The Compassionate Kurosawa (Throne of Blood)

by Ezekiel Fry

Throne of Blood is a film that speaks quietly, and yet when it speaks the ground shakes with powerful tremors. Kurosawa’s first foray into the world of Shakespeare is one of his most bleak and meditative pieces. In handling a work as timeless as Macbeth Kurosawa faces many obstacles. How does one faithfully convey the emotion and sentiment of Shakespeare’s brilliant words when working in another language? Kurosawa’s answer to this dilemma is one of the most ingenious adaptive techniques ever used by a film maker. Where Shakespeare uses soliloquy to expound his characters’ emotional state and motivation, Kurosawa instead incorporates the Noh Theater. This quintessentially Japanese art form relies on lengthy periods of inaction followed by sharp and sudden brief movement. The characters use their bodies—both actively and passively—to convey the full depth of their emotions. In this way Kurosawa is able to circumvent the language problem and create moments of tension as powerful as those elicited by Shakespeare’s dialogue. Add to this the shift in setting from Scotland to the tumultuous 16th Century in Japan and not only does the use of the Noh seem appropriate it becomes inseparable from the story itself. The integration of the Noh is not a hasty addition to the work but instead exists harmoniously within the piece.
Much has been written regarding Kurosawa’s use of the Noh in Throne of Blood as a way of conveying meaning without dialogue, but perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the Noh within the film is the effect that it has on the story as a whole. Viewing Throne of Blood, in conjunction with a reading of Macbeth, a keen eye will immediately notice the striking differences between the two pieces. The story of Macbeth is concerned with the lust for power, the road to ruin, and the overwhelming battle between freewill and fate. Certainly there are aspects of all these themes present in Throne of Blood but there is something else at work, or, perhaps more accurately, something less at work. Shakespeare’s characters inhabit a world of conflict and change, but there is still an element of stability to be found. The steadfast character of Macduff, the dues ex machina like intervention of England, the necessity of using charms and witchcraft to entice Macbeth and Banquo, and the minimal involvement of Lady Macbeth, are all elements that are not to be found in Kurosawa’s vision of the Scottish play. There is a void in the world of the film and it is through the use of the Noh that this void is truly explored and brought into being.
Each of the aforementioned alterations or negations in the telling of Macbeth creates a world in which freewill does not exist. This is not a world where choice even enters into the discussion. This is not merely because of the lack of these steadying elements but more so due to the lack of a key sentiment so commonly present in Kurosawa’s work: compassion. From the very outset the world of the film is one completely devoid of this most integral human trait. Everyone exists solely for their own selfish gain and it matters little who must fall before them, or how, to arrive at that ultimate destination. This is illustrated early on by Lady Asaji’s reference to Washizu’s lord gaining his standing by slaying his previous lord. This, coupled with the bleak wasteland of inevitability foreshadowed in the haunting Noh opening sequence, creates a world in which each character is merely fulfilling their role. Without the quality of goodness embodied in the show of compassion there can be no balance. The actions of the characters cannot be dubbed evil as there is no good to counteract, or throw light upon the darkness. There is no will to live, merely the struggle not to die. This is a struggle which each participant, no matter how powerful, insightful, or ruthless, will eventually lose. Death is an inevitability, but in a world where the power of life—the soul of humanity—has been negated little can be done to slow down the horseman’s ponderous steps.
With this element of the inevitable firmly in place the characters which inhabit Throne of Blood cease to truly exert themselves on the structure of reality. Their actions seem mechanical and preordained. They become less human and more caricatures of themselves. This is in keeping with the tradition of the Noh in which each actor plays a character type, or template, rather than a singular person. In creating these caricatures rather than individualized characters not only does Kurosawa allow the tragic fate of Washizu to become universal but he creates a world devoid of true feeling. This further emphasizes the void within the world of the film—that lack of compassion and goodness—that makes all events push toward the already existing conclusion. When Macbeth describes life as “a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ Signifying nothing” his lines are fully envisioned in the imagery of Washizu’s desperate attempts the escape the arrows of his men (5.5.26-8). There is nothing at the end of it all. For Macbeth and Washizu both there is no escape from death. Prior to those famous lines Macbeth utters “all our yesterdays have lighted fools/ The way to dusty death” (5.5.22-3). This is the cyclical nature of Kurosawa’s vision as well. Each man treads the path set up for him before he was even born—the path towards death. Without goodness in the world there will be nothing left to remember that “brief candle” which only exists for such a short time.
The presence of the forest spirit, also presented in the traditional Noh manner, presents yet another aspect of the fixed and pointed fate of each of the characters. The spirit seems to spin out the delicate thread of each life involved in the tale, as she sits speaking to Miki and Washizu initially. If the wheel has not yet begun to spin in a fixed direction it now does so. Perhaps, as in the case of Banquo and Macbeth, there is the possibility that these men may throw aside the prognostications of the spirit, but with the doleful foreshadowing that begins the film it feels even less likely that these mortal men might shake the yolk of destiny than the doomed soldiers in Macbeth. Where Macbeth and Banquo may feel noble allegiance towards the benevolent Duncan, it seems less likely that Washizu and Miki would feel deep emotion, beyond the necessary fealty, towards their lord. A lord who lives by the sword, going so far, the Lady Asaji quickly points out, as to slay his previous lord and take his position. The wheel on which the spirit spins out each thread has been spinning for some time. The world, a world of amoral power grabbing, will always come back to that which has come before. There is no belief in the ability to change.
In this complex manner Kurosawa examines the necessity of compassion and tenderness by completely removing them from the events of his film. The result is a tragedy as crushing as any ever penned by the hand of Shakespeare. Throne of Blood, through its use of the Noh, creates a landscape so barren that it serves as a cautionary tale that not only warns against avarice, but also against living life without feeling. The unfeeling man does not truly die, but will return again and again, because it is unclear whether he was even alive to begin with and being only half awake will never see the error of his ways. Even though Spider’s Web Castle is destroyed the cycle continues unbroken.