Throne of Blood – The Review

The film begins with the chant:

A proud castle stood in this desolate place

Its destiny wedded to a mortal’s lust for power

Here lived a warrior, strong but yet weakened by a woman

Driven to add his tribute to the throne of blood

The devil’s path will always lead to doom.

From that one assumes that an otherwise brave and worthy warrior was brought low by a woman, but from the very first scenes the men, the Samurai appear more like scrapping dogs than worthy warriors.  Clearly these were savage times with strict codes of behaviour between classes and, of course, men and women, and should I the writer be transported back to those times I would not last five minutes among these men, and a women would have to be meek to survive.  However, the men do appear remarkably dumb, admittedly partly through the grunting, unintelligible language.

Although Kurosawa does not show when the story is set it is a fair assumption that it is the sixteenth century, when the Emperor was powerless and rival warlords fought for power.  In such times only ambition mattered, no loyalty or friendship could be relied upon, so the brutish behaviour of the men is understandable – this is Darwinism at its most basic and only the strong, ruthless and (more importantly) treacherous will survive, although not for long.  It is not only the devil’s path that leads to doom, nobody can expect a long and peaceful existence here.

The single witch begins, before Washizu speaks to her, with an aphorism on human nature:

“Men are vain mortals; life is but a thread

 

A leash, at which men strain and yelp

 

A stalk on which ambition blooms and withers

 

Mortal words and deeds are merely lust and greed

 

But all men one day face the reckoning

 

Victor and vanquished, saint and sinner

 

All pay their dues and fade to nothingness.”

As in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Washizu (Macbeth) is told by the witch that he is the master of Fort One and today he will become the master of North Mansion and in time the Lord of Cobweb Castle.  He protests that Lord Tsuzuki (King Duncan) is master of Cobweb Castle.  The witch mocks him:

“You mortals!  Your behaviour is very mystifying.  You want something but act as if you don’t want it.”

Although she is a witch (and evil?), she is a woman – and would any woman feel the same way about what men really want?  Here it is clearly, painfully true.  But rather than face this truth Washizu aims his bow at her. Does this represent another aspect of the fear of women: that they see inside to the truth of men?  He is stopped by his friend Minoru, who is smarter.  The witch tells Minoru (Miki/Banquo) that he commands Fort Two, but that today he will take command of Fort One (take over from his friend Washizu) and that:

“Your luck turns slower, but it lasts longer than that of Captain Washizu…your son will eventually be master of Cobweb Castle.”

Then she vanished (in quite spectacular style for 1957).  The two men are then shown threatening and searching fresh air and mist for answers, much in the way that arguing with any women is like arguing with mist, as is trying to imprison one, although you may succeed in the short-term.  They look around them like pantomime clowns, their movements clownish too: the bowlegged, primate walk, the complete lack of comprehension.  The witch leaves behind her the skeletons of many warriors, piled in an untidy heap: the remains of ambition?

They ride back to Cobweb Castle through a thick mist, adding I suppose to their confusion, and representing confusing times.  Eventually they sight Cobweb Castle and, strangely (surely a dramatic device) decide to rest with the castle in full view.  We watch them as they sit on the grass opposite each other with the fort, the prize they must both surely covet, visible in the mist between them on the horizon. They have an awkward conversation about tiredness and dreaming and then recount the witch’s predictions.

“We dream of what we want.’ Says Washizu

“Every samurai longs to be master of a castle.’

“She said your son would be master of that castle.’

“Yes, but after you have ruled it.’

They laugh awkwardly for a few seconds.

“She said I would be master of North Mansion first.’

“And I would take command of Fort One.”

More awkward laughter, like the laughter of drunks pretending camaraderie or laughing at something they do not understand.

With the longed for castle in the background, how clear are the implications of the predictions to them?  If Miki’s son will rule, surely that comes after Washizu’s death.  And if Washizu is to rule then Tsuzuki must die.  And what happens to Miki?  Their laughter hides their thoughts and their fear.

They are both given what the witch predicted by Tsuzuki (King Duncan); again their faces betray their thoughts of her further predictions.  Next we see a servant complaining of how peaceful North Mansion looks, that it must be paradise compared to Fort One.

“Our lord and his lady must be very happy.”

