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.

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.