Throne of Blood (1957) by Akira Kurosawa

Based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “Throne of Blood” tells the story of Washizu, a captain of the lord of Cobweb Castle, and his ill-fated supplanting of his former master. After helping to put down a traitorous revolt by a rebel named Fujimaki, Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and fellow captain Miki (Minoru Chiaki), are returning to Cobweb Castle to receive their reward for valiant action in the field. On the way through a nearby forest they meet a spectral figure (Chieko Naniwa), who foretells that they will both have great futures. Washizu is told he will rise, first to the head of north mansion (home of the traitor Fujimaki), and then to Lord of Cobweb Castle, while Miki’s son will eventually take that title. They both laugh, but when they arrive at the castle, they are both promoted to the positions promised them by the spirit. Washizu starts to believe the prophecy and is led to heinous acts, including killing his lord Tsuzuki (Yoichi Tachikawa), supported by his wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), in order to secure the position that was promised him and later attempts to avoid his fate of losing the titles he has attained.

The story follows the play quite closely, including some of the more well-known scenes, such as the ghost at the feast, and Washizu’s (Macbeth’s) wife trying to wash blood from her hands, translating the events to feudal Japan, with samurai lords, and a spirit, rather than the traditional witches. The plot is lean and sharp, making its points about self-fulfilling prophecy, loyalty, dishonour and guilt succinctly and with each scene having some impact or import to the story. It is said that Kurosawa often paints out each scene he directs on a canvas, and uses this as a reference, and here you can see that the composition of each shot has been considered carefully, framing exactly what is necessary. Little touches, such as the auguring spirit turning a wheel (to symbolize the circular nature of history and the rise and fall of the characters), are well-thought out, but not over-bearing in their symbolism. Foreshadowing, such as the rack of arrows that Asaji sits beside after the death of Tsuzuki likewise emphasise the themes of inescapable fate in a subtle way. Kurosawa draws out the horror of the story, with sinister touches such as the witch and the blood-stained room of the traitor Fujimaki, helped by the turns of Masaru Sato’s sombre yet terrifying score. The film also uses silence to spectacular effect, particularly in the scene following Tsuzuki’s death, when the piercing silence leaves the viewer to contemplate the atrocity that has been committed.

Kurosawa and Shakespeare are an unbeatable combination, as later evidenced by Ran (based on King Lear), with the director’s style well-suited to the grand themes of the bard’s work. “Throne of Blood” offers a moral message about the dangers of ambition and hubris, from the first ominous, foreboding poem being sung across scenes of barren earth where once the great castle stood, to the end, where we return to the same site. This is a world in which humanity is buoyed along by fate and entirely at its mercy, unable to truly experience free choice or action. The story considers the notion of fate and man’s doomed attempts to avoid it. There is ambiguity in the tale as to whether Washizu’s actions make his situation worse, whether the prophecy is fulfilled only because he became aware of it, or whether everything that happens is unavoidable. The film begins and ends with the site of the former Cobweb Castle, setting the scene as a warning for future generations. Full of action, horror, and intrigue, “Throne of Blood” is an expertly directed and superbly told story of ambition, paranoia, and dishonour.

Dreams (1990) by Akira Kurosawa

An anthology of short films based on Kurosawa’s dreams. The first story sees a young boy (Mitsunori Isaki) accidentally stumble across a fox wedding, despite the warning of his mother not to go out in the rain. Later he is told that he must kill himself with a knife, or return to the land of the foxes to hand back the knife. The second story revolves around the “Doll Festival” as the young boy finds a group of living human dolls that promise to restore a devastated peach orchard. The next story is a group of mountaineers trapped in a blizzard attempting to reach their camp. The fourth part sees a soldier returning from war, confronting the ghosts of his fallen companions. In part five, an artist (Akira Terao) enters the paintings of van Gough, conversing with the famous creative (played by Martin Scorsese). Part six concerns an extinction-level nuclear disaster and part seven sees a man speaking with a demon in a post-apocalyptic landscape. The final part has a man come to a rural “Windmill Village”, where he converses with an elderly resident about the importance of living a natural life.

