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« Throne of Blood's Best Shots - A Visual Index | Main | Throw Me to the Wolves »

Silent Chambers and Spider Webs in "Throne of Blood"

The first time I saw a Jackson Pollock in the flesh, I had to sit down, dumbfounded, in my attempt to take it in. I was staring at just one painting (and there were several) for a good 15-20 minutes before I had to force myself to move on. While the artist's famous splatter paintings seem random there's such an intricate hypnotic depth to them once you're in their presence, like it's possible to slip right inside them and get lost. Each flick of paint, every solid drop, on top of another streak and another spill gives the impression that the painting goes on for years underneath no matter which detail pulls your eye in.


I kept thinking of that Pollock painting - bear with me through this unexpected reference point - while watching Throne of Blood (1957)...

It's Akira Kurosawa's brilliant Japanese riff on Shakespeare's MacBeth. The more you look at each image the more it seems to offer, and Kurosawa employs brilliant depth of field through its visual chaos. That's especially true of Spider-Web forest where Lord Washizu (Toshirô Mifune) and his lifelong friend Miki (Minoru Chiaki) first encounter an evil spirit after getting lost in the woods. The spirit is not so much in an actual clearing but just in a magically overexposed layer of the woods which appears to be a break in the confusing thicket. Only it's not. The closer the warriors get to the spirit and its prophesies (which double as ambitious promises), the sooner their souls will be lost.


Enough cannot be said of the brilliant reprisals of this thick wooden chaos throughout the film, as with tree tops that appear to move like armies and the terrifying finale when arrows (surely carved from the same woods) come at Washizu from everywhere.

Yet for all of the mysterious violent foreboding courtesy of the film's exquisite deployment of nature throughout, and the theatrical lighting of cinematographer Asakazu Nakai (a Kurosawa regular), it's the corrupt nature of man that's most compelling. 

gold. my choice for best shot.

Even the birds cry ominously."

My favorite sequence in the film is between the soon to be Lord and his strategizing Lady (Isuzu Yamada) which is preceded with a short sequence in which a servant enters "The Silent Chamber" to prepare it for his masters. The room has not been used for some time because the former ruler, Lord Fijimaki, commited suicide right there and the stains would never come out. It's a creepy foreshadowing of Lady Macbeth's  "out damn spot" descent into madness. 

The servant's supersized matches (or are they miniature torches?) light this reveal of the space that everyone at Spider Web castle is already spooked by, the servants saying that the chamber never fails to send a chill down the spin. It's a simple but startlingly effective way of moving the leads beyond the point of no return and the film into its sick web of treasonous murders. The Lord and Lady will enter, separately, each unable to resist staring at Fujimaki's own splatter-painting, before making their fateful bloodsoaked decision. 

If you're looking for the glories of Shakespeare's word-play in your MacBeth adaptations, then Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa's interpretation  is not the wise path. But if you're looking for the glories of cinema and visual storytelling, pull up a chair. Or, rather, sink down like you're not even moving - ala  Lady Washizu in her kimono -- and watch this thing with awe. And a chill down your spine.

In a couple of hours we'll share the complete list of players in this week's best shot party

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Here's my entry:

April 26, 2016 | Unregistered Commentermagnificent obsession

Beautifully written.

April 26, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

That the room in which they plan the deed is painted with "coward's blood" as the servants call it, is one of my favorite details of the film. The scenes between Washizu and Lady Asaji are easily the highlight of the film, due in part to the great performances, but mostly due to how brilliantly they are staged and shot. I can't speak about the genius of staging this in the Noh tradition enough. Thanks for choosing Throne of Blood for this series!

April 26, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

lylee -- thank you. whenever i am deeply impressed with a movie i find it so hard to do justice and this movie was... WOW. I can't believe i hadn't seen it. it immediately vaults up to my favorite Kurosawa I think.

April 27, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I saw this once a few years ago and your description reminds me that I need to see it again with an eye toward all that layering. Thanks for bringing this unique, great film back into the conversation.

April 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

That was a beautifully written essay. I love Macbeth so this is a perfect place for me to start with Kurosawa. I wouldn't have thought of Pollack but I see what you are saying. This is one of those movies that practically every shot could be the best shot. Thanks for recommending it to me.

April 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRachel Wagner

I love that the same director could be such a genius in black and white and perhaps the director to use color in the greatest way, like ever?

Can you all remember a director that made such visually arresting movies in both color and back white? Only Kurosawa and Hitchcock can be this great.

April 27, 2016 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

cal: I'd toss Bunuel on that pile as well. Un Chien Andalou, Los Olvidados and Viridiana in black and white, Belle Du Jour, Tristana and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie in colour.

April 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

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