They bow to Washizu who has appeared at his door.  He does not appear happy.

We move inside for the first appearance of Asaji (Lady Macbeth), his wife. As soon as Washizu enters he glances, or perhaps glares, at his wife as though they have been talking and he is not happy with the subject.  Asaji sits on her mat, white robed, staring ahead and slightly down.  The large room is almost bare: Washizu’s mat is close to Asaji and what appears to be a small table which he uses to rest his left arm upon.  His sword leans against the wall nearby.  Asaji sits by a window and a patch of white light surrounds her and is projected onto the wall behind her.  Although the light clearly comes from the window it surrounds only her – she sits in a pool of light and appears to reflect her light onto the wall.  The rest of the room is in shadow.  The impression of someone holy or wise or even wicked is unmistakeable. Washizu stalks the room like a confused dog, occasionally glancing at the motionless figure of his wife as though she is the cause of his unease; eventually he sits on his own mat. Asaji’s first words are

“Have you made up your mind my lord?”

We now know that they have been talking and that Asaji is awaiting a decision, one that is the cause of her husband’s discomfort. He grunts (the samurai all seem to communicate like this, which perhaps unfairly, exaggerates the impression of stupidity) that

“It has all been a nightmare.  I have been haunted by an evil spirit.  No more of this. Master of Cobweb Castle?  I cannot dream of it.”

“Why not?” she says calmly, “it is not beyond your reach.”

Now Asaji has begun to reveal herself with her words.  And although she remains prone and respectful we can see that she is confident.  She knows what Washizu wants, his body language and his responses give him away.  He is obvious, like a dog, wagging his tail or growling.  She merely guides him with gentle prods where he wants to be led anyway. His conception of loyalty to the master is inhibiting.  Asaji has no respect for loyalty.  Repeating Miki’s earlier words, she says

“Every samurai longs to be master of a castle.”

Her face is heavily made up in white, her eyes and lips exaggerated, like a player in a Japanese Noh drama.  This accentuates her strangeness (to a Western audience at least).  She remains motionless; her eyes do not move and she does not look up.  Her voice is calm and she is careful not to nag, being merely straightforward while stating some facts that her superior husband may have overlooked.  Washizu in turn appears constantly suspicious that she may be disrespecting him, that she is going too far, that she is somehow going beyond her duty, but he appears too dull to figure it out and, more importantly, too tempted by what she has to say.

If Washizu notices the repetition of Miki’s line he doesn’t show it obviously.  He leaps to his feet moving to the door, but remaining in the room

“I am satisfied with my lot.  I will remain loyal to His Lordship.  I want to live in peace.”

As he says these words he peers backwards over his shoulder waiting for Asaji’s response.  He is like a little boy threatening to leave home in a sulk, but waiting for his mother to call him back.

“There can be no peace…” she says

She qualifies this with the rest of her sentence, there can be no peace if Miki speaks to Tsuzuki and tells him what happened in the forest.  Then there would be no peace.  Tsuzuki would regard him as a usurper.  His men would surround you.

She may be right.  These are treacherous times.  We don’t know that Miki will betray his friend, but she has now planted the suspicion in her husband’s mind.  With the idea firmly in his thoughts, she goes for the kill:

“There are only two ways open to you.’

From being satisfied with his lot and wanting peace she has quickly manoeuvred him into a position where he has only two choices to survive:

“Stay here and wait for your own destruction or kill His Lordship and take over Cobweb Castle.”

Now, should there be any doubt about his acceptance of her views, she challenges his courage.  You can sit here and wait to die or you can act like a man.  Washizu sits down again.  He tries, less convincingly now, to protest:

“This is high treason.”

“Have you forgotten that His Lordship killed his own master,” she replies

Reminding him that this is how it’s done and he must do the same to survive.  Washizu needs more convincing.  Tsuzuki was protecting his own life he protests, forgetting that this is exactly the situation Asaji now considers him to be in.  He would give his heart for Tsuzuki.

“Does he know what lies in the depths of your heart?”

He turns in mock horror

“In my heart?  Nothing lies there.”

Now, chillingly, Asaji moves for the first time as she turns to face him.  She raises her head, the whites of her eyes are visible the irises and pupils appear black; her lips form a mocking smile:

“I know otherwise.”

