Thursday, February 08, 2007

Revisit: Throne of Blood

A Toho Company release 1957

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Writing credits:
Shinobu Hashimoto
Ryuzo Kikushima
Akira Kurosawa
Hideo Oguni
William Shakespeare (play)

Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa’s transcultural adaptation of Macbeth, employs a distinct cinematic form that arranges the film’s two major settings – Spider’s Web Forest and Spider’s Web Castle – in a complicated dialogue that plays against its protagonists. Stephen Prince describes Throne of Blood as being circular in nature: “The events of the film – Washizu’s murderous path to power and execution by his own men – are inscribed in a cycle of time that infinitely repeats” (144). Prince notes that Washizu’s murderous actions replicate a previous act of savagery, and that the visual construction of setting embodies similar ideas of temporal circularity. This is an appropriate thematic observation, but does not fully account for Kurosawa’s formal tactics. Rather than simply connecting opposing diegesis, Kurosawa creates a singular layer of setting that acts to reveal congruity between the internal and external elements of the film.

Spider’s Web Castle is the first setting introduced in Throne of Blood. The castle is situated on top of a hill that overlooks a sprawling, dense forest. The forest acts as a barricade, preventing the outside from coming in; the hill allows for a bird’s eye view of attackers, adding a significant dimension of defense. Through the introduction, Spider’s Web Castle is established as an internal space in the sense that large walls protect it. It is assumed at the beginning that characters inside the castle are safe, that the castle can be equated with safety. This is confirmed not only through story detail but also by Kurosawa’s camera use and initial visual construction of the castle. Wide framing, distance shots, and the telephoto lens open the space up wide, allowing a view not only of the castle’s depth, but its detail. Camera movement is also sparse, consisting mostly of static shots. For example, the initial full shot of the Lord’s council is flat and at a distance that opens the space wide and allows for a full view of the castle. Similar shots repeat throughout the scene. Rectangular and square shapes are also particularly accented, along with vertical and horizontal lines that imply clarity of construction and openness.

If Spider’s Web Castle initially implies openness and safety, Spider’s Web Forest could not appear more opposite. Though it provides protection for the castle and its inhabitants, it is also a dark and dangerous place. The sequence following the first castle scene depicts the forest as thick and threatening, a baffling mess of trails that stretch out like a spider’s web. Even Washizu & Miki, trained in the forest paths, manage to get lost in its maze. Kurosawa allows dense bramble and branches to filter in front of the camera, creating a labyrinth of images. Fast camera movement and contained shots obstruct our view, making it difficult to see characters. Logistically, this space is external. However, the over-bearing presence of the spirit and its subsequent tampering with Washizu’s destiny internalize the space. The spirit’s predictions play on Washizu’s subconscious, his internal being. Like in Rashomon, the forest pulls violent and precarious thoughts out of its protagonist.

However, this violence does not play out in the forest. Rather, it is brought to the castle, where the illusion of safety and openness is shattered by Washizu’s betrayal. The castle, previously a safe, internalized space becomes harsh, externalized through Washizu. Kurosawa displays this formally by slowly appropriating the cinematic codes of the forest setting and interspersing it throughout the later half of the film. Camera movement becomes less static, particularly envisioned through the violent movements inspired by Noh. Crosshatching lines become and more visible, to the point that they mimic the rough forest bramble. This is especially heightened at the end, as Washizu pushes through a maze of arrows, only to be cut down. This melding of two previously divided cinematic codes acts to effectively tie the setting into the storyline as a visual metaphor.

Stephen Prince's biography of Kurosawa titled A Warrior's Camera is a great indepth look at the director's life and films

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