“Dreams” is a peculiarity in Akira Kurosawa’s filmography, seeing him tackle styles and settings that are rarely seen in his other works. It is interesting to see his take on the survivalist drama, disaster movie, war film, science-fiction, fantasy, and surrealism, making you wonder what these could have been if they were each spun into full length stories. It is also novel to see Kurosawa work with greenscreen effects and monster makeup, still showing a creativity after a long career of samurai epics and historical dramas. Each section is around fifteen minutes, with just enough time to establish characters and theme. Kurosawa based these vignettes on dreams he had seen and they have an ephemeral quality, set in unreal environments where logic doesn’t necessarily flow as normal. These stories are adrift in space and time, the characters existing only in that moment, without a wider world around them. This limitation in time allows them to expand on creating a visual and audio spectacular, without worrying too much about character development or twists. There is a focus on the emotional rather than the logical, with elements left to the audiences interpretation. The direction is striking, particularly in the use of colour. Red appears prominently throughout a number of sections, representing both joy and suffering. The operatic score beautifully captures each scene, reflecting the grand visuals, varying from traditional instrumentation to popular classical music. The easiest reference point for the film would be “Kwaidan” (Kobayashi, 1964), with its individual stories imbued with history and tradition. There are also echoes of Andrei Tarkovsky, in the “Tunnel” episode and the final scene of trailing green fronds in the river.

Dream interpretation is a source of endless fascination to many people. While watching “Dreams” there are two questions that come to the fore. Firstly, where the dreams come from; and secondly what they signify. The answer to both of these may be the same. The dreams depicted seem to come from the fears and hopes of Kurosawa, some with a more direct connection to personal experience, and others seen through a metaphorical lens. Several themes appear to tie together certain sections. Tradition and history, and the loss of it, is a major concern. With the fox wedding and Doll Festival, we see Japanese folklore brought to life. The final section in which the elderly villager laments modernity and the death of the old ways, brings things full circle from these earlier sections, old age speaking to youth about the importance of holding on to these “magical” notions and the old ways. Kurosawa is understandably also concerned about his work and perhaps even his legacy. The section about the mountaineers, perhaps the least transparent in terms of interpretation, may be representative of the creative struggle, while also speaking to the fear of death. And the section with van Gough gives us Kurosawa’s idealised creative, a man absolutely committed to his art. Darker concerns also permeate the film, notably death and human extinction brought about by our own stupidity. The military man, one of the most affecting sections, speaks to the senseless waste of life in war; while the sections detailing nuclear holocaust speak clearly to the existential fear prominent in the post-atomic age. However, in the final scene we have again a hopeful note, that humanity might yet save itself from this fate, by embracing the environment, by returning to what we once held self-evidently important, namely living with nature rather than in a desperate struggle against it. “Dreams” is a film that reflects the hopes and fears of many people, a creative, surreal, vision that prophecies two potential futures for humanity.

Kagemusha (1980) by Akira Kurosawa

A thrilling samurai epic about loyalty and lordship from a master of the historical drama. A kagemusha, or ‘shadow warrior’, is a body double used to avoid the lord being put in danger, or to trick the enemy. The film begins with prominent warlord Shingen Takeda’s brother Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki) having found a perfect double of the lord, a former thief who he saved from hanging. Although he is nothing like the fearsome lord in manner, he is the spitting image of him (Tatsuya Nakadai plays both Shingen Takeda and his new kagemusha). At this time three mighty leaders are vying for control of the county: Ieyasu Tokugawa (Masayuki Yui) and Nobunaga Oda (Daisuke Ryu), who have formed an alliance are in bitter conflict with the third, Shingen Takeda. Takeda is close to victory, when he is shot and wounded by a sniper. Following his death, the kagemusha must step in to take his place, as per the lord’s wishes, for three years. This presents a problem for Takeda’s supporters as this doppelganger risks exposing himself as an imposter. Meanwhile, Tokugawa and Oda move forward with their campaign to unify Japan; and Takeda’s son Katsuyori (Kenichi Hagiwara) attempts to win power in his own right.

