kodansha)