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#121. Throne of Blood - Analysis

One of the most critically acclaimed adaptations of any Shakespearean tragedy, director Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood ironically dispenses with the play’s poetic dialogue and Scottish setting and instead converts the language and design into something wholly Japanese. Unmistakably stylized after Japanese Noh Theater, Kurosawa infuses ancient Asian aesthetics to create modern cinematic brilliance. Itself a somewhat forgotten art even in its native Japan, Noh was infused with an ethereal eeriness, typically preoccupied with ghosts and spirits and often taking place within a dream. According to critic Keiko McDonald one way of classifying Noh drama is by the level of reality in a given play. “In genzai, or ‘contemporary’ Noh, only the tangible, ‘real’ world is presented. In mugen, or ‘phantasmal’ Noh, reality is more complex: it is a blend of natural and supernatural planes of experience.” (36, McDonald) Kurosawa, obviously inspired by mugen when crafting Throne of Blood, injects many of the basic elements of Noh theatricality into his film. Stylistically and structurally, Throne of Blood is a love letter to what Kurosawa called “…the real heart, the core of all Japanese drama.”(117, Richie) This paper will attempt an investigation into that Noh tradition, examining how ancient Japanese histrionics could inspire an adaptation that so effectively removes itself from the source material.

Noh plays were customarily modeled around a basic three-act structure: jo, ha, and kyu. Not unlike Aristotelian plot structure, Noh act structure is surprisingly rudimentary. The jo is the introduction and set-up of the story and characters, ha has inciting complications and action, while the kyu resolves any dramatic action. Author James Goodwin explains, “In relation to the full dramatic action of Throne of Blood, the introductory chant constitutes its jo, dramatic events from Tsuzuki’s opening war council to the report of Cobweb Forests movement constitute its ha, and the betrayal of Taketoki Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) by his men and the closing chant, its kyu.” (187, Goodwin) Examining the film at a more micro level it is possible to see that sequences are constructed with jo, ha, and kyu in mind. Goodwin expounds on this theory, using Washizu and Miki’s horrific encounter with the witch in Spiderweb Forest as an example. The scene begins with the two samurai warriors attempting to navigate their way through the labyrinthine forest, the increasing fog obscuring the path. According to Goodwin the witch’s ghostly chants restates the film’s jo, however the protagonist’s composure is broken with her revelations of the future. “The sudden disappearance of both the spinner and her hut brings kyu, which is completed by the ride of Washizu and Miki through blinding fogs and their pause before returning to Forest Castle.” (186)

Aesthetically Throne of Blood borrows much of its look and sound from Noh. Kurosawa draws on traditional Noh music and tonal concepts to further enhance the film’s more moody and ritualistic elements, with a greater goal of refashioning the Scottish play with Japanese culture. The strident Noh pipe and rhythmic pounding of wooden staffs effectively contorts the opening credit sequence into a hypnotic seduction, preparing the viewer for the nightmarish enchantress patiently awaiting their arrival. In his comparison between the original Macbeth play and Kurosawa’s filmic translation, Maurice Hindle examined Throne of Blood’s opening moments, keeping Noh influences in mind. The movie begins and ends with footage of crumbling Japanese castles, former symbols of man’s greater ambition and indulgence. While the camera scans the eroding buildings a “chorus of deep, droning male voices” (101, Hindle) rumbles off screen. Hindle explains, “As we are shown a bleak and misty landscape containing only a wooden monolith memorializing the site of the once ‘mighty fortress’ of ‘Spiderweb Castle’, the sternly chanting chorus tells us (in translation) that this is the story of a ‘proud warrior’ who was ‘murdered by ambition’. Yet his spirit is ‘walking still’, for ‘what once was so now still is true’.” (101, Hindle) Wearing his love of Noh on his sleeve, Kurosawa contorts audience expectations by successfully manipulating his country’s antiquated artistry. “What could therefore be construed as a ghost story at one level supplies a chilling moral conveyed in the style of a [Noh] sung epic tale taking us back to earlier times.” (101, Hindle)

Simplicity was a major component of Noh music, and so to in Throne of Blood. Much of the film is enveloped in silence, with either natural diegetic sound or typical Noh-music – flute, drums, and chants – breaking up the aural void. “The ideal Noh performance offers the audience a profound theatric experience of ritual dance, song, chant, and poetry.” (90, Huang & Ross) No other scene may better personify this Noh musical influence better than when Washizu murders his lord. Lasting six minutes, the audience must endure Washizu’s downfall with a terrible silence permeating the majority of the scene. The quietness is briefly punctured by non-verbal sounds and music, but as with traditional Noh the scene’s mood is expertly manipulated by tonal cues. Washizu’s heavy breathing pounds harder than his heartbeat, adeptly denoting every thought going through his mind without having to speak a word. The film’s Lady Macbeth, Lady Asaji Washizu (Isuzu Yamada), contrasts perfectly against the murdering warlord, both visually and aurally. As her husband stoically puffs nerve into his lungs, she effortlessly scurries around the set, her scampers gleefully matched by the swishing of her kimono. “Soon the gentle and feminine sound of silk is transformed into the creeping and threatening glide of a vicious snake. (91, Huang & Ross) The sounds of her dress slice into the silence, symbolizing Asaji’s antagonistic motivations. Later, after their treachery has been discovered, both Washizu and his wife have moments of contemplation awaiting their inevitable doom. “Sitting on the floor, she waits noiselessly. The silence that symbolizes Washizu’s fear and resistance in the earlier scene accompanies her, until the haunting solitary flute recurs.” (92, Hsiung) Kurosawa plays with Noh music and silence until the very end, when Washizu falls by the hands of his own men. This time the director mixes the shallow hisses of arrows and the ominous ringing of a gong with the silence of death to accompany Washizu’s final seconds.