“Kagemusha” is set during the warring states period, a pivotal moment of Japanese history. It takes for its basis one of the possible stories about Takeda’s death and spins a fantastical tale of deception and feudal conflict culminating in the Battle of Nagashino. The film has a theatrical feel to it, beginning from the opening scene in which we have a long dialogue between Nobukado, Takeda and their new kagemusha. Simply staged with a fixed camera it relies on the excellent performances and framing to tell the story. Throughout the film this carefully considered tone is maintained. Kurosawa is known to have painted out his own storyboards and it shows in the composition of each shot. Background details take on great significance, whether the suit of armour that hangs in the background as Tokugawa sits in his hall, or the incredible landscapes of crashing waves at the shore. Each detail is carefully calculated to enhance the drama, drawing out the power of the surrounding environment to bolster the unfolding drama. Kurosawa also knows how to use extras to maximum effect, from scores of corpses showing the horror of battle, to the triumphant marching of spearmen and cavalry. The use of colour is also notable with scenes lent vitality through the reds, greens and blues of armour and banners.

Kurosawa uses long takes and scenes to excellent effect in “Kagemusha”, giving the actors space to express themselves and ideas and emotions time to take on real significance. One example of this is in the scene where the sniper explains how he shot Takeda. Rather than a quick explanation, we are given an extended sequence where he runs step by step through his actions. It is in Kurosawa’s measured pacing that scenes such as this are leant dramatic weight. In the scenes with Takeda’s grandson and mistresses the unbearable tension that he may be exposed is drawn out, creating a palpable sense of threat.

The soundscape also feels inspired by theatre, with the use of traditional instruments played for reactions or mood setting. As the film progresses we get a more traditional epic score that begins to play over the battle scenes. Equally noteworthy however is the film’s use of silence in many scenes, allowing the acting to speak for itself. Again an example of Kurosawa’s still, contemplative style that allows the audience to really empathise fully with  the trials and tribulations of the kagemusha.

While much of the film is a tragic lament on the loss of nobility and the horror of war, it also features plenty of humour to lighten the tone, such as hapless servants walking over an area they have just brushed, the kagemusha discovering Takeda’s body, or crude jokes about how the kagemusha should deal with Takeda’s mistresses in the same way he does the horse (by claiming he is too ill to ride that day). Kurosawa’s belief in his actors is justified, with Tatsuya Nakadai delivering an incredible performance as Takeda and the kagemusha. We watch him transform from a lowly thief to the embodiment of honour and calm surety.

The film is at once an historical epic, with the clashing of great martial forces for the future of Japan, and at the same time a highly personal tale of one man’s journey to discover a sense of honour. One of the bloodiest periods of Japanese history, the warring clans knew that whoever triumphed would control the fate of the country. The opening and closing of the film show the great sacrifices that were made to achieve what they believed was a unifying mission, with hundreds upon thousands killed. The film offers little praise or condemnation of the actions of Tokugawa, Oda and Takeda, giving a stoic appraisal of their actions. All are shown to be great leaders and there is little indication that any one of them is better or worse than the others. In the story of the kagemusha we are given an account of a man who is forced to become someone better than he is. When the film begins he is disloyal, avaricious and immature; by contrast Takeda is shown to be a thoughtful and fearsome warrior. The film might be read as a commentary on how individual will can be forced into subservience to a lord or master, necessitating complete destruction of the ego in service of a higher power. However, the film also suggests that Takeda is truly great and that this transformation of the lowly thief into a lord is something of an honour. One interesting aspect of the film is the kagemusha’s relationship with Takeda’s grandson, who immediately marks him out as an imposter. He states that he is no longer afraid of him, and later their relationship becomes one of genuine warmth. This indicates a more nuanced view of the difference between Takeda and kagemusha, showing what the first had to sacrifice in order to become a fierce warlord. An incredible film that speaks to what it means to be a leader and giving an insight into this bloody period of history.