He shuffles and twitches in discomfort.

“I have no such ambition.”

She watches him as he says this and the smile, which may have been partly affectionate, disappears.  Her eyes and her head drop again, now in disappointment with him, at his lack of ambition.  The smile had been affectionate; she hoped he would be open about his wishes, but she is disappointed.

“That may be so, but His Lordship will believe it when Miki tells him what happened in the forest.”

She is saying it doesn’t matter if you are loyal and lacking ambition, you will have to defend yourself anyway.

He responds with genuine anger this time, saying that Miki is his friend.

“Are you sure?”

She has returned to her previous pose, but is not overly concerned or respectful, she is just going through the motions of persuading him now, a little disappointed in him.

“Will he not betray you for his own ends?  You must strike first if you do not wish to be killed.  Perhaps Miki has betrayed you already.  I am worried.”

His defensive body language is now comical as he defends Miki and tells her not to doubt his friends.

The conversation is now interrupted.  His lordship is approaching with 300 men.  This may or may not confirm Asaji’s suspicions.

But the visit, supposedly for a hunt, is a subterfuge for an attack on Inui.  North Mansion will be Tsuzuki’s headquarters.  Washizu is to lead the attack.  Miki is to hold Cobweb Castle.  At this news Asaji looks thoughtful.

The next conversation between man and wife begins with only Washizu’s legs in shot as he paces a polished wide wooden boarded floor.  In the background are two mattresses (futons?) pushed against one another.  Asaji sits in the foreground in her usual pose, only visible from the waist up, staring ahead and down.  Washizu is laughing, but it is a hollow sound.  Perhaps it always is – he doesn’t appear to be blessed with a sense of humour, none of the samurai do.

“That should put an end to your suspicions.  You see how His Lordship trusts me?”

He crouches beside her as he says

“In doubting Miki you were bewitched by the evil spirit.”

“Permit me to disagree.”

She has no doubt that she will be permitted.  Here he appears almost relaxed as he laughs again, quietly, possibly genuinely, as though he really believes what he sees and hears in the fort as opposed to the prophesies of the evil witch.

“His Lordship trusts me above all others.”

He stands again; he appears confident and we see his feet as he paces away from her.

“He has given me the honour of leading the attack.”

“Arrows will seek your life from the rear too.”

We see Washizu’s legs stop pacing abruptly at this, and he returns to crouch in front of her.  She has not moved.  Only her dark lips move as her eyes stare almost sightlessly in front of her.

“His Lordship has schemed well.  You will be fighting away from North Mansion.  But his favourite, Miki, will be safe in the castle.”

Washizu is doubtful again.  He looks over his shoulder.

“You, husband, will lose your life.”

He turns back to her seemingly calm, but serious, sits instead of crouching to hear what she has to say, as if by relaxing in front of her adds permanence and conviction to what she is saying.

“He will enjoy watching your loyal death.”

His nervy fidgeting and his resistance is gone.  They look for a moment like man and wife, equals, joined in purpose.  He stares thoughtfully into the distance.

She continues, with more confidence, to persuade him.  For several minutes we hear only her voice, more insistent now and slightly nagging, as he paces.

“His Lordship has put himself in your hands.  Now is your chance; it will never be repeated.”

He is certainly convinced now; his body language has changed. But still he voice4s doubts.  He moves quickly towards her where she sits as usual on her mat staring ahead.

“Could I justify treason?  How could I face people?”

But she has had enough of his prevarication and tells him that she will drug the guards and then he must kill Tsuzuki.  He turns his back on her.  There is no doubt now that this is what he wants, but alone he would find reasons to desist.  A bird screeches overhead alarming him, but Asaji merely rises and they stand back to back for a few seconds, he towering above her, she appearing slightly bent in her robes.

“Even the birds are telling you.”

She walks daintily (on crippled feet?) around him and stands with her back to him, ambition shining in her eyes.

“I am sure they say the throne is yours.”

Suddenly she grasps him and leads him quickly to the mattresses where he stands with a foot on each.

“Without ambition a man is not a man.  After this beginning you may even rule the nation.”

