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Essential Art House Vol. IV: Throne of Blood

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Minoru Chiaki, Chieko Naniwa

(US DVD: 15 Sep 2009)

Murderous Ambition

In Japanese, Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 samurai adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is titled not Throne of Blood, as it generally is in English, but rather Kumonosu-jou, which actually translates to Spider Web Castle. It is certainly an apt name insofar as Kurosawa’s stand-in for Macbeth—Taketoki Washizu, played by the imposing Toshiro Mifune—finds himself entangled in a fateful web that leaves him hopelessly bound to the Spider Web Castle (translated in the film as “Forest Castle” and which he attains through his murderous deed) awaiting death by the jaws of the spider.


And that spider, in Kurosawa’s reimagining of Shakespeare, is Ambition itself. In a song that serves as both prologue and final statement to the film, singers intone that the “proud warrior” was “murdered by ambition” inasmuch as “vain pride, then as now, will lead ambition to the kill”. Throughout the film, Ambition is given a strange agency that belies the notion that it is merely something exhibited by human beings. Washizu indeed betrays a “vain pride” but such pride is not the source of ambition. Rather Ambition here appears as something outside of the human character that preys upon pride. Ambition is lured by pride; it gathers the scent of pride and then it encourages excess of pride and contributes to the demise of the prideful.


In this manner, Kurosawa reworks the role of prophecy within the tale. Washizu and Miki (the film’s version of Banquo played by Minoru Chiaki) encounter a single, androgynous witch (Chieko Naniwa) deep within Spider Web forest on their way to receive their commendations for bravery from the emperor. As they approach the witch, she sings a song detailing the short span of life and the lack of glory in the afterlife because, as she claims, there is no afterlife for the individual. But then she recites a surprising but telling phrase: for the man with no son, the only possibility for attaining some spark of immortality is to allow ambition to guide one to evil deeds.


In any rendering of Macbeth, there is always the tension between the prophecy as inexorable fate and the prophecy as ultimately self-fulfilled. That is to say, does Macbeth murder Duncan and become king because he was fated to do so or does he allow the prophecy to make him feel entitled to do the unthinkable thing that appeals to his pride? Kurosawa’s adaptation acknowledges this dilemma when Miki’s son accuses his father and Washizu of foolishly listening to prophecies, fulfilling those prophecies through their own actions, and then naively seeing the results as deriving from mere Fate.


However, the witch’s prophecy in Kurosawa’s film suggests that given his lack of a male heir, Washizu’s only hope for some kind of fulfillment commensurate with his pride would be to achieve acclaim through misdeeds. Miki’s immortality, insofar as such a thing is possible, is vouchsafed through his son, but Washizu can rely only upon his own endeavors.


Kurosawa amplifies the urgency behind Washizu’s deed by creating a diabolical logician to serve as Washizu’s wife, Asaji (Isuzu Yamada). Whereas the Shakespearean tragedy moves swiftly from the prophecy to the murder so that the sheer impetus behind the events underwrites their plausibility, Kurosawa slows the pace and allows Washizu to demonstrate more than a perfunctory resistance to the plan his wife quickly formulates. More to the point, she makes a fairly sound argument. The emperor, Asaji reminds her husband, achieved the throne by killing his predecessor. Only to save his own life, Washizu counters. Men ought to be ambitious, she insists. Without ambition one is less of a man.


Washizu is hurt but ultimately is not swayed by attacks on his masculinity. Her final sally is the finest: what if Miki reports the prophecy to the emperor? Wouldn’t it be perfectly natural for the emperor to assume that if Washizu has an expectation (on the authority of an evil spirit) that he will take control of Spider Web Castle then Washizu would immediately qualify as a foremost enemy?


The beautiful symmetry of this argument involves its appeal to history and self-preservation while it exonerates Washizu in advance of any accusations of disloyalty. After all, in preserving his own life by murdering his superior, Washizu will be following in the footsteps of the very emperor who simultaneously serves as his model for proper behavior and his victim. By aligning Washizu’s course of action with the course earlier taken by the emperor, Asaji opens up the possibility that by murdering the emperor Washizu is merely following the venerable example established by the emperor himself—the act becomes a twisted form of homage.


