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Throne of Blood

THRONE OF BLOOD (蜘蛛巣城, Kumonosu-jō, “SPIDER WEB CASTLE”) is an Akira Kurosawa movie from 1957, and the only one I’ve seen by him that has supernatural shit in it. It’s partly inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which to be honest I don’t remember that well, because I only read it in school, and Julie Taymor hasn’t made it into a movie yet. But even I picked up on it when the Lady Macbeth-like character couldn’t stop scrubbing her hands, thinking they still had blood on them. That guy died 400 years ago, and he still owns guilty hand-washing scenes. Hats off.

Two generals, Washizu Taketoki (Toshiro Mifune, HELL IN THE PACIFIC) and Miki Yoshiteru (Akira Kubo, GAMERA: GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE), are headed back to their boss Lord Tsuzuki (Hiroshi Tachikawa, FIGHTING ELEGY) at Spider Web Castle after a glorious victory in battle. But, like a horror movie, the woods seem to have changed, and they’ve gotten lost. Then they spot a strange all white ghosty type person (Chieko Naniwa, SANSHO THE BAILIFF) just kinda sitting there in the woods glowing. And when that happens, I mean you basically got a choice of running away or walking up to it and seeing what the deal is. They choose B.

That’s B as in “Big mistake.” She doesn’t possess them, slime them, evil dead them or anything; what she does is more insidious: she predicts their futures. She tells them that Washizu will be named the head of the Northern Garrison, and Miki will move up from commander of Fort 2 to commander of Fort 1. Also she says Washizu will eventually become the Lord of the castle, and Miki’s son will also be the lord of the castle some day.

Ha ha, silly ghost, that’s ridiculous. Stop messin’ with us. And they find their way home, and can you guess what happens? The Lord rewards their achievements with the exact promotions specified in the first part of the ghost lady’s predictions. Gulp.

I mean, that’s cool though. Nice to be acknowledged. Washizu tells his wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada, TOKYO TWILIGHT) what happened, and let me tell you – I do not like this creepy lady! She sits there frowning and passive aggressively talking him out of his better instincts. She’s delightfully horrible. I also watched RASHOMON, which is obviously a very well made and interesting movie, but my modern sensitivities struggled with its one female character being raped and then repeatedly besmirched by all the male characters, accused of manipulating everybody. This guy (Mifune again) rapes her and then figures out she wants him to kill her husband and the rapist is like “This is too much, even for me. I, a rapist and bandit, must put my foot down at what this woman is trying to pull. Why, I never.” He asks the husband “Do you want me to kill her?” A couple of bros teaming up against the woman of their nightmares. I’m against it!

Lady Asaji is no better a representative for all of womandom, but she’s such a vividly despicable character that it’s entertaining. See, she wants him to murder his boss. See if they can’t make this forest spirit “Lord of the castle” prophecy come true. Conveniently, the current Lord unexpectedly shows up to visit, so they poison his sake, stab him, blame it on his guards. Career stuff.

I mean, this guy Washizu honestly never dreamed or even wanted to become the Lord of Spider Web Castle. That was just not something on his radar. He enjoyed simply being a badass sword dude. This is all so crazy. So many little details you never think about that you gotta take care of. For example he has no kid, but there’s gotta be an heir, so he says his buddy Miki’s son can be the heir.

Of course, Asaji is like ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? We committed multiple murders to make your part of the ghost lady’s prophecy come true, do you really want to bet your life on the other part, about Miki’s kid becoming Lord, not coming true? Come on, man!

So there is scheming and killing and guilt and embarrassment when he starts seeing the ghosts of his victims in public and freaking out in front of everybody like a nut.

There’s a great part at the climax, where he’s at the castle, waiting for enemies to attack, but the ghost tells him don’t worry buddy, it would take the very trees of the Spider Web Forest rising to attack you for you to be defeated. Very reassuring… until he sees the fucking trees moving toward him!

Such a creepy image. At first I thought it was a special effect, then I realized I could see some legs in there – they really did a shot of all those trees moving! And finally I understood that we were supposed to spot those people – soldiers are moving toward the castle disguised as trees. He’s fucked.

His subsequent death by arrows is a really cool scene. I’ve read that the ones that hit him are on wires, but they were also firing real ones around him. That’s some trust right there.

