The unique vision of Akira Kurosawa

December 22, 2009

No version of Macbeth is complete without a creepy washing of the blood scene

The works of William Shakespeare have been an enduring challenge for film makers, providing ready-made scripts packed with drama, action and melancholy, all rendered in enchanting language.

It was an eventuality that Shakespeare was to be translated into other languages, and also begin to appear in non-English films. Some of these have tried to make a more dedicated effort to preserve Shakespeare's wonderful verses - other's have simply taken the story - often into another time and place than the original setting. Revered Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, affectionately called "Tenno" (Emperor) by his associates, took on the Shakespeare Challenge, and with stunning results.

The Emperor holds court - Akira Kurosawa during the filming of Ran

Two of the most breathtaking examples of Shakespeare reimagined are Akira Kurosawa's Ran and Throne of Blood. Ran was an adaptation of King Lear - and was one of Kurosawa's later projects - stunningly filmed in colour - with an epic scope rendered possible by the financial backing of Kurosawa devotees and Hollywood Champions George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.

Throne of Blood  is filmed in black and white, and features striking performances and visuals.  Based on Shakespeare's Macbeth it is an unforgettable film, both for its storytelling and acting. Toshiro Mifune plays the doomed Captain Washizu, and Isuzu Yamada is a chilling Lady Asaji - as good an interpretation of Lady Macbeth as you will see in any Royal Shakespeare Company performance.

Both of these films are set in Medieval Japan, the times of great Clans, Castles and Samurai - which is not too far a departure from the Kings and Courts of England or Scotland. No attempt has been made to directly translate Shakespearian language - instead dialogue, even gestures are performed in very stylised manner, derived from Traditonal Japanese Nogaku (Noh) and Kyogen theatre.

It features some haunting Japanese verse, delivered as an Introduction in Throne of Blood, translation taken from the Criterion Collection version

Look upon the ruins
Of the castle of delusion
Haunted only now
By the spirits
Of those who perished

A scene of carnage
Born of consuming desire
Never changing
Now and throughout eternity

Macbeth itself has a strong supernatural element, with the Three Witches who fortel Macbeth's unfortunate destiny. This transposes nicely to the Japanese setting, whose culture is equally replete with meddlesome demons and evil spirits influencing the lives of  men and women.

One of the more eerie scenes in Throne of Blood  is when Captains Washizu and Miki become lost in 'Cobweb Forest.' Beset by evil spirits, they attempt to charge through it on horseback, firing arrows into the sky to keep the spirits at bay.

They eventually come to a clearing, and find a spectral figure in a hut, spinning thread onto a wheel. It outlines the fates of the Captains, and sets the course of the tragedy that is to follow. The image of the Spirit spinning the thread has become iconic in Japanese film and TV, often appearing in a depiction of an evil spirit or seer in period dramas. The Spinning Wheel is a delightful visual metaphor for Time - as the Spirit describes what is to come, bringing together the strands of all event that have led up to that moment of prophecy.

As they approach the spirit, it is singing an eerie song, hinting at the death and destruction ahead....

Strange is the world
Why should men
Receive life in this world?

Men's lives are as meaningless
As the lives of insects
The terrible folly
Of such suffering.

A man lives but
As briefly as a flower
Destined all too soon
To decay into the stink of flesh
Humanity strives
All its days
To sear its own flesh
In the flames of base desire
Exposing itself
To Fate's Five Calamities
Heaping karma upon karma

All that awaits Man
At the end
Of his travails
Is the stench of rotting flesh
That will yet blossom into flower
Its foul odor rendered
Into sweet perfume.

Spirits are not an uncommon element of Kurosawa's work. An earlier film, Rashomon has a unique scene where a spirit medium is used to give the testimony of a dead Samurai in a murder trial.

Rashomon consistently makes critics'  "Top 50 films"  of all time, and features dazzling performance by Toshiro Mifune as outlaw Tajomaru and the cute and cunning Machiko Kyo as Masako. It is based on the fusion of two stories by Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa .

Rashomon can be read here -  it was Akutagawa's first published short story and provides some elements of the film, but it is his other (very) short story In a grove which makes for the guts of the film - it is a quick read and can be viewed here.

It is interesting to note that such was the powerful effect of this film that the term Rashomon effect has since officially entered the English vocabulary, after having initially been used by Anthropologist Karl G Heider in a journal article (American Anthropologist, March 1988, Vol. 90 No. 1, pp. 73-81 (pdf).)   The term encapsulates the subjective nature of perception and is more commonly used to denote 'unreliable narration'

Masako, played by actress Machiko Kyo- the beauty at the eye of the storm in Rashomon

The usual suspects - This mirthful production still is prophetic in the sense that the film The Usual Suspects largely uses the same dramatic structure as Rashomon

During the course of the trial, the testimony of each witness reveals shocking differences, outlining the motivations of each character. One of the testimonies presented put the cause of the murder as a gust of wind,where it was described that the bandit Tajomaru became entranced by Masako after a breeze revealed her face from behind a veil.