They stare at each other and she slowly sinks to her knees in front of him. He kneels too, but he turns to the side.  They both contemplate what will now surely happen.  Perhaps she means to give herself to him, to give him strength.  If so they were interrupted by a servant telling them the room is ready.  She walks to the door and asks him what the guards are doing, speaking through the closed door.  The servant’s lamp shines through.  Watching, spears at the ready, he replies.  She turns and faces Washizu who sits watching her.  We see his back as she stands facing him, above him for once

“Admirable,” she says smiling, “I will offer them refreshment.”

Asaji says she will drug the wine she is about to give to the three men guarding the King. She disappears into total darkness, completely black, just for a few seconds. This is accentuated by the black and white photography. The camera stays on the doorway with its contents completely obscured, emphasised too by the sparseness of the room, merely two mats and Washizu waiting for her to return. Just a few seconds elapse (I thought the shot could have been held for longer) and she emerges with the three jugs of drugged wine. It is a wonderful shot; the blackness of what they are doing represented by the black space, which she disappears into completely, as if descending to hell. Also (the reason why the shot was not held), she is way too fast to have prepared the wine in that instance – she must have prepared it beforehand. She walks past Washizu, not looking at him.  We see her back as she passes him where he sits on the mattress staring straight ahead.

throne1-001She hands Washizu a spear with which to kill Tsuzuki.  The murder happens off-screen; we see only his return with bloodied spear and hands.  He sits as if in a trance.  She has to prise the spear from his grip so that she can plant it on the guards, who she has already drugged with wine.  Lady Macbeth does the same, but in that scene Macbeth refuses to return to the scene of the murder.  We are not sure who is the strong one of the two, or if either of them truly are.

The deed is done.  But Miki holds Cobweb Castle.    Tsuzuki’s son tries to convince Miki that Washizu has murdered his father but is attacked and runs.  Washizu must convince Miki of his story.  A message arrives from Asaji saying that the body of His Lordship will gain them access to the castle.  It does.  Miki and Washizu regard each other silently but with suspicion as the cortege enters.  Miki almost certainly knows what happened, but he too believes in the prophecies and knows that if Washizu becomes Lord his son (Fleance) will follow.  He tells Washizu that Tsuzuki’s wife has killed herself, surely the fate of wives whose husband’s fail or die.  Tsuzuki’s servants kneel weeping as they enter the fort with his body.  This must at least partly account for Asaji’s plotting, failure for Washizu means death for her too.

We see some of Washizu’s soldiers later, talking about how lucky they are to be in his service.  But it is a pity that he has no heir.  This is the first time it is mentioned, an addition of Kurosawa’s that could have played a stronger part.

We return to Washizu and Asaji.  They sit in a larger, grander room now.  Washizu sits on a larger mat with some kind of significant ornament behind him.  Part of the wall has a simple pattern adorning it.  His sword still leans against the wall.  Asaji sits on a smaller mat to his right.  She asks him if he is still determined to give the castle to Miki’s son.  He appears fed up with her questions; he says that without Miki he would never have gained the castle.  He owes a debt to his friend.  His true nature is returning.  He wants to trust his friend and live a peaceful life.

“It is not so my lord.  Miki did not act out of friendship.  You know that very well.”

She is relentless

“Enough!  Miki is brave and wise.  I cannot afford to make an enemy of him.”  He appears certain, but is now standing, and he looks over his shoulder at his wife as if he now expects and maybe wants her to contradict him.  “By making his son my heir I will ensure his loyalty.  I will announce it at the feast tonight.”

He tells her to be hospitable to them.

This is without doubt true, and is confirmed later by Miki in conversation with his son.  There may be no loyalty or friendship or finer feelings involved, but, whatever the motives, that situation could prevail: Washizu could rule and then hand the castle to Miki’s son.  That could work.  He is not deluding himself.

‘Not for Miki’s son did I stain my hands with blood,” she says.

He turns to look at her, possibly pityingly.  He appears calm and in control.

“My reign will end with me.  Miki’s son will succeed me.  The woman said that; there is no changing it.”

For the first time emotion comes into her voice.

“I will change it.”

He walks to her and looks contemptuously down at her

“How?  We have no heir.”

 

“I am with child.”

