Retitled Throne of Blood in the U.S., Akira Kurosawa’s Kumonosu jo—Cobweb Castle—transcribes Macbeth to medieval Japan. Kurosawa, as with what remains of his (hypnotic) film of Dostoievski’s The Idiot (1951), dispenses with the original’s language and takes aim at the soul of the text. At the same time, his vision attests to specifically Japanese concerns. Finally, Kurosawa demonstrates his appreciation of the (remarkable) visual aspect of Orson Welles’s film of Macbeth (1948) as well as his own philosophic inclination towards Western existentialism. The result is, with Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944) and Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1966), one of the three greatest Shakespeare films.
The film’s opening is majestic, projecting a sense of long-ago, by extension, of timelessness. With formal rigor the camera’s eye surveys mist-shrouded landscapes composing a wasteland and scans, downward, an ancient obelisk as a solemn, disembodied chorus, chanting the inscribed text, tells of a ‘proud warrior murdered by ambition,’ whose ‘once mighty fortress’ leaves no trace; ‘Vain pride, then as now,’ intones humanity’s cautionary voice, ‘will lead ambition to the kill.’ It is the voice of Shelley’s “Ozymandias”; it is Wordsworth’s “still, sad voice.” The wasteland filling the screen, then, is the result of such ambition; and, in this ceremonial opening, the level shots or depressive camera movements from cut to cut, along with the “reading” of the obelisk, suggest we are hearing the voice of the earth, of the dead, a distillation of human wisdom. The probing camera, coupled with the human absence save for the invisible chorus, helps identify us with the camera’s point of view. Our eye thus extended from our corporeal rootedness, we feel we have entered, not merely a remote time and place, but the conclave of fundamental law. We are thus implicated in the tale, about to unfold, of a mortal whose presumption led him to violate this law, setting him squarely against the natural order he sought to redefine to his personal advantage—one who grasped power in hopes of solidifying his ontological status in a shifting, labyrinthine cosmos.
As in Rashomon (1950), Kurosawa’s symbol of this ambiguous universe is the forest. In its fog-drenched, convoluted maze, what can be clear or certain? (Ironically, brilliant sunlight dappling the woods projects the same uncertainty in Rashomon.) In the forest’s grip, having overpowered an insurgent and forced his army into retreat, two generals chance upon an otherworldly creature, an ancient, wraithlike spirit slowly, ceaselessly spinning silk—cobweb—at her wheel. She expresses the idea of fate; but, too, she seems an objectified piece of the opening chorus. In a voice so low it seems to emanate from earth, she announces that one of the generals, Washizu, will command, first, the insurgent’s fort and, afterwards, Lord Tsuzuki’s castle. The other general’s— Miki’s—son will in time succeed Washizu. Do the two men dare believe all this? Trying to penetrate the forest to reach Tsuzuki’s castle, repeatedly they gallop into and out of the deep, blank fog—the overriding impression, auditory, is of alternately emergent and receding hoofbeats—but arriving each time nowhere, at the point, perhaps, from which they started, until they end up, as if by chance, where they were headed. Made more dense by incessant rain and wind, the forest shows the two lost men as a combinate Everyman challenged by an unchartable, inhospitable cosmos.
The words of the wood-spirit turn out to be sooth. At the castle Tsuzuki rewards Washizu’s loyal victory by enacting unawares the first prophecy. Ironically, this sets Washizu on a path that undoes his loyalty and therefore the honor paid him. For Washizu’s wife, Asaji, on no real evidence, convinces him that Tsuzuki favors Miki over him. This, in effect, sets Everyman against himself—a metaphor for war. But it is Asaji who prods her husband into, first, murdering Tsuzuki and usurping power and then, the second prophecy thus fulfilled, murdering Miki and his family in order to thwart enactment of the third prophecy. The latter effort fails, though, when Miki’s son escapes and joins Lord Washizu’s military opposition. The spiderweb of fate tightens.
Clearly, much of the story derives from the play. (The script is by Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni and Ryuzo Kikushima.) But Kurosawa lacks Shakespeare’s interest in the reciprocative and cyclical nature of violence. Rather, as Shakespeare also would, in King Lear (which Kurosawa, given Kumonosu jo, superfluously filmed as Ran—Chaos—1985), he focuses on humanity’s confrontation with an awesome, likely unfathomable universe. In doing so, however, Kurosawa is able to address Macbeth’s most perplexing paradox: that such a bold, commanding leader as Macbeth should also be such a weak, subservient mate. Kurosawa shows that Washizu is both for one and the same reason. Washizu’s battle prowess, and his assertions of military authority and political rule, enable him to hide, from himself and others, his fear and trembling; and, at home, he submits to his wife’s dominance only because she continually points up those deceptive appearances of reality that imply the cosmic ambiguity which terrifies him. Asaji’s low voice—it resembles the spinner’s—insists that, however they seem, things aren’t unfolding to Washizu’s advantage and, therefore, to correct this, Washizu must act by doing this, and then this, and so forth. Asaji, then, gives voice to her husband’s own worst fears and proposes only such courses of action as might hold his fear in abeyance.
