I have a confession to make. I know almost zip about the works of William Shakespeare. Oh, I know who he is and his significance. I have even visited his hometown, a very pleasant place indeed, but I have never read even a single one of his plays. I have also managed to avoid watching, though not by intend, practically any of his plays, whether on stage or on the screen, with the sole exception of Henry V, which was on the List. This is not something I am proud of, it just happened to be that way. Shakespeare is not a big thing in the Danish school system, which tend to prefer homegrown authors, and reading old plays… hmm… there just never seem to be time for that sort of thing.
My point here is that the famous story of “Macbeth” is actually new to me. Yes, yes, I have heard about it about a million times, but this is the first time I see it and that both means fresh eyes, but also a hopelessly naïve viewpoint. So bear with me. That this first viewing should be Akira Kurosawa’s version transplanted to feudal Japan is a bit of a scoop. I have no idea how the original goes, but somehow I cannot image it play out better than it does in “Kumonosu-jo” or “Throne of Blood”.
The setting is generic, there are hardly any place names and the characters are all invented, making this more of a moral lesson than a pretense at a historic document. However Kurosawa cleverly places the story in the medieval era so he can use samurai, lots and lots of samurai. Yeah, we like samurai, they are pretty cool.
The commanders Miki (Akira Kubo) and Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) successfully repel an attack by an enemy and are returning to Cobweb Castle to be honored by the supreme commander Lord Tsuzuki (Takamaru Sasaki) when they get lost in the labyrinthine Cobweb Forest. Here they have an encounter with a truly scary ghost who tells them that Washizu will be commander of The Northern Mansion before the day is over and eventually the master of Cobweb Castle. Miki on the other hand will become master of Fort One and eventually his son will be master of Cobweb Castle. Lo and behold, when they arrive at the castle Washizu and Miki are both promoted as the ghost predicted.
For Washizu this is the beginning of a nightmare, mainly because his wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) is hungry for a lot more. While Washizu is content to be a loyal subject she twists his mind with paranoid fantasies and makes him kill Lord Tsuzuki on a visit to the Northern Mansion. This makes Washizu master of Cobweb Castle, but also convinced of treason and rebellion, alienating him to practically everyone and eventually leading to his fall. I suppose all this is well known to those familiar with Macbeth.
This is not a very complicated story, but the message is interesting anyway. Lust for power drives you mad and it is not a good thing to know your future because there is always a catch.
The sell here is the cinematography and the acting. Kurosawa went out of his way to give this movie exactly the right texture. The haze creates mystery and confusion, the castles are strong as power and fate is unavoidable. There is an oppressive feeling throughout and we can feel it weighing on Washizu’s mind. Every image is a joy to watch and, yeah, the samurai are cool.
Toshiro Mifune was a perfect pick for the role as Washizu. In his previous movies I have not been totally sold by him. He tend to over-act and be a little too crazy. As Washizu however he was perfect. His superiority that turns into mistrust, paranoia and despair required exactly the kind of madness Mifune could do and “Throne of Blood” would just not have been the same movie with another lead. The final scene where Washizu is perforated with arrows is deservedly famous, but it is when he is acting against Yamada as Lady Asaji that he really shines. That is partly because she is excellent as well. Totally cool she is plotting sheer madness in order to get what she wants and when things are not going exactly as planned she cracks a bit, but is resourceful enough to pull it through. Yet she ends up just as mad (or worse) than Washizu. Strong performance.
This is a great film, but it is not the best yet from Kurosawa. Though I hate to rank great movies I still prefer Seven Samurai and Ikiru to this, but if this is the standard of those to come I am a happy man.
Yeah, samurai are pretty cool.