Friday, October 12, 2018

William Shakespeare And Akira Kurosawa Fuse Together Beautifully In Throne of Blood

In the centuries that they've existed and cast such a large shadow over worldwide pop culture, William Shakespeare's works have been adapted through basically every manner conceivable, so it's no wonder that one the Bard's most iconic plays, Macbeth, got adapted into Throne of Blood, a feature film directed and partially written by similarly iconic filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa's style of filmmaking is just as distinctive as Shakespeare's prose. Merging the two of them together by way of taking the outline of Macbeth and contorting it into a tale set in feudal Japan makes good use of both men's talents, especially Kurosawa's, and results in a mixture as tantalizing as putting peanut butter and M&M's together!

Washizu Taketoki (Toshiro Mifune) and Miki Yoshiteru (Akira Kubo) are two soldiers coming home from a victorious battle when, like anyone stumbling through the woods at night, they come across a spirit appearing as a woman in a tent chanting an assortment of words. She eventually reveals to the two confused gentlemen that she has a prophecy to deliver to the two of them that entails both ascending to new levels of power in the near future with Washizu getting the honor of being crowned the next ruler of of their kingdom while Miki's son will supplant Washizu in this role of leadership. Both Washizu and Miki think such predictions sound utterly ridiculous, but when a portion of her prophecy (the portion that does not involve Washizu ascending to the role of ruler) comes true, suddenly, Washizu can't get this woman's words detailing him garnering so much power out of his head.

With the encouragement of his wife, Lady Macbeth stand-in Washizu Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), Washizu takes matters into his own hands and slaughters their Lord so that he, Washizu Taketoki, may take his place. Of course, obtaining this level of authority does not erase Washizu's problems and the level of tragedy that plagues this lead character, who will do anything, no matter how corrupt, for power informs so much of the powerful nature of Throne of Blood. This internal woe that haunts our protagonist is conveyed in a visual sense beautifully by director Akira Kurosawa and cinematographer Asakazu Nakai by way of emphasizing the emptiness of so many of the rooms that Washizu occupies.

In one of his numerous books, Calvin & Hobbes creators Bill Watterson mentioned how important he found empty white space in a comic to be because our eyes are drawn to that empty white space and it can serve as a visual stand-in for a pause for both the in-comic characters and the reader. Kurosawa and Nakai also clearly know the value of empty space in their work on Throne of Blood with the numerous shots that have either Washizu alone or him and his wife occupying rooms where they're accompanied by vast amounts of empty white space in the background. Despite being so ruthless & powerful, there is still an emptiness in their souls just as there is an emptiness in these rooms. Conversations between the two or shots of just these characters alone are framed in a way to ensure that it's impossible not to notice just how dwarfed these two characters are in interior locations by immense vacancy that, like their corrupt nature, seems to threaten to consume them.

What a haunting way to visually reflect the morally bankrupt spirits of these two characters that cannot be shaken no matter how far they climb the social ladder. Wider shots that make smart use of empty space also get put to good use to emphasize a different more contemplative atmosphere in an early scene depicting Washizu and Miki talking about their encounter with the prophetic spirit woman. Filming the two's pivotal discussion in this manner isn't just visually pleasing to the eye but also allows one to absorb the performances given by Akira Kubo and Toshiro Mifune, the latter giving yet another sterling lead performance in an Akira Kurosawa directed movie.

Despite occupying the main role in so many of Kurosawa's films, it's impressive just how much distinctiveness Mifune always brings to these roles and Washizu is no exception. Mifune is exceptional in depicting his character gradual transformation from normal man to one consumed by a lust for power and his final scene showing him frantically avoiding the arrows of the citizens he has failed feels especially like one of Mifune's best bits of acting ever. In this sequence, he juggles so much physicality-based acting (he's gotta avoid the arrows being slung at his character after all!) while also managing to nail his portrayal of a man who is finally coming to terms with just how far out of his depth he is.

It's an extraordinary performance frequently accompanied by a similarly strong turn by Isuzu Yamada as this film's version of Lady Macbeth. I wouldn't have minded her character having more to do, but what she does get here conveys a lot of restrained power, Yamada commands the screen whenever she's expressing her desire to take control of more power. It isn't just the story, themes and characters of the classic theater version of Macbeth that get ported over into Throne of Blood, one of the most fun aspects of the feature is seeing how it translates certain tenants of classical theater into the format of a motion picture, most noticeably with a group of citizens that Washizu rules over that serve as this film's version of a Greek chorus as they comment on what's transpiring within the story (though unlike many Greek choruses, they do not break the fourth wall). It's in details like that that Akira Kurosawa and company know just when to lean on elements of the past for Throne of Blood while also bringing plenty of brilliant new ideas to the table that are a key part of making this movie so riveting. 

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