Criterion Project #42: THRONE OF BLOOD (1957)

Throne of Blood

Spine #190

Year: 1957

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Here’s another one that takes me back to the good ol’ days when red Netflix envelopes crowded mailboxes and people actually went to the movies. While I’m not pleased with the dwindling state of physical media in major outlets, I can’t complain too much about our current streaming world when I can forgo my Throne of Blood DVD from the AK100 boxset in favor of a nice 1080P presentation on the Criterion Channel (I refuse to buy the single Criterion Blu-ray of the film while I’m holding out for a Kurosawa Blu-ray or 4K *drools* boxset). Considering I haven’t watched it in 10+ years, this was my first time seeing the film in high definition and it’s mesmerizingly gorgeous. The fog, the rain, the castle, that forest. Kurosawa adeptly reminds us that there’s so much beauty to be found despite the ugliness of mankind.

Which stands in contrast to this quote from perhaps this film’s greatest villain:

Without ambition, man is not man

This is certainly a tale of ambition, though not quite the one inferred above by the lady of the house. The film is Kurosawa’s retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in which two warriors happen upon a spirit in the forest who prophesizes their rise to power in the wake of heroic military victories. The spirit decrees that the captain of Fort Two, Miki (Minoru Chiaki) will move up to take command of Fort One, while the lord of Fort Three, Washizu (Toshirô Mifune), will assume control of the North Fort, and eventually become Lord of the Forest Castle.

The warriors at first are cynical of the spirit and only begin to fantasize about the possibilities after they voice the absurdity of it all. Upon reception at the Forest Castle, His Lordship grants the men the very positions the spirit prophesized, drawing some discomforted looks and delayed jubilation from them both. What follows is a cautionary tale about the dangers of malicious, insatiable ambition and double-crossing.

But before we get to that, I can’t help but pose a philosophical question that I always think of with movies like this. Washizu and Miki come across the spirit on their way to be commended at the Forest Castle for their bravery in battle. The clan was thought to be overrun by their enemy and only the courageous efforts of Washizu and Miki’s forts saved them from defeat. So, it’s pretty safe to assume His Lordship planned to promote these commanders to loftier posts upon their arrival regardless of the prophecy. So, if they never run across the spirit in the forest, is it practical to assume both men would have prospered in their new rank and served under His Lordship in peace for years to come? I’d say yes. But the promotion very clearly triggers both of these men. Their experience with the spirit was a harbinger of tragedies to come and not a lucky pull on the slot machine. The spirit made no proclamation that their fortunes would be achieved in an honorable or dishonorable manner. In a country where honor and loyalty to your lord are of the utmost importance, being told you or someone you know is going to take over for the current ruler comes with some shifty-eyed looks and flirtations of treasonous behavior. It has a way of bringing out distrust.

So, if the spirit never told the men of their fate, would it have still happened? Both men seemed to be content serving their lord with honor and bravery and held no secret desire to attain power. We spend the most time with Washizu (giving us yet another magnetic performance from the inimitable Mifune), who vocally denies wanting to better his situation once he and his wife, Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), settle into their new digs at the North Fort.

You could argue the events that followed were predestined to occur no matter what, but would they have happened the same way if there was no interference? Considering the most lecherous character in the film doesn’t smell opportunity and start affecting major decisions until after the spirit’s prediction, I think these guys would have remained subordinates or gotten promoted in a different way. But, indeed, it’s Asaji whose ears perk up when she first learns of Washizu and Miki’s run-in with the spirit and subsequent prognostication. Washizu sees their life as improved and comfortable at the North Fort compared to their previous post, as do the men who serve him. Asaji, however, reminds him of the quote from earlier in this post. It’s a purposeful moment of emasculation that she uses to manipulate Washizu. He’s been told by a supernatural force that this higher position is his for the taking, it has been prophesized – so be a man and take it. Asaji also kindly reminds him that Miki saw the spirit, too, and could view the spirit’s prediction alone as a treasonous premonition and try to inform His Lordship that Washizu is prophesized to assume control and may do it through treachery.

From this point forward our protagonist, Washizu, falls head-first into such a downward slide that it honestly surprises me the Coen Bros. hadn’t adapted this story for the screen long before last year’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (Joel Coen only). The way their films often tell tales of bumbling idiots and irresponsible bores up to their ears in conflicts they’re unfit to handle, often being driven and manipulated by smarter, quieter people, would gel perfectly with this character type.

Like I said before, the events that follow the first meeting with the spirit are a parable about the evils of ambition. As the film unfolds, the writing is perfectly on the wall. Processing what might be construed as wishful thinking through the filter of someone who values power over morality and ethics is dangerous territory. The encounter with the spirit could easily be interpreted as an hallucinatory manifestation of subconscious, or maybe even mildly conscious, desires on the part of our two wary warriors. Perhaps they daydreamed about getting a promotion or rising in their lord’s command and it resulted in a spiritual encounter. In the end, the ambitions of those with a stronger will (Asaji) determined the path to the inevitable conclusion.

That’s not to say that Washizu isn’t to blame. He’s a weak man who is easily sucked into his wife’s connivances. Power doesn’t suit him. He’s a follower, a soldier, which is why it’s Asaji who continually wields the weight in the household. Washizu holds more power in Japan simply by being male and a successful warrior, but this film makes it evident how useful that power is when it rubs up against a smart, willful woman. When it comes to incapacitating a group of bodyguards, it’s Asaji who completes the task with her wiles, and then hands the reigns over to Washizu to finish the plan. She’s a schemer and a doer who’s merely achieving the goals she desires within a society constructed to only give power to men. How else does a woman go about climbing the ranks in feudal Japan?

Rest assured, no evil deed goes unpunished and all of the bad things you thought might happen do happen. Characters are betrayed and alliances are made, resulting in one of the most incredible finales in cinema. The sheer energy and emotion Kurosawa extracts from the climax is extraordinary and Mifune is unhinged and at his best when things go haywire. You simply can’t go wrong when those two collaborate. Absolute masterpiece.

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