Friday, 10 February 2012

Shakespeare on Film: Akira Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood" and "Ran"

            This ia an essay I did for a film class in 2010
Akira Kurosawa’s films Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1985) are quite dissimilar at first glance. Throne of Blood is from the 1950s, photographed in black and white, and is in the academy ratio (1:33:1). The film is also very foggy in terms of the weather onscreen. In contrast, Ran is from the 1980s, photographed in colour, and filmed in the scope ratio (2:35:1). In fact, the film is quite colourful despite its dark tone. Despite these dissimilarities the films are also quite similar. The most important similarity is how they are both based on plays by William Shakespeare. Throne of Blood is based on Macbeth and Ran is based on King Lear, even though Kurosawa did not start out writing the film as an adaptation of King Lear. Another important similarity between the two films is the fatalistic qualities. There are two scenes in Throne of Blood and Ran that emphasize the fatalistic qualities of the films and which are not present in Shakespeare’s plays. In Throne of Blood it is the final sequence in which Lord Taketori Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) is killed by his own soldiers’ arrows. In Ran, it is the sequence in which the castle that Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) goes to after being betrayed by his two sons is attacked by those same sons. These two sequences give the viewer the feeling that within the worlds of these films chaos is an agent of fate; because of Kurosawa’s visual strategies and also the reasons behind these events.

Both Macbeth and King Lear have fatalistic elements, which are accentuated by Throne of Blood and Ran. Macbeth’s rise to the throne of Scotland and eventual downfall are prophesized by the three Witches. These developments provoke the audience to think about the role of fate in the play. There is a question of whether or not Macbeth has a choice or if he is trapped in the web of fate.  Judith Buchanan, in her book Shakespeare on Film, believes Throne of Blood makes clear the ambiguous nature fate plays in Macbeth because of the opening and closing chorus:
The framing of the narrative by coolly uninvolved retrospective comment at its opening and close generates a sense of inevitability about the drama that plays out within its bounds. Moreover, nothing occurs between these end-markers to destabilise the sense of inevitability. Washizu, the samurai reincarnation of Macbeth, is caught within a prescribed fate already written into the history books and narrated in ballads [...] The ambiguity sustained in the Shakespeare play is resolved in Kurosawa’s film. Washizu’s fate, as the forest spirit makes clear and the ensuing action confirms, is not his to determine.  (74-75)
In King Lear the role of fate is more ambiguous than in Macbeth. Nevertheless, the audience, as with Macbeth, is asked to think about fate and how it plays into Lear’s choice. His banishment of Cordelia at the beginning seems like a choice which is like a domino effect, setting in motion practically everyone’s tragic fate. At one point in the play the blinded Gloucester says: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods, / They kill us for their sport” (IV.i.36). This scene is paralleled at the ending of Ran. The Fool character in Ran, Kyoami (Peter), curses the Gods for what he believes they have done. While the Kent character, Tango (Masayuki Yui), refutes the Fool’s curses one still has the feeling that fate does play a factor in the film; especially when one considers the shots of the heavens during the castle sequence, which imply that some unearthly force is behind these chaotic events.

                Not only is fate a crucial factor in these two films but so is chaos, especially the idea of chaos as an agent of fate. Kurosawa uses a number of visual techniques to suggest this idea. The most elaborate visual technique in each film is the location of a castle as the place where chaotic events take place. The reason why the location of a castle relates to this idea is because Washizu and Hidetora find it very hard to escape these locations, though Hidetora eventually succeeds whereas Washizu fails. In these two sequences chaos attacks in a place that at first seems like a refuge but eventually becomes a trap.

