Monday Editor’s Pick: “Throne of Blood” (1957)

by on April 18, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick


1:00, 3:10, 5:20, 7:30 and 9:40 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]

 

Stephen Prince for the Criterion Collection:

Critics commonly describe Throne of Blood as Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth. While this description is certainly not untrue, it hardly begins to suggest the ways in which the film is so much more than a literary adaptation.[…]
 

Throne of Blood take us well beyond Shakespeare, and that’s why this is a great film. Its accomplishments are not beholden to another medium or artist. Kurosawa gives us his own vision, expressed with ruthless, chilling power, and it’s the totality of that vision, its sweep and its uncompromising nature, that move and terrify us and that we are so seldom privileged to see in cinema.

 

Bosley Crowther’s infamous review in the New York Times:

If you think it would be amusing to see Macbeth done in Japanese, then pop around to the Fifth Avenue Cinema and see Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. For a free Oriental translation of the Shakespeare drama is what this is, and amusing is the proper word for it.

We label it amusing because lightly is the only way to take this substantially serio-comic rendering of the story of an ambitious Scot into a form that combines characteristics of the Japanese No theatre and the American Western film. Probably Mr. Kurosawa, who directed the classic Rashomon, did not intend it to be amusing for his formalistic countrymen, but its odd amalgamation of cultural contrasts hits the occidental funnybone….To our western eyes, it looks fantastic and funny—that is all one can say.

 

And yet he (we) can’t resist this close:

You should be strangely stimulated.

 

We label it amusing.
 

Pauline Kael in 5,001 Nights at the Movies:

Kurosawa’s version of Macbeth is a virtuoso exercise, as stylized and formalist in its way as Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible movies, though not as ponderous or as inexplicably strange. This is like a demonstration of the uses of violence, decor, pageantry, and costuming, and it’s almost a textbook in the techniques for making a movie move. Besides that, it has the great Isuzu Yamada washing her bloody hands, and West or East, there may never be a more chilling Lady Macbeth. Kurosawa is at his playful best when Birnam Wood advances on the castle, and that’s just it–he loves this sort of effect so much it’s all play. The ending, with Toshiro Mifune’s Macbeth stuck full of arrows, like a porcupine-quill cushion, suggests the wildest Kabuki tradition. (Eisenstein was also fascinated by Kabuki.) The action for its own sake can seem like an orgy of masculine delight in warfare. Its greatness is in Kurosawa’s glorious bad taste; he flings mad, absurd images on the screen. He has the courage to go over the top.

 

 

Jonathan Rosenbaum:

Akira Kurosawa’s remarkable 1957 restaging of Macbeth in samurai and expressionist terms is unquestionably one of his finest workscharged with energy, imagination, and, in keeping with the subject, sheer horror. Incidentally, this was reputed to have been T.S. Eliot’s favorite film.

 
Rumsey Taylor for Not Coming:

The opening scenes of Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood are covered in an ethereal, dense fog. The effect is tangibly productive; it is a familiar special effect, which, in this emphasized use, suggests a spiritual presence, a prophecy that determines the fate of expendable human characters — pawns for the dramatic benefit of classic Shakespearean tragedy. It is theatrical material whose heritage is attuned to the stage, and is redone here with the might of Kurosawa’s helm.

 

Jeff Stafford & Lang Thompson for TCM:

Filmed on the slopes of Mt. Fuji, where Kurosawa constructed a stunning medieval castle and other period sets, Throne of Blood is a stylistically ambitious blending of Noh Theatre techniques and the American Western–and it succeeds brilliantly. Who can forget the climax where Birnam Wood advances on Macbeth’s castle or the massive arrow assault on Mifune’s wildly flailing body?

 

Production designer Yoshiro Muraki [via Donald Richie]:

We studied old castle layouts, the really old ones, not those white castles we still have around. And we decided to use black armored walls since they would go well with the suiboku-ga (ink painting) effect we planned with lots of mist and fog. That also is the reason we decided that the locations should be high on Mount Fuji, because the fog and the black volcanic soil. We created something that never came from any single historical period. To emphasize the psychology of the hero, driven by compulsion, we made the interiors wide with low ceilings and squat pillars to create the effect of oppression.

 


Steven Prince elaborates on the Noh aesthetic for the Criterion Collection:

Performance in the Noh aims for a paradoxical conjunction of elements. When an actor moves in a powerful way, he must stamp his foot gently. Noh performance is a striking blend of stillness and agitation, a blend of different gestures and tones that can be seen in the acting throughout the film, and that Kurosawa even carried over into the cinematic design of entire sequences, as when he cuts from a long, static scene of ritual immobility and austere playing to a scene of furious action choreographed with flamboyant camera moves.
 

Actors in the Noh use masks, and, while Kurosawa doesn’t do anything so blatantly artificial here, he does have Mifune and Yamada model facial expressions that resemble popular Noh masks (a strategy he extended in Yamada’s makeup). The Noh masks point to a huge difference between this theatrical tradition and Shakespeare’s, one that helps give the film many of its unusual qualities. Noh is not psychologically oriented; characters are not individualized. Its characters are types—the old man, the woman, the warrior, and so on—and the plays are quite didactic, aiming to impart a lesson. Kurosawa, therefore, strips all the psychology out of Macbeth and gives us a film whose characters are Noh types and where emotions—the province of character in the drama of the West—are located here as absolute types. Emotion here isn’t an attribute of character psychology, but a formal embodiment in landscape and weather. The bleached skies, the fog, the barren plains, and characters going adrift against and within these spaces—this is where the emotion of the film resides. It is objectified within and through the world of things.

 

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