All this leads to another revelation about the Washizus’ marriage that may or may not be applicable to Shakespeare’s play. Whenever Washizu submits to Asaji’s cynicism and murderous promptings, he is really submitting to an inner voice of his own—a voice he has projected onto his wife. Supporting this imposition is the patriarchal culture that Washizu represents. In effect, Asaji’s whole being has been sacrificed to the dutiful fulfillment of her marital role. In this light, her eventual insanity may be viewed as consequential to her grasp of her own nothingness vis-à-vis her husband. From the start, Kurosawa undercuts Asaji’s seeming dominance by showing her, often, stooped and very nearly whited out—her makeup and stylized movements derive from Noh theater—alongside Washizu’s looming presence and raw, turbulent humanity. Puppet on a string, then, Asaji is the monster that her husband requires her to be; and if, for a while, she at least seems to relish this vicious, instigatory role, it is because the role compensates for her lack of any real power or even identity, her image and self-image being wholly dependent on her meeting Washizu’s needs, where even her compensatory show of force, ironically, remains at his behest. To be sure, commentators generally find Asaji’s lack of dominance in the mise-en-scène as another instance of Kurosawa’s fine (or blunt) irony; but I even find contributing to my understanding of the role the casting of Isuzu Yamada, who two decades earlier had been the favorite actress of Kenji Mizoguchi, a filmmaker with the feminist credentials Kurosawa lacks. And, for me at least, Washizu’s actual dominance of his wife explains so much and deepens the film’s overall theme; for Asaji’s monstrous role—something fierce in his favor he can rely on in an otherwise unreliable cosmos—provides him with a needed grounding and anchor.
With this ‘anchor’ of his slipping into the bottomless waters of madness, though, increasingly Washizu cannot unloosen the grip of his fear. When Noriyasu’s opposing army approaches, he seeks out the woods-creature, who predicts his safety so long as the forest doesn’t move in on the castle. (Kurosawa deletes the ‘No man of woman born …’ tease; his ‘witch’ is no trickster.) However, Washizu doesn’t take this to mean that nothing can go wrong. Worried, he rallies his troops, reassuring them in order to reassure himself that they remain invulnerable. This speech the high point of Toshiro Mifune’s brilliant performance, Washizu thus manipulates the crowd below to fortify their allegiance and to stabilize his own wobbling psyche—a Kurosawan insight into political demagoguery; but for all his bravado, Washizu remains awash with fear.
No wonder. In a world where a woods-creature has flashed into nothingness before his eyes, where a tame horse, as if demon-possessed, has gone riotous, where he himself has committed crimes beyond his worst imaginings—in such a world, might not a forest move? What fitting retribution for one whose ambition sought to thwart Nature. When a flock of wild birds becomes trapped indoors, the omen of doom is complete.
Kurosawa has in mind here something other than ambition as we in the West normally define it. Specifically, he is cautioning against any repeat of the aggressive acts that brought upon his nation the “judgment” of atom bombs and the resultant deaths, deformities, cancers. It is this immense concern of his that generates the film’s austere moral passion. It therefore shouldn’t surprise us that, whereas Shakespeare warns against excessive ambition, Kurosawa’s film warns against all ambition—any presumption by rulers—as reckless, dangerous. This more inclusive warning also strikes a Buddhist chord befitting Japan’s national tradition, although Kurosawa himself is a humanist, not a religionist.
The closing scenes astonish. Feverishly ‘washing’ her hands of the shed ‘blood’ blotting her mind’s eye, Asaji dissolves into madness, leaving Washizu alone to face his fate: the forest now approaching the castle. The image of trees implacably moving forward completes the idea of fate introduced by the spinner at her wheel, her fourth prophecy thus proven as true as the others. Onward towards the camera/Washizu/us the viewer, the trees appear to move on their own, their dark, billowing branches creating a magnificent sense of impending doom. The vision inciting them, Washizu’s men turn on him, savaging him with arrows, volley after volley. Thus the dread consuming Washizu is objectified by the spectacle of his awesomely protracted death, his eyes at the last bulging in animal horror at—who knows?—the ‘nothing that is,’ or whatever else lies behind life’s veils of mist. Now for the first time taking a lateral rather than a frontal view, the camera reveals guiding human hands behind the camouflaging trees. Those opposing Washizu have executed his fate, restoring a semblance of order but leaving untouched the terror at life’s core. The film concludes with the recitation off the scanned obelisk with which it began, recalling the bookending structure (and the guarded, trespassed-on domain) from Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941).
Grave, powerful and eerily beautiful, Kumonosu jo owes a larger debt, however, to Welles’s Macbeth, whose tonal scale for visually evoking ambiguity it adopts—although, whereas Welles stresses moral ambiguity, Kurosawa stresses cosmic ambiguity. Too, the film achieves nothing to which the stormy, fatalistic black-and-white—though mostly variously gray—cinematography of Asakazu Nakai doesn’t directly contribute. With Nakai’s assistance Kurosawa has given us here a tremendous film—one depicting a world where, unable to chart its spiritual place, humanity acts aggressively and violently in the hope that doing so will still fear and distract its eyes from impenetrable mists. It is a familiar world, and also a strange one. Haunted by interminable echoes of slaughter, it is a world whose meaning is impossible to locate. It’s an ancient world—and the modern one of the Holocaust and Hiroshima.
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