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.

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.

Red Beard (1965)

Dr. Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama) arrives at a rural clinic run by Red Beard (Toshiro Mifune), a doctor whose patients include impoverished individuals without the money for an expensive physician. Yasumoto is insistent that he is only there on an errand and not to work; he tells the staff that he intends to work for the Shogun and leave as soon as possible. After a prickly reception from Red Beard, Yasumoto decides to sabotage his placement, acting in a lazy  and insolent manner in hopes that he will be dismissed. However, he soon comes to respect Red Beard as not only a skilled doctor but a great man. The film also follows the story of a particular patient’s retelling of his ill-fated marriage, and a young girl who is brought to the clinic from a brothel suffering a fever.

“Red Beard” is directed by Akira Kurosawa from a screenplay by Kurosawa and long term collaborators Masato ide, Hideo Oguni, Ryuzo Kikushima, based on a short story by Shugoro Yamamoto. As with most ofKurosawa’s films this is a period drama, though set a little later than the samurai epics for which he is most well-known. The film is set in the late 19th century and the world is carefully recreated, not only through the sets and costumes, but in Kurosawa’s use of extras. Scenes are often crowded with characters, such as the group of women working at the hospital, the patients,or denizens of this small town. The use of people filling out the backgrounds give a life and vibrancy to every scene. The cast is led by Yuzo Kayama as the arrogant young Doctor Noboru Yasumoto whose arrival chimes with that of the audience into this world. While he is initially rude and unwilling to take on his duties, he is never unlikeable. And as he develops he grows to be a protagonist whom the audience is fully sympathetic too. Toshiro Mifune, known for his starring roles in several Kurosawa films (Yojimbo, Sanjuro), plays Dr. Kyojo Niide, also known as “Red Beard”. Although he is the titular character,he is used somewhat sparingly and to brilliant effect. We see a number of sides to Niide, though never get close enough to fully understand him. Despite his care for his patients, he is also shown to have negative traits, and himself admits that he may be a terrible person. “Red Beard” has a huge and impressive cast, bolstered by the aforementioned supporting roles. Miyuki Kuwano as Onaka and Tsutomu Yamazaki as Sahachi give great performances in an almost stand-alone romantic tragedy. Terumi Niki also gives a heartbreaking performance as Otoyo, the young woman rescued from the brothel. 

The cinematography by Asakazu Nakai and Takao Saito creates some powerfully emotional sequences. There is incredible use of shadow in the film. One example of this is the sequence with Otoyo and Yasumoto, when only her eyes are illuminated in a strip of light through the dense shadows. Expert camera movement also provides for creative yet never distracting sequences. The sequence of a young thief sneaking in to steal rice sees the camera effortlessly integrating itself into the film to the extent that you can get areal sense of the environment.

“Red Beard” is a film that wears its politics proudly. It shows the societal scourge of poverty and its effects on the population. Early in the film there are discussions regarding the possibility of improving the health of many of the clinic’s patients by redistributing wealth from those with an abundance of money. This point is driven home by the inclusion of a lord whose rich diet has led to him having the precise opposite problem to many of his poor subjects. His obesity caused by over-indulgence is starkly contrasted to the young boy reduced to stealing food for his family. The film also deals with the issue of prostitution, and the treatment by society of women and the elderly. The film’s strength is in contrasting these everyday problems with more universal concerns of life and death. The film carefully plays out the final moments of particular characters in a quietly emotional way that brings home the finality of death. The end, when it comes, is final, but further highlights the greatness of those in the film who dedicate themselves to saving lives. It is a simple call for kindness over self interest that hits home thanks to the brilliance of the performances and direction.

The Sword of Doom (1966)

The film opens as an old man and his daughter are crossing the hills, almost at the end of their long journey. When the girl rushes off to get water, her grandfather is brutally cut down by a samurai, without provocation. This samurai is Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai). We follow him back to his village where he is to take on a rival for the position of leader of their swordfighting school. When his opponent’s wife, Ohama (Michiyo Aratama), pleads with him to let her husband win, Ryunosuke arranges to meet her late at night at a mill where he then rapes her. Spurred on by his anger, his opponent, Bunnojo Utsuki (Ichiro Nakaya), lunges at Ryunosuke after their bout ends. Ryunosuke, an unmatched skill with the sword, counters, striking a fatal blow. He leaves town, cutting down a number of men who attempt to take revenge for the slaying of their leader. Two years later the action has moved to Edo, where Ryunosuke is now living with Ohama. He joins a group of mercenaries, a perfect fit for someone lacking any moral compass. Ryunosuke continues in his violent path, caring little for those around him, and killing without compunction. Later, he is troubled by visions of those he has killed, striking out in a blind rage as the ghosts of his past come back to haunt him.

“The Sword of Doom” is based on the book “The Great Bodhisattva Pass” by Kaizan Nakazato, previously adapted into works of the same title as the novel. The screenplay is by Shinobu Hashimoto, who worked on a number of Akira Kurosawa films including “Rashomon” and “The Hidden Fortress”. Director Kihachi Okamoto brings forth the deadly threat of the period with expert use of long, still takes broken by flashes of violent action sequences. The opening scene, with its shock death early on shows the audience that death and violence lurk constantly behind the seemingly calm surface of rules and ritual commonly assumed of the period. The duel between Ryunosuke Tsukue and Bunnojo Utsuki is a masterclass in creating tension; as the two face off against each other every tiny movement becomes cause for concern. This is achieved through firstly setting up both characters as a serious threat. The audience is more than aware that either could easily kill the other and most probably will. The soundtrack throughout, with the clack of bokken breaking the silences, perfectly captures this sense of dread, making you aware of the frailty of human life and how quickly it can be snatched away. Nakadai’s Ryunosuke is a heartless anti-hero, compelling yet hard to feel any remorse for. The rest of the cast act as a perfect foil for him, reflecting the evil in his own heart by their own purity of purpose and display of emotional depth. Yuzo Kayama plays Hyoma Utsuki, the brother of the fallen duellist and intent on revenge. Michiyo Aratama, as Ryunosuke’s unwilling wife, offers an insight into the struggles of women in this period characterised by violence and an almost pathological reverence for the “way of the sword”. Toshiro Mifune is well-cast as Toranosuke Shimada, the leader of a swordfighting school and a match in skill to Ryunosuke. Yoko Naito plays Omatsu, who having lost her grandfather at the beginning of the film, is part of a major subplot as she attempts to first win over the local lord, and later finds employment as a courtesan, coming face to face with her grandfather’s killer at the film’s climax.

“The Sword of Doom” portrays the ultimate anti-hero in Ryunosuke Tsukue. He is a man with few virtues other than his ultimate skill with a katana. There is a repeated line in the film about the reflection of a man’s soul in his sword. This link is perhaps the key to understanding the message of the film. Ryunosuke has poured every part of himself into his sword, he is no longer capable of compassion or empathy, to many extents he is the embodiment of a vengeful spirit, demonic in his dedication to swordfighting. His cold expression speaks to the emptiness at the heart of his character. By dedicating himself to the art of war, he has become the horror of war itself, with no room left in him for love, friendship, honour, mercy, or any other trait that might mark him as human. The final act of the film sees him crumble in completely, no longer able to hold himself together and becoming no more than his anger and swordsmanship. The final shot of the film sees his face contorted, having lost all humanity he is doomed to die or be endlessly tortured by what he has done.