                Kurosawa trained as a painter and, as Stephen Prince recounts in The Warrior’s Camera: the Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, many of the images in Ran are based on paintings drawn by Kurosawa when he did not believe he would ever make the film (32). This painter sensibility makes the visual style of Ran and Throne of Blood very arresting. The idea of these castles being traps is emphasized by Kurosawa’s compositional style, which comes out of his painterly sensibility. Take for instance the arrow sequence. The shots are kinetic because of the rapidly fired arrows and Washizu’s frantic movement but the camera does not move very much. This intensifies the claustrophobia of the situation. The camera is frequently up close in this sequence, which also adds to the feeling of claustrophobia. The fact that the film is in the academy ratio make the shots feel even tighter. The compositional style, the closeness of the camera, and the added closeness of the academy ratio contribute to the effect of fate closing in at a place of supposed safety.

In contrast to the closeness of the camera in the arrow sequence from Throne of Blood, the camera is more distant in the castle sequence from Ran. The distance the camera keeps from the chaos in this sequence gives the audience a feeling that the events are being viewed from an unearthly presence as they are happening. There is also the possibility these events have already happened and are being viewed from the present. The fact that the camera, as in Throne of Blood, is mostly static can also give the audience this feeling of events being viewed from Heaven. Another element of the scene that supports this view, which was mentioned in passing earlier, is Kurosawa’s insertion of shots of the heavens between the chaotic images. As Donald Richie recounts in The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Kurosawa once said that he viewed Ran as human events viewed from heaven (Richie, 214).

The shots of sunlight coming through the heavens are in contrast with the fog in this scene.  This is another visual technique Kurosawa uses in order to emphasize this theme of chaos. Throne of Blood is in black and white and Ran is in colour but both use the visual technique of fog. Director Sidney Lumet mentions the fact that despite the dark material the film is in fact very colourful (“An appreciation”). Ran itself almost becomes black and white through the use of fog and flushed out colour in this sequence. The fog provides a strong contrast with the colourful nature of the film itself, which emphasizes this idea of chaos as an agent of fate. The fog, like fate, surrounds the characters, ensnares them, and the fog appears once Hidetora has made too many poor decisions. The partial use of fog in Ran is also in contrast with the constant use of fog in Throne of Blood. Ritchie says of Throne of Blood’s visual style:

There is a visual sameness which enforces the visual style. It always rains. There is always fog and wind. The only two scenes where the sun is allowed to shine are, first, at his mansion where Washizu still has a chance, and- second-when he is leading his men, and may still turn back (120).

The constant use of fog in Throne of Blood creates a dark, fatalistic world. The contrast between the constant use of fog and the brief use of sunlight, in contrast to Ran, provides a contrast necessary to suggest the presence of fate in this world.  Also, in a dramatic context, wind and rain are the kind of weather one could associate with chaotic events.

In both these sequences Washizu and Hidetora look out a window and see fate closing in. Washizu sees that “Birnam wood comes to Dunsinane” and Hidetora sees Taro and Jiro out of separate windows. Washizu hides in the corner, similar to the sequence with the ghost of Miki (Akira Kubo). This image of Washizu in the corner is another way Kurosawa emphasizes the claustrophobia of the situation, especially when taken with the idea that the moving forest is the sign of his downfall.  Kurosawa’s compositional style is again demonstrated when these two characters, Washizu and Hidetora, look out of windows. Kurosawa also uses composition in these films to suggest a sense of order. In Throne of Blood a symmetrical visual style is mostly used in the scenes that deal with the non-spiritual world. Kurosawa also uses this visual style in the first scene with the forest spirit (Chieko Naniwa) and in the final sequence. There is something symmetrical to these images of the window and the moving forest. The entire forest seems to move in harmony within a symmetrical shape, which is the window. Kurosawa gives chaos a sense of order, of being an agent of fate. This symmetrical visual style is also found in the castle sequence from Ran. Hidetora looks out both windows and sees a son’s army out of each one. Again, Kurosawa is giving order to chaos. Also, as Buchanan notes, in the sequences from Throne of Blood and Ran Kurosawa gives a sense of order to groups of people.