For my tastes, THRONE OF BLOOD ranks low among the Kurosawa joints I’ve seen. Not enough codes of honor, and maybe I prefer his normal style of characters to this intentionally Shakespearian style. But it has a bit of an eerie ghost story feel that you don’t usually get from him, and the obvious moral of the story is very effective. When these generals were satisfied with their lives they seemed like pretty good, ethical people. But just believing in the possibility that they could have power quickly turned them into savages. The Spider Web Castle is treated as kind of a cursed place – haunted by the things that have happened there, the literal blood stains that won’t entirely scrub out, scary even when it’s completely destroyed and there’s just a marker and some fog. But I think the story tells us that all seats of power can be cursed places, bringing in the worst people, bringing out the worst in people, projecting glory but ending in tragedy and sorrow.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, July 8th, 2020 at 10:50 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews, War. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

11 Responses to “Throne of Blood”

  1. “the story tells us that all seats of power can be cursed places, bringing in the worst people, bringing out the worst in people, projecting glory but ending in tragedy and sorrow.”

    Amen, brother

  2. Agreed, beautifully said at the end. Taymor should definitely do Macbeth; there need to be more versions that really go for broke with the trippy horror movie shit.

  3. Until Vern proves me wrong, I will continue to hope that this is part of a double bill review “THRONE VS. THEATRE – THE BATTLE OF THE BLOODS”, because THEATRE OF BLOOD with Vincent Price is THE great Shakespeare movie.

    But THRONE OF BLOOD is really very great as Shakespeare on film goes, and certainly a cut above RAN, which was Kurosawa’s take on King Lear. But, of course, it has Mifune.

    We had THRONE shown to us in school. I think it’s still true, but back in the ’80s the two most widely taught Shakespeare plays in British schools were Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth, and we regularly got to see the plays we were reading on tape. Polanski’s MACBETH was, and I imagine still is, a non-starter with schoolkids, so someone thought to show us THRONE, recorded, I suspect, direct from a BBC screening. Paradoxically, by stripping away the thing that schoolkids (and everyone else who hasn’t studied Elizabethan English) struggles with and presenting it in (barely readable in a classroom of 30) subtitled Japanese the whole thing, at least for me, became more accessible.

    The imagery of the play is already wild, but Kurosawa does it proud, especially with the spectre, the forest and Washizu’s death. Brian De Palma, like a lot of that generation of American directors, is a great admirer of Kurosawa, and supposedly used Washizu’s death as a source for both the death of CARRIE’s mother and the death of Tony Montana in SCARFACE. And THRONE is genuinely scary; Yamada in particular is really bloody scary.

  4. Vern, if you’ve seen RASHOMON, I think that, at least technically, the dead samurai’s story told via the medium also qualifies as supernatural shit. Although clearly THRONE OF BLOOD delivers next level supernatural shit.

    400 years from now – if we make it that far – Kurosawa will still own the idea that a group of people witnessing an event will have wildly different subjective experiences of that event and will tell conflicting stories about it. Pre-emptive hats off.

    For what it’s worth, and if you’re still working through that Kurosawa box set, my personal favourite of the non-samurai Mifune films is RED BEARD, which is deeply moving at the best of times, but I think may well speak particularly to our current moment and what it really means to care for the sick and the dying.

  5. Anyone interested in censorship/certification should check out the BBFC podcast series. They have an excellent episode on how Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth avoided an X certification.

    BBFC Podcast Episode 53 - Macbeth (1971)

    To mark 400 years since Shakespeare's death, we're using the podcast to delve into the files for some of his plays that were translated to the silver screen. In this episode we discuss Roman Polanski'

    Up to that point it had been standard practice to pass all Shakespeare movies with a U certificate!

  6. Vern, please go and see Polanski’s 1971 film of “Macbeth”!

  7. Borg9: our English teacher actually took us to the local art cinema in the early ’80s to see a rerun of Polanski’s MACBETH when I was … oh … maybe 13. I remember being surprised to see occasional glimpses of naked witches, but don’t remember being shocked by the gore. A pretty earthy movie, from what I remember.

  8. Thanks to Swedish Television I have seen a lot of Kurosawa over the years. I’m always a little hesitant to re-visit them, but once they get going I’m almost always pleasently surprised. This one I didn’t even remember seeing until Vern mentioned the ending with the Arrows.

  9. That’s very cool, Numpty. And it will teach me not to over-extrapolate from my own experience. Clearly there’s no classification reason why you can’t show Polanski’s Macbeth to schoolkids capable of reading the play meaningfully, but I just couldn’t imagine it happening, then or now. It’s the nudity we probably all remember, but I think the BBFC’s concerns were more the infanticide, regicide and attempted rape. The X certificate was largely dodged by Polanski abandoning plans for the on screen decapitation of Macbeth.

  10. Yeah, Polanski’s MACBETH was a staple of high school English classes when I was going through, though my class did King Lear that year instead, so we got Kurosawa’s RAN. Must have been the first Japanese film I ever saw. (And speaking of Kurosawa’s female villains, Harada Mieko is mesmerising in that as the film’s version of Edmund.)

  11. I can’t wait til you see Ikiru, Vern (if you haven’t already). It’s like Outlaw Vern dot com the movie, except municipal politics instead of film reviewing excellence.

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