He crouches and stares at her and then rises.  He looks truly what he is, a samurai warrior, for the first time.

Miki and his son do not make it to the banquet; two empty mats display their absence.  While they go through the pretence of waiting Washizu sees the ghost of Tsuzuki and has a turn.  Asaji calms the guests saying he has had too much to drink.  But the ghost appears to him again and this time he screams, shouts and draws his sword, alarming the guests; this time Asaji has to send them away.  This is not quite convincing.  Washizu has just heard that he is to be a father, that he will have an heir; he should be strong now, not frightened of ghosts.

She mocks him for thinking he can rule the country when a mere ghost scares him, but then she is scared by the sudden entry of a soldier.  He reports that Miki is dead, but that his son was wounded and escaped.  Asaji on hearing this walks slowly from the room, as though she believes there is no more to hope for.  Washizu kills the messenger.

Washizu hears that his enemies are taking other forts; they are closing in.  He revisits the witch who tells him he must have moved quickly to be master so soon, but that he will remain so until Cobweb Forest comes to the castle.  Washizu laughs madly, challenging all to take him; he will defeat all comers.  How can a forest move? (This is weak in Shakespeare’s Macbeth too, in my opinion).

His attention is drawn to Asaji who is manically washing her hands, trying to rid herself of the blood.  Later he is told that his son is stillborn and his wife is very ill – she is in fact dead.

Finally when his troops see the trees moving towards the castle they turn on him and he dies in spectacular fashion in a hail of arrows.  This is perhaps the one time it is possible to feel sympathy for him, as he dies bravely, but deluded and confused.

throne2-001The film was very dated and blurred in places so that the desired effect is sometimes lost.  A slight variation on the Macbeth story, but much the same in principle, although here, with fewer words, Lady Macbeth (Asaji) is much more influential.  The men, particularly the Samurai, were mere grunting buffoons, sniffing, barking and fighting for their territory.  Some of the lowlier citizens showed some intelligence.

 

The plot is similar to Macbeth.  Washizu achieves a military victory for his Lord at the beginning and is later, with his best friend, told that he will become master North Mansion and Fort One respectively.  Washizu will also be Lord of Cobweb Castle, but Miki’s son will also attain it – again almost identical to Macbeth.  The murder of Tsuzuki (Duncan) follows (although there is no “is this a dagger…” scene – the murder is, effectively, off-screen) and later Miki (Banquo), but Miki’s son (Fleance) escapes.  The no man born of woman is missing, but the walking wood (forest) remains. The lack of heir is added (obvious really – to thwart Faison), which here changes Washizu’s mind about murdering his friend.  Her miscarriage kills her, not as with Lady Macbeth, a suicide.  The washing of blood from the hands remains, I think, for its cinematic potential because in terms of Asaji’s character here, it does not belong.  She is too strong.  She is Japanese.  She was too proud and tough – it wouldn’t have happened to this woman.

 

There is an interesting contrast between the versions.  Clearly shorter and cinematic, Kurosawa can only keep to the story, most of the language will be lost (and could he hope to represent it in translation?  I don’t know).  The action is rushed and (as much of Shakespeare’s action is) a bit silly, so the film’s life comes from the exchanges between man and wife and, to a much lesser extent, Washizu and the witch.  Did Kurosawa intend for both the women to be so much smarter than the men?  OK, one is a supernatural being and the other a bit wicked, but smarter they are.  In Macbeth his wife may be a bit smarter or perhaps just lacking in honour – there certainly seems to be none of this honour, loyalty, and friendship nonsense with the women – but Macbeth is no slouch, he is smarter than Washizu.  And Lady Macbeth cracks, and although Asaji does too, it is out of character.

This is spare, noir Shakespeare, pared to the bone.  And it works.  Kurosawa has somehow translated Shakespeare’s language into action: shrugs, twitches, fidgeting, staring, smiling, frowning, moving walking, sitting – all at perfect pace, portray visually the slow persuasion, the doubts and finally the action in a spare monochrome within sparse interiors.  The (albeit translated) Japanese is perfect:

“There can be no peace.”

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“Permit me to disagree.”

 

“I know otherwise.”

 

“Even the birds are telling you.”

 

“I will change it.”

So how does the chant look now?

