Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
Throne of Blood (1957)
As if the stars of fate aligned, it turns out that Akira Kurosawa’s birthday was last week, and Toshiro Mifune’s birthday is this week. Thus, I have no other choice but to celebrate one of the many pairings between the iconic director and the master thespian. It just so happens to be my favorite.
If you haven’t seen Throne of Blood, you should stop reading this right now and go rent it. Or buy it. Don’t tell anyone you haven’t seen it or risk being mocked. Or, if you’re like Neil, write up an entire For Science entry about your nubile young discovery of Kurosawa (please don’t mock him too hard).
Birthday boy Mifune plays Washizu, a moderately ambitious warrior who, at the behest of his insane wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) kills his way to the top with more bloodshed hot on his heels. A spirit in the forest says he’ll never lose in battle unless the forest itself attacks him, Washizu grows increasingly mad with rage and power, and the fog of the mountain threatens to engulf everyone.
Holy Murder, this film is awesome.
I mean that in the full-on, classical sense of the word. Kurosawa’s version of “Macbeth,” this movie is the kind of movie that makes you pump your fist in the air after watching it and immediately want to see it again. I say this knowing full well the limitations that some modern audiences might have with a black and white film that they have to read. Those limitations don’t seem to matter here.
This is where Kurosawa’s genius comes in. The movie’s visuals are so startling that you might not even realize it’s in black and white. That’s not hyperbole. I sincerely mean that you might not even recognize or care that the film is in not in color. It’s a similar situation with the subtitles since 1) there isn’t a ton of talking in the film (another factor you’ll barely even realize) and 2) you could turn the subtitles off and still understand exactly what’s going on.
If Kurosawa sells you on the black and white, it’s Mifune and the rest of the cast that sells you on not needing those pesky subtitles. The acting here is of the highest caliber – which is a desperate necessity for the heavy subject they are tackling – and the cast conveys more with body language and facial expressions than most do with entire monologues. “Macbeth” is arguably Shakespeare’s best work, and the adaptation here which places the story in Feudal Japan has the added bonus of samurai swords and Eastern mysticism.
Although the entire movie is gorgeous, there are really three main scenes that you will lose your head over:
The first involves Washizu and Miki (Minoru Chiaki) riding through the forest. It seems simple enough, but in wanting to see them get lost in the fog, Kurosawa makes the audience lost with fast-paced, sweeping pan shots that still confuse me to this day. He explains how they were achieved on the Criterion edition, but even with that explanation, I’m baffled as to how the imagery ended up the way it did. It’s frantic and seemingly defies physics.
On that same front, Kurosawa moves an entire forest. The whole damned thing. This isn’t as mysterious as the previous scene, but the look of it is jaw-dropping.
And, of course, what might be the most famous sequence not only for its brilliance but for its notoriety, Kurosawa achieves an astonishing scene where arrows are being lobbed at Washizu in waves by asking Mifune to have real, live arrows lobbed at him in waves. When you have to have genuine fear in the eyes of your actor (please see above image), you gotta do what you gotta do.
The whole sequence of shots is spectacular, and when you see the way the arrows slam into the wooden walls, it’s obvious that the production was not messing around.
Shot on Mount Fuji and the surrounding areas, the production was reportedly a bit of a nightmare to endure, and the result reflects the arduousness of the task. It’s intense, hand-wringingly suspenseful, and the dramatic performances are some of the best that Kurosawa ever captured on film. Some of it – especially Mifune and Yamada – will make your blood freeze right in your veins.
(Although it begs the question that if you’re really getting arrows shot at you, and you might die, are you really acting at that point? But that’s another discussion for another day).
The story is fantastically adapted from the most best work of the most well known writer in Western history, the visuals are still confounding in our world full of impossible CGI, and the acting is breathtaking to match. If you haven’t seen it, you really owe it to yourself to check it out. And if you have seen it, you really owe it to yourself to watch it again.
After all, what better way to celebrate two master craftsmen on their birthday week than to check out this film? And then follow it up with Seven Samurai. And then The Bad Sleep Well. And then Red Beard. And then…
What? They made a lot of movies together.