"Were it not for that breeze....I would not have killed him"

The testimony of the Spirit Medium is my favourite - allowing the spirit of the murdered man to speak through her. It is quite creepy and also reminiscent of Noh Theatre which itself is often set in the spirit world.

"Cursed be those who cast me into this hell of darkness...." - The dead man speaks

Machiko Kyo's performance in particular is quite outstanding, accentuating the different emtional drives that accompany each testimony. These two images give a nice taste of this:

Which one would you believe? - Machiko Kyo shines in Rashomon

It is also worth noting that Japanese cultural organisations have been feverishly working to restore Rashomon to as pristine a state as possible.

One of the original English release posters for Rashomon

Ran, whilst also a tragedy, takes a different tact to Macbeth, as does King Lear. There is less of a supernatural element, and instead the folly of Human Nature becomes the driving force that lead the characters to ruin. The role of  Lord Hidetora Ichimonji is played by Tatsuya Nakadai - who puts in a superlative performance as the deluded sovereign. His companion and Jester is one of the true stars, readily aware of the Kings foibles, yet loyal nonetheless. The story revolves around the King and his sons, who are named after and depicted with colour as metaphor.

Those who are not accustomed to Japanese period dramas may find the course of these films slow in places. Whilst both do contain action sequences, the dialogue is given the greatest respect and delivered in a measured and quiet style - in keeping with the ettiquette of the period, and the idioms of Japanese theatrical tradition. Due to its larger cast and budget, Ran is much more epic in scope, and contains some stunning visuals. For one climactic scence, the shell  of an entire castle was rebuilt on the slopes of Mt. Fuji

Most of Kurosawa filmography has been released on DVD by The Criterion Collection and are available from specialist distributors, including amazon. Bluray editions are imminent, having been released in Japan in 2009. 

Akira Kurosawa has since become a cultural icon for his contribution to film in Japan and his influence in Hollywood. After the immense successes of Rashomon, Seven Samurai (1954) and the Sanjuro films, from 1965 Kurosawa entered a negative phase that saw many failed projects.  The negative reviews originally garnered for the film Dodesukaden (1970)  led Kurosawa to attempt suicide. These early reviews were immensely short sighted and this film now ranks among of Kurosawa's (relatively) hidden gems.

Luckily for him, and fans of Cinema world wide, Kurosawa rallied from his depression and went on to complete his stunning catalogue of films. Western film makers became interested in his works from quite an early stage, deriving films from his own creations - Kurosawa's Seven Samurai was remade as The Magnificent Seven, Rashomon became The Outrage featuring Paul Newman. Yojimbo (1961), inspired A Fistful of Dollars - though as cool as Clint's rendition is - he wasn't a shade on Toshiro Mifune's cunning Sanjuro (a false name the Samurai conjured for himself meaning "Aged Thirty Years")

When it comes to playing the cool drifter, Toshiro Mifune makes Eastwood look like a lab geek

For those interested in learning more about Kurosawa, a free documentary is available for viewing or download at this link. It is a pleasantly watchable summary of Kurosawa's life and works, including commentary from key Hollwyood figures whom derived inspiration from his work.

There are several books which examine Kurosawa and his works, including an upcoming 2010 title - Akira Kurosawa: Master of Cinema written by Peter Cowie with a foreword by Martin Scorsese. However, no Kurosawa journey is complete without reading The Emperor and the Wolf  by Stuart Galbrath IV, which examines the intertwined careers of Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune.

If you've enjoyed this article and haven't seen a Kurosawa film yet.... do so! Any of the films outlined in this article are great places to start. To the sorrow of film goers world wide, Akira Kurosawa passed away in 1998, aged 88 - fortunately his legacy and significant body of works will give him perpetual reverence in the Cultural History of Japan, and International Cinema.

"Akira Kurosawa" - Every great Master signs their work


Dr. F said...


Just looked at your post on Kurosawa. I am also a big fan. I just showed Kurosawa's "Dersu Uzala," at our local Foreign Film Fest and everyone loved it. You ought to revisit it. The DVD version preserves the stunning photography, and the storm scene is fantastic.


Cyril said...

unexpectedly I found this post ...thank you for Kurosava tribute...He touched the deepest matter always ...One of the few great artists


Shardool said...

Just a correction, Sergio Leone's "Fistful of Dollars" was NOT a Hollywood movie. It was a spaghetti western. Hollywood had nothing to do with Sergio Leone movies.

Unknown said...

Good point! I've tweaked that to describe "western film makers" not Hollywood per se :) I recall reading Leone used to watch Yojimbo while developing the script for "Fistful" - it turned out nicely for Kurosawa, who made more from his successful copyright claim against the movie than he ever did for Yojimbo.

Welcome to 3PP Shardool.


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