The bristling, quivering mass of the soldiers parting like a sea to let Hidetora through is almost a signature scene for Kurosawa [...]  In Throne of Blood, when Washizu addresses his massed army near the end of the film, the men shuffle uncomfortably, causing their banners to flutter. Once again it is the tiniest of individual movements that generates the drama of the collective effect- expressive on this occasion of a collective scepticism in the face of their leader’s hollowly triumphalist talk. (84)

The movement of the soldiers in Throne of Blood Ran give a sense of order to these chaotic events. In gives these a soldiers a sense of unity. In Throne of Blood the uncertainty of the soldiers eventually leads to a collective strike against their master. In terms of emphasizing chaos as something ordered these are not both visual and dramatic techniques.

The films use dramatic and thematic techniques to complete the idea of chaos as an agent of fate. This completion of the theme can be supported by discussing why the events in these two scenes are happening. The final scene of Throne of Blood, the arrow sequence, is chaotic yet there is a purpose to why this chaos is happening. Washizu is impaled by arrows because it is a suitable fate for him. He killed his lord and by the end of the film he is killed by his own men. He is also killed because of the moving forest, which is the sign of his downfall. He is too proud to believe what the forest spirit tells him about the forest moving. By the time the forest begins to move it is too late for Washizu to escape his fate. The moving forest is what leads his men to kill him. In a dramatic twist of fate it is not the actual forest which causes his downfall, but the reaction of his men to the moving forest.

In Ran, the besieging of the castle occurs after Hidetora has given up his power to his two treacherous sons, Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) and Taro (Akira Terao), and after he has shown his frailty towards them. In King Lear, after Lear is humiliated by his daughters Goneril and Reagan, he goes out into the storm. In Ran, the final cause of Hidetora’s madness is in the castle sequence. The reason why this scene is included is that it reflects Hidetora’s past. Kurosawa once said he was troubled by the lack of the past in King Lear:

“What has always troubled me about King Lear is that Shakespeare gives his characters no past. We are plunged directly into the agonies of their present dilemmas without knowing how they came to this point” [...] “How did Lear acquire the power that, as an old man, he abuses with such disastrous effects? Without knowing his past, I’ve never really understood the ferocity of his daughters’ response to Lear’s feeble attempts to shed his royal power. In Ran I’ve tried to give Lear a history. I try to make clear that his power must rest upon a lifetime of bloodthirsty savagery. Forced to confront the consequences of his misdeeds, he is driven mad. But only by confronting his evil head on can he transcend it and begin to struggle again toward virtue.” (Cardullo, 125).

Throughout the film the audience learns that Hidetora was a brutal conqueror.  Lady Kaede’s (Mieko Harada) father and brothers were murdered by Hidetora after she married Taro. Hidetora also killed the family of Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki), Jiro’s wife, and blinded her brother, Tsurumaru (Mansai Nomura), whom he meets again after the castle sequence. Lady Kaede now resides with Taro in her family castle. In one scene she mentions to him that they are in the same room where her mother took her life. In the castle sequence Hidetora sees his concubines commit suicide, which reminds the audience of Lady Kaede’s mother. This scene is present because in this scene Hidetora sees the same kind of carnage he caused when he was younger. This event must happen in order to show Hidetora the error of his ways and, as Kuorsawa says, move towards virtue.

The theme of chaos as an agent of fate is emphasized by the claustrophobic surroundings of Throne of Blood’s finale and the castle sequence from Ran. The shots of the heavens in Ran give the audience a feeling that these events are being watched by an unearthly presence. This theme is completed by the reasons behind these events. Washizu betrays his master and is too confident that he cannot be defeated. Ultimately, the moving forest, something Washizu cannot think will happen, turns his men against him. Hidetora must see the same type of carnage he unleashed in his younger years, and to work towards being a better man, which is why the castle sequence is so important to that character. Kurosawa was troubled by the lack of the past in King Lear. In Ran he does give Hidetora a past, and by doing so provides an answer, in this context at least, to Lear’s claim that “I am a man / More sinned against than sinning” (III.ii.56-57). Kurosawa says this is not true and by doing so the film seems to speak volumes about King Lear, ones that in the play were hardly spoken.

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