The working relationship between director Akira Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune, which spanned 16 films and almost 20 years, from Drunken Angel (1948) to Red Beard (1965), was one of the most sustained and continually fruitful collaborations in the history of cinema. Though the popular image of Kurosawa is as a director of samurai films, his actual range was much wider and included contemporary dramas and literary adaptations, using sources as varied as Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky and Ed McBain. And though Mifune is best remembered as the larger-than-life, fearsome warrior caricatured by John Belushi on “SNL,” for Kurosawa he could be more restrained, neurotically modern, an aged paranoiac or a raw youth.
Starting on Monday, Sept. 2, the Detroit Film Theatre will show 12 of the Kurosawa-Mifune films, one on each consecutive Monday, until the grand finale, a weekend booking of what is generally considered the pair’s greatest achievement, 1954’s Seven Samurai (Nov. 15-17).
First up in the retrospective is 1957’s Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s transplantation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth to medieval Japan, where the ruthless savageness of the tragedy seems right at home. This is perhaps the director’s most stylized film, unreal on several levels, beginning with Mifune’s hyperintense performance as the ambitious warrior Washizu who, prodded by his wife, Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), rushes to fulfill his foretold fortune, while blind to its inevitable consequences.
Washizu never merely speaks, he exhorts — as if, despite his fierce demeanor and celebrated skill as a warrior, his true authority is lodged in the timbre of his voice, a raspy shout meant to announce that he’s the biggest badass in the room — or in the forest or the world. In a naturalistic setting this would seem like ludicrous scenery-chewing, but Kurosawa has set his black-and-white film in a world where evil spirits lurk in forests blanketed by improbable billows of smoke that obscure the pathways. The light-and-shadow arrangements of the interiors have an austerity that mocks the emotional turmoil of their inhabitants, suggesting a melding of Noh theater and German Expressionism.
A common complaint about Throne is that it’s too “theatrical,” that the characters seem one-dimensional and the settings too calculated for effect. But that’s pretty much the point: Kurosawa has taken Shakespeare’s play and has replaced its verbal poetry with a visual equivalent within which puppets of fate march to the beat of a mounting bloodlust. It’s tragedy stripped down and primal, and if you regret that there isn’t a scene where Washizu and Asaji sit down and have a post-battle chat about the high price of rice these days, then you’re not getting into the spirit of the thing.
The story follows the original plot with a few minor changes. Washizu and his companion-in-battle, Miki (Minoru Chiaki), have successfully squelched a rebellion against the lord of the Cobweb castle. Returning through a haunted forest, they encounter an evil spirit (standing in for Shakespeare’s three witches) who predicts imminent promotions for the two — and that Washizu will eventually become lord of the Cobweb castle and Miki’s son will be his heir. When the prophecy first begins to come true, Washizu is content to let fortune take its course, but his wife begins needling him and doing so in a way which is one of the movie’s more brilliant strokes. This particular Lady Macbeth is neither hysterical nor an ostentatiously scheming villainess; she’s a meek wife who speaks in a low monotone and rarely looks at her husband directly. But everything she says plays to Washizu’s fear that Miki will somehow screw up the prophecy, as well as to his growing paranoia, fueled by a sense of disorientation engendered by being in the grip of an evil spirit’s scenario.
Washizu’s hubris (his belief that he can manipulate what is already a fait accompli) leads him to a fatal sense of power and one of Kurosawa’s slyer sequences as he films the character from below, strutting on a balcony and bellowing his mad sense of infallibility to his followers, a parody of a modern dictator before the fall.
Throne of Blood is far from being one of Kurosawa’s best films — it’s too bloody-mindedly bitter — but it keeps hitting its one note effectively. It’s a long yowl of despair, artfully unleashed.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].