Thus the prophecy, which in Shakespeare would have been best for Macbeth to ignore and therefore wait for it to simply come to pass of its own accord, in Kurosawa becomes the very liability that necessitates the murderous deed. In the complex and devious political environment in which Washizu finds himself, the cruel act of disloyalty is merely a logical reaction to the unfortunate circumstance that Miki also witnessed the prophecy.


When the emperor places Washizu in charge of an attack on the enemy, Asaji predicts that her husband will be attacked by arrows coming at him from the enemy and behind him from the emperor’s troops. In the fraught political climate, replete with intrigue and rebellion, this assumption is hardly far-fetched. Ambition here works through the two otherworldly characters (the witch and Asaji, both dressed up as characters out of Noh theater) by making solidly worldly arguments concerning survival and the limits of loyalty.


Image (partial) courtesy of the Criterion Collection

Image (partial) courtesy of the Criterion Collection


In the end, of course, Ambition claims its prey and here one of Kurosawa’s seemingly incidental reworkings of the Shakespeare play turns out to be of the greatest consequence. In Shakespeare, Macbeth is slain by Macduff, a man who was “from his mother’s womb untimely ripp’d” and thus not fully “of woman borne.” Thus Macduff is but another betrayal of Fate for Macbeth. Just as he was told he would only lose a battle when the forest itself moved (a seeming impossibility that came to pass when the invaders used branches from trees to disguise themselves as they approached the castle), so he was told he would be killed only by a man not of woman born. Macbeth took this to mean that he could not be killed, a rather pleasing assumption until he meets Macduff on the battlefield.


Kurosawa dispenses with a Macduff substitute. When Washizu and his followers see the forest move, they despair and cower. Washizu insists they fight on but an arrow sings out from the crowd. And then another. Soon a veritable shower of arrows cut through the air toward Washizu. This initiates one of the most visceral and compelling scenes ever filmed by Kurosawa (or anyone else for that matter), Washizu, defiant in the face of death, runs along the wall as the torrent of arrows block his way. Most of the arrows miss their mark and become embedded in the wooden wall.


Washizu pushes them aside, refusing to be trapped in their entanglements. As the assault continues, the arrows begin to approximate that spider’s web that has served as such a powerful metaphor throughout the film (one unfortunately obscured by the insistence of the translator in using “Forest Castle” as a substitute for “Spider Web Castle”).


Because they are a faceless crowd (indeed Kurosawa never shows the soldiers launching the arrows, he only shows Washizu dodging them), the slaying of Washizu comes from an anonymous human source. Indeed, we are led to believe that it comes from no human source whatsoever. Without a Macduff substitute, without a single human agent behind Washizu’s demise, the killing of Washizu becomes the act of Ambition itself. The gathering web of arrows encumbers Washizu’s flailing movements. Gradually the arrows begin to pierce his armor until finally one well-placed arrow pierces his neck.


Washizu refuses to fall. The ghastly look on that face as Washizu moves toward the crowd with the arrow in his neck creates one of the most memorable of filmic moments. Mofune as Washizu in this moment is a triumph of acting through facial expression. In his demise, Washizu remains unvanquished. Even at the end, Washizu attempts to draw his sword but, unable to go on, he falls in the dirt. Ambition has finally claimed its prey; Washizu is the ritual sacrifice mankind pays to Ambition in return for worldly accomplishments (which in this filmic universe are the only accomplishments available).


No one moves. We do not witness what happens next. It would clearly be anticlimactic and ultimately beside the point. The opening song returns and we see the desolate spot where Spider Web Castle once stood; all that physically remains is a marker and some evidence of the foundations. But the song of Washizu continues to be sung. Without an heir, Washizu has attained a form of immortality just as he was promised. Perhaps this is the least Ambition could do for its victim.

Rating:

Chadwick lives in New York City and teaches Music History and Theory at The City College of New York. He earned his doctorate in Musicology at Columbia University. He has given papers on topics ranging from 12th Century lament to Duke Ellington and early radio to the use of Wagner's music in Bugs Bunny cartoons. He has published in scholarly journals on the music of John Cage, Richard Strauss, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He has taught courses on music history, the history of rock, and the history of jazz at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Columbia University


Tagged as: akira kurosawa
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