Saturday, January 16, 2016

Throne of Blood

Strange I would criticize the most recent adaptation of MacBeth for the stripping away a lot of Shakespeare's language, and yet here I am praising Akira Kurosawa's version, which completely jettisons it.

The difference, I think, so I don't appear contradictory, is one of vision. What the Michael Fassenbender version replaced the language with was muddled and unsatisfactory. Kurosawa, by transplanting the story and characters to feudal Japan, frees himself to tell a visually eerie and enchanting adaptation while remaining true to Shakespeare's themes and ideas.

One could make an almost perfect point-by-point comparison between the plot of MacBeth and Throne of Blood (1957). A warlord is told by prophecy he will rise to power, and at the urging of his manipulative wife, he murders his lord and usurps the throne. In power, he grows paranoid and increasingly more violent, resulting in a revolt against his rule.

The warlord in this case is Washizu, played by Toshiro Mifune. He is a proud, noble warrior, and in his rise to power, he only grows more boastful and arrogant. He struts around, chest out, head held high, eyes wide and mad by the end, and there is a delicious, almost darkly funny satisfaction in watching his vanity and pride literally punctured by dozens and dozens of arrows as his own men turn against him. Even before he murders his lord, he stomps around, wavering between his loyalty and his ambition, while his wife Asaji (Isuzi Yamada) sits coyly, unwavering, unmoving, as she speaks bluntly to the evil truth that lies within his heart.

Kurosawa bring a strong visual element that reinforces the narrative. Spider Web Forest, the purgatory-like wilderness where Washizu receives his prophecy, lives up to its name as a maze of tangled and dead tree branches, rain, and mist. When he and Miki (Akira Kuba), the movie's Banquo, encounter the evil spirit, it sits at a weaving wheel. As this ghostly old woman weaves, singing softly and surrounded by piles of human bones, the effect not only reinforces the notion she is a spider luring these mortals like flies to her web, but the weaving wheel has a hypnotic effect.

Later, when both Washizu and Mike are honored, Kurosawa employs matching imagery and editing to reinforce the notion these two are on equal footing. When the two sit outside the castle, they are equally tall beneath the castle. So when Asaji tells Washizu he can't trust Miki, we see why he grows paranoid about his loyal friend.

Near the end, when Washizu returns to the Evil Spirit to learn if he will be victorious in the final battle, the spirit appears in different guises, and Kurosawa uses masterful editing, sharply cutting between shots to place this spirit all around Washizu, showing how completely at its mercy he is and how powerful it can be. And when the trees of Spider Web Forest rise up and march on the castle, it is probably the best visualization of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane in any filmed adaptation.

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