Seven Samurai (1954) by Akira Kurosawa

A small farming village in feudal Japan is facing starvation as their crops are being taken by bandits. They set out to look for samurai who they can hire to protect them. The first Kanbei (Takashi Shimura), recruits five more, and they are later joined by the unusual Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a commoner who claims to be a samurai. Together they return to the village to defend it from the bandits.

The film is epic in scope with many characters and situations to explore. The plot is relatively straight-forward, but beautifully executed and, despite a long running time, it holds the viewer’s interest throughout. Akira Kurosawa’s direction is instrumental in creating a sense of momentum and the expert composition of shots would inspire filmmakers for generations to come. The music by Fumio Hayasaka is tense and dramatic and used sparingly. There are many scenes where the painting-like shots are left to be appreciated in silence. The cast all do a superb job, Toshiro Mifune again proves to be Kurosawa’s muse, having many hilarious moments in the comic role of Kikuchiyo. Takashi Shimura as the leader of the group, who must gather together this gang of seven to defend the village, also manages to carry the sense of stoic leadership and martial prowess.

Essentially an action film, “Seven Samurai” takes its time in building up the characters and the set-pieces are far from gratuitous, being carried out with real emotion. Through the film run undercurrents of philosophical and moral concepts, with the samurai code of conduct scrutinized and the struggles and fortitude of the common man praised. A film worthy of the accolades and recognition it has received.

Rashomon (1950) by Akira Kurosawa

Escaping from a downpour, a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) takes shelter at Rashomon gate, where he meets a wood-cutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) who are discussing a recent trial they have witnessed. The wood-cutter tells the man that as he was walking through the forest a few days before, he came across a dead samurai. The priest had earlier seen the samurai (Masayuki Mori) leading his wife (Machiko Kyo) on a horse in that direction. Later a thief Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) was caught with the weapons from the samurai. Tajomaru is taken to trial and tells his version of events, claiming that he did kill the samurai. They also hear the story of the wife of the samurai, which is different in points to that of Tajomaru. We also get two different version of events, with no hints as to which is correct, and all seeming to take the blame for the death of the samurai.

Based on a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the film has an interesting structure, one that would later influence many other works. Instead of being a straightforward narrative, we are instead presented, through flashbacks, with several versions of the same event, and asked to choose which one we believe or trust. This makes the film engaging, especially when you reach the third and fourth versions, as you attempt to puzzle out why they would be lying about certain things, whether you can trust the witnesses, and what the true circumstances of the murder were. Unlike other historical films, this is focussed heavily on the telling of stories, and dialogue between the major players, rather than action sequences. All the actors do a great job, particularly the three involved in the crime, as they act out the various interpretations of the scenes. Akira Kurosawa’s direction is fantastic, with the use of static cameras during the trial scenes putting you in the role of an unbiased judge as each story is told, and use of framing and movement in the flashback sequences showing you exactly what you need to see. Both the story and direction work together to create a compelling narrative, that keeps you wanting to learn more about what really happened.

The film asks some difficult questions about the nature of truth and reality, and also includes some very dark themes of murder and rape, although never graphic, and nasty characters. At the beginning of the film we see the crumbling Rashomon gate amidst a rainstorm, which acts as a perfect visual metaphor for the chaotic reality of life, and the forces of nature that act to destroy what civilisation attempts to construct. The lack of order symbolised by the gates destruction is explained as the characters tear firewood from the building, further emphasizing the necessary selfishness of humanity). A deserved classic, this film is a must watch for fans of cinema, as it inspired the way many future stories were told.