While Throne of Blood’s score and sound may have helped to create the film’s haunting atmosphere, what is seen on screen is most obviously influenced by Noh. For Japanese audiences, this correlation between the film’s opening scene and Noh Theater would not be lost. Not only does the scene where Washizu and Miki first encounter the witch with her spinning wheel invoke the simple aesthetical choices associated with Noh, but in fact it is actually reminiscent of a Noh play, Kurozuka (Black Mound). McDonald explains, “ In this play, a party of wandering monks encounters an old woman sitting at a spinning wheel. She sings how fleeting this world is and how sinful human beings are… after the monks have asked to be given shelter… they see the phantasmal world. The old hag reveals her true identity; she is a demon.” (37, McDonald) Kurozuka is not the only Noh play to be directly alluded to in Throne of Blood. The witch’s make-up is made up to resemble the Noh mask of the “mountain witch” used in the play Yamauba. McDonald further elucidates, explaining both witches have supernatural abilities that allow them to see into the future.

More so than any other feature, Kurosawa took advantage of Noh’s specific acting style when directing his performers. In an interview discussing Throne of Blood the director once said, “I wanted to use the way that Noh actors have of moving their bodies, the way they have of walking, and the general composition which the Noh stage provides.” (117, Richie) With Noh came a restriction for movement, a limitation that interested Kurosawa, particularly for Asaji. Washizu’s wife is purposefully modeled to parallel the witch in Spiderweb Forest, moving as if possessed by an evil spirit throughout most of the picture. “She is the most limited, the most confined, the most driven, the most evil. She moves heel to toe, as does the Noh actor; the shape of Isuzu Yamada’s face is used to suggest the Noh mask; her scenes with her husband have a very Noh-like composition, and her hand washing is pure Noh drama.” (139, Richie) The witch, with her Yamauba inspired mask, is also heavily shaped around Noh elements. When she is busy prognosticating Washizu’s demise, the actress delivers her omen in a guttural voice consistent with Noh performances. Hindle offers the most convincing connection between Noh influences in Throne of Blood and Shakespeare’s play: “In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Lady Macbeth’s speeches in 1.5 align her with the malevolent supernatural realm of the witches. Kurosawa creates a similar alignment by providing strong visual identifications between the Forest Witch and Asaji… Asaji’s calmly seated posture, her position in the right of the frame, and the boldly lit harsh whiteface make-up aimed at recreating the look of a Noh mask, are all strongly reminiscent of the Forest Witch’s presentation.” (104) Unable to work within the linguistically confined spaces of Shakespeare’s speech, Kurosawa deftly took advantage of his medium, establishing visual indications to unconsciously connect both Asaji and the Forest Witch.

While Noh may not be as highly regarded today as it was during its heyday in the 14th Century, Throne of Blood proves the Japanese tradition fits comfortably on screen. Benefiting from over 600-years of theatrical and cultural conventions, director Akira Kurosawa fashioned one of the most famous tragedies ever written comfortably into Japanese folklore. Director Grigori Kozintsev, a Russian filmmaker who has adapted several of Shakespeare’s plays including Hamlet and King Lear said it best when discussing Kurosawa’s success with Throne of Blood, “Kurosawa’s visual poetry derives from a design of delivering the story and inner life of Shakespeare’s drama in a structure of images whose meaning and effects draw on a highly formalistic non-Western dramatic tradition (Noh Theater)… that is as arguably rich in cultural signification and resonance as the verbal text of the Shakespearean original.” (107, Hindle) Imbuing every frame, every musical note, every movement by his actors with Noh aesthetics, Kurosawa enhanced Throne of Blood above common adaptation and into the cinematic Pantheon.

If you made it through the whole essay please link the page and pass it around! Let me know what you think o of the film, Kurosawa, or Japanese film in general in the comments section.

Work Cited

McDonald, Keiko. “Noh Into Film: Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.”  Journal of Film and

        Video, 39.1 (1987): 36-41.  Print

 Goodwin, James. Akira Kurosawa and Intertextual Cinema. Baltimore: The Johns                              

          Hopkins University Press, 1994. Print

 Richie, Donald. The Films of Akira Kurosawa. Los Angeles: University of California

          Press, 1984. Print.

Hindle, Maurice. Studying Shakespeare on Film. Houndmills, Basingstoke [England:

         Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.

Huang, Alexander C. Y., and Charles Stanley. Ross. Shakespeare in Hollywood, Asia,

         and Cyberspace. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue UP, 2009. Print.



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Did you just post your essay from class onto this??? Mmhmm...

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