In Medieval Japan, an elderly warlord retires, handing over his empire to his three sons. However, he vastly underestimates how the new-found power will corrupt them and cause them to turn on each other...and him.
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
Washizu is a brave samurai who helps his lord to fight off a violent rebellion. Washizu and his friend Miki are riding through Cobweb Forest when a spirit appears to them and makes predictions which fire their ambitions. When Washizu explains this vision to his wife Asaji, she urges him to murder his lord and rule in his stead. Thus the tragedy begins.
Kurosawa's interpretation of Macbeth is visually fascinating. Swirling mist, colossal trees dripping with rain, rich black volcanic soil and bulky fortress architecture provide the imposing, dread-laden backdrop against which the humans move in superbly stylized patterns. The director chose to shoot the action on Mount Fuji precisely because of the volcanic soil - and even had truckloads brought to the studio for pickup shots.
Westerners unfamiliar with Noh are missing a huge part of the film's meaning. This thousand-year-old theatrical tradition corresponds broadly to our Elizabethan Tragedy, and Kurosawa shows how the two cultural strains, eastern and western, interlock and interact. The one illumines the other.
The Noh stage must have on it three pine branches and a symbolic Shinto temple-arch. In the film, shots are carefully composed to include tangles of branches in the foreground, and the vast entrance gate of Washizu's fortress serves for the temple arch. And yet Kurosawa is not including these details redundantly, for mere form's sake - the ubiquitous branches, framing the human action, remind us all the time of the forest nemesis awaiting Washizu. The arch is Washizu's interface with the world - open in the early stages, but gradually less so as the protagonist retreats into his own diseased inner self.
A Noh play features a "doer" (Shite) and a "companion" (Waku) who plays a subordinate role. Washizu and Asaji are the Shite and Waku respectively. Elements in the Noh include a battle-drama (we get one here) and a so-called "wig drama", in which a female character dominates the action. This is the central portion of the film, in the quiet of the fortress quarters, when Asaji ruthlessly manipulates her husband's ambition. Every Noh play has a ghost which appears to the Shite, and the spirit in the forest fulfils that function. Noh plays are never original works, in that (by a venerable convention) they are re-workings of ancient legends. Kurosawa follows tradition by quarrying his tale from Shakespeare's play.
There is no western term to describe the stylized striking of poses so important in Noh. Our word "dance" is a crude word which approximates to, but does not convey, the grace of the Japanese art-form. Asaji, alone with the blood-stain, gives us a glimpse of this delightful ritual.
Finally, Noh contains an aural richness almost totally absent from western tragedy - the complex rhythms of stamping and percussion which accompany the spoken word. In the film, the rhythmic patterns of horses' hooves on soil, and Washizu's bare feet on the boards of the banquet hall, are meant to reinforce the mood as they creep into our emotions by subliminal insistence.
Isuzu Yamada is terrific as Asaji. Her stillness absolutely oozes determination, contrasting strongly with her husband's hollow bluster.
It seems that Kurosawa cherished the concept of a Noh Macbeth for some years before committing it to celluloid. Apparently the project had to be scrapped in 1952 because Welles' Macbeth was nearing completion, and Kurosawa did not want the two films to suffer by being endlessly compared. This version, then, had to wait until 1957 to be realised.
The director is not afraid to add his own flourishes to the well-known story. We hear of the notorious traitor Fujimaki who disembowelled himself in a room of the fortress. The exact spot is now known as the Forbidden Room, a place of evil omen with its indelible bloodstain on the floor. It is a symbol which encapsulates the spirit of the film, interweaving the related themes of treachery, blood and guilt. In a brilliant transition, we are taken to a change of scene by the ripping down of a banner by galloping horsemen. Washizu at the pinnacle of his arrogance is filmed from below with severe foreshortening, conveying his vainglory more effectively than words ever could. The death scene, with its railing, hysterical protagonist and relentless volleys of arrows (their grouped shafts recalling the fateful forest) has enormous power and lives long in the viewer's memory.
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