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
As most people know, this is Shakespeare's Macbeth rendered by Kurosawa into Noh format for cinema. Not for nothing is Akira Kurosawa regarded as Japan's greatest director, for this is the best cinematic version of any Shakespeare play (and also one of Kurosawa's best films). Kurosawa had the advantage of working in a different language (Japanese), so he didn't have to agonize over the usual dilemma - whether to use Shakespeare's rotund oratory and blank verse (which is glorious, but goes badly on screen). Kurosawa essentially translates Shakespeare's poetry into visual images, while keeping dialogue to a minimum. He also had the good fortune of accessing two great cultures - European literature and Japanese visual art (he was originally a painter before entering cinema as a set-designer). There are many painterly images reminiscent of Ukiyo-e (e.g. Washizu full of arrows).
The Noh style of acting (like Kabuki, but more refined) seems stilted and exaggerated for the first few minutes; then you realize that is ideally suited to a story like this - more natural acting would seem out of place, as other Macbeth-movies go to prove.
The Japanese title of this film translates as "Cobweb Castle" (or Spider City) and this really should have been the title in English. The film is full of the notion of spiders spinning webs (and plots) in secret. It is worth noting that the witch (or "monster") is first seen with a ghostly spinning-wheel. This symbolizes the thread of fate, but also reflects the cobweb theme.
The story is sometimes slow-moving, but you have to realize that this is a story of insidious slow rot (hence the references to spiders and cobwebs). The decay is punctured by occasional bursts of violent action, as befits the story. The black-and-white picture adds to the creepiness, and the atmosphere is so thick that the movie works more effectively than "Ran" (Kurosawa's more polished Shakespeare-adaptation).
Macbeth is the great-granddaddy of the entire horror genre, and Kurosawa is a worthy descendant.
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