After securing a major victory on the battlefield, Taketoti Washizu and one of his commanders, Yoshiaki Miki, find themselves lost in the maze-like Spider's Web forest. They come across a spirit-like seer who tells them of their future: both have been promoted because of their victory that day; Washizu will someday be the Great Lord of the Spider's Web castle while Miki's son will someday rule as Great Lord as well. When they arrive at the castle, they learn that the first part of the prophecy is correct. Washizu has no desire to become Great Lord but his ambitious wife urges him to reconsider. When the current Great Lord makes a surprise visit to his garrison outpost, Washizu is again promoted to commander of his vanguard but his wife reminds him of the danger that comes with the position. As pressure mounts, Wahizu takes action leading to its inevitable conclusion. Written by
Throne of Blood is, in fact, ambitious as a film as well as in its meaning. It suggests that ambition, when based on whimsical motivation, can sometimes lead to the destruction of very close relationships, and even one's own ruination. Throne of Blood begins with a series of messengers bringing news to their daimyo about an invasion of North Castle by the Fujimaki, which is led by an enemy samurai named Inui. The invasion is broken and then bravely retaliated against by two armies which are led by two samurai, Washizu and Miki. As they are returning to the daimyo, they come across a ghostly spirit in the woods, who predicts leadership positions to be attained by each of them that very day. These predictions come true to the last detail, which sets off a destructive chain of events.
Miki becomes the leader of Fort One, as predicted, and Washizu becomes the leader of the North Castle, as predicted, but it is also predicted that Miki's son will rule North Castle after Washizu, which causes problems later in the film. Despite their good fortune, Miki and especially Washizu must keep their encounter with the fortune-telling spirit in the woods a secret because, if word gets out, Washizu is likely to become endangered because people will want him dead out of suspicion that he will try to kill Yoshiteru, Miki's son, to keep him from taking over Washizu's position. In an effort to prevent any of this, Washizu decides to name Yoshiteru as his heir, but Asaji, his wife, forbids this, saying that she is pregnant. It is Asaji who pressures Washizu into having Miki killed so that he can be the sole ruler of all of the provinces, but when this happens, the other castles turn against him and seek to avenge the leaders who have been killed under his orders. In the end, he is killed by his own army, which has lost all faith in him and has also turned against him.
There was a very interesting use of symbolism in Throne of Blood that is worth pointing out here. From literally the beginning to the end of the film, the setting is covered in thick fog. One scene that comes to mind that quite clearly communicates the meaning of this fog is early in the film, just after Washizu and Miki saw the spirit in the woods, and had their futures revealed to them. As they are riding out of the woods and back to the castle, they begin to cross large, flat plains that are covered in this stiflingly thick fog. There is literally a couple of minutes of footage of them riding their horses into the fog, then back toward the camera, then into the fog in another direction, and then back toward the camera, and so on. This fog seems to symbolize a natural inability to see ahead, or to see the future, as it were. This technique is especially effective this early in the film because much of the two men's decisions later in the film are founded on what the spirit told them, yet the fog symbolizes a type of foreshadowing that suggests that this premonition cannot be correct.
Throne of Blood is also structured in a very unique way. The film starts off showing a desolated castle, as well as its surroundings, in which there is a sizeable gravestone marking a burial site. While this is being shown, there is a song being sung by an unseen choir about a brave warrior who once ruled this now-deserted castle, but who was `murdered by ambition.' At the end of the film, we see this same montage, and the same song is heard, and this is where we learn that the gravestone marks Washizu's burial site.
Kurosawa used different camera techniques to communicate parts of the story or to emphasize it in various ways much more than he did in other films, like Ran, Kagemusha, and High and Low. One particularly noteworthy example occurred late in the film, as Washizu is standing over his army. Washizu stands on an elevated walkway, and his army is crowded on the ground below, looking up at him. There is a low angle shot from amidst the men, and while Washizu is small in the shot itself, he is high above the other men, looking down at them, and they are all looking up at him in unison. However, it would seem that, rather than use this shot to convey a sense of superiority or of dominance, Kurosawa probably meant to emphasize his position of power, because this is the scene in which his army turns against him and he is shot with dozens of their arrows. The low angle shot would contradict Washizu's descent into madness if it was meant to show superiority, but to emphasize his position of power at this point in the film, it makes his downfall much more dramatic.
This is usually not the case with Akira Kurosawa, but Throne of Blood reflects more of a formalistic style of direction. For example, his use of high and low angle shots, as well as the extensive symbolic use of the fog, suggest more formalism here than realism. Besides that, and probably more obviously, is the way that the strange spirit in the woods was presented. She was in a radiantly lit hut in the middle of the dark woods, and Washizu's encounter with several other spirits later in the film was presented among an extensive use of cutting and editing. The extensive use of very long takes and slow action seen in Ran and Kagemusha is definitely seen here, but not nearly as much. There are scenes in which these long takes are seen, but in addition to them there can be found many more short takes and highly edited sequences, which were largely absent from the previous films. But having done this with the same skill, Kurosawa has fashioned another samurai masterpiece.
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