A proud castle stood in this desolate place

Its destiny wedded to a mortal’s lust for power

Here lived a warrior, strong but yet weakened by a woman

Driven to add his tribute to the throne of blood

The devil’s path will always lead to doom.

I disagree with the passage in italics.  Because “a mortal’s lust for power” must refer to Washizu and it is not true.  He is ambitious, but a bit thick maybe; happy to play a supporting role – being content.  He certainly shows no lust for power or anything else until near the end when he is mad, and it is too late.  And he was a warrior, and he was strong, physically at least.  But was he weakened by Asaji?  Surely he was already weak and she tried to strengthen him.

But, and there is always a ‘but’ with Shakespeare, no matter how it is performed or messed with.

Would he have died if he did nothing at North Mansion?

Did he only have two options to attack or die?

Was Miki the favourite of Tsuzuki as she told him?

Would he have received arrows in his back if he had led the attack required of him?

Would Miki have laughed at his ‘loyal’ death?

Miki believed his son would one day be master of Cobweb Castle.  He seemed content with that (otherwise he need not have allowed Washizu back into the fort).  Washizu could have increased his reputation by carrying out Tsuzuki’s orders, receiving more rewards in the process (although he would never have the castle with Tsuzuki’s son alive).  Even after Tsuzuki’s death he could have had, and was content with, the castle in his lifetime.  That would have happened but for Asaji’s pregnancy.

We must assume that they had been trying for a long time to have children.  Neither was young and the soldiers were gossiping.  Washizu was scornful when Asaji said she would change the situation (of the castle going to Miki’s son), clearly blaming her for the lack of an heir.  Although one would have expected his scorn to be stronger and it is perhaps a sign of his love and respect that he didn’t feel that way – throughout he followed her lead, showing he was in thrall to her.

Her pregnancy changed everything.  It condemned Miki to death, reawakened Washizu’s ambition.  But she must have known how dangerous it would be for her.  So it was her ambition, first for her husband and then for her son to be master of Cobweb Castle that drove the story.  But she believed in the witch’s predictions too.  When she heard that Miki’s son had survived her shoulders slumped and she turned and left the room, seemingly defeated, unconcerned with Washizu, unconcerned with her pregnancy – because she believed in the witch, and the witch said Miki’s son would be master.

The hand washing was incongruous in this version.  The next we heard she was dead.  Did the knowledge that her son would not inherit contribute to her miscarriage and death?  Possibly, but there was clearly a problem with her giving birth.  After her death Washizu became stronger, but only in his madness and anger.

So, more so than Lady Macbeth in the play, Asaji drove this story.

The lack of an heir should have been introduced earlier.  It would have made an intriguing story, but possibly would have messed too much with the original, and Kurosawa definitely still wanted to make Shakespeare’s Macbeth, including the hand washing.

***

Lady Macbeth (Asaji) was clearly the only possessor of a functioning brain, despite women in this society (and lowly men) hardly daring to breathe in the presence of their superiors: the Samurai.  Always with head bowed and showing humility she humbly suggested to her idiot of a husband that he had (yet again) misinterpreted events, and that he might like to follow an alternative course of action, which she would again humbly recommend.  Although Japanese society then was more extreme than the rest of the world in its subjugation (if not its manly, thick respect), I found this a perfect example of how a woman could achieve her ambitions through a man by manipulating him.  Of course this has been the way for thousands of years, and we are yet to see what women will do for themselves, when they (as they surely will) begin achieving their ambitions worldwide, without inhibition and thoroughly independent of men.  But Lady Macbeth (Asaji) here, barely daring to raise her head from her enforced position of inferiority, with a few perfectly chosen words, careful not to damage the cobweb fragile ego of her ape of a husband, played him like a musical instrument.

Kurosawa was happy to concede parallels with the social rapacity of post WWII Japan.

The main point is that Kurosawa was so keen to make Shakespeare’s Macbeth that he weakened his own plot by keeping the famous iconic scenes.  They particularly unbalanced some of the scenes between Washizu and Asaji.  I think that Kurosawa used film and the constrictions of Japanese society, where women had much less scope than even Elizabethan England,  to show how men are manipulated by their women.

Men play the game, women know the score.

throneblood-001

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