Tuesday, March 16, 2010

My top movies of all time - #2

Throne of Blood (1957, Akira Kurosawa)
I've written about Throne of Blood before and why I love it so much, so I'll just add a few of my feelings. Kurosawa was a huge fan of Shakespeare, but often found him to be "too wordy". So his adaptations of Shakespeare's work are never directly from the text. His first, and best, is his adaptation of MacBeth, 1957's Throne of Blood. Like Ran, his adaptation of King Lear, Kurosawa transplants the action to feudal Japan. It stars Toshiro Mifune in the MacBeth role, here called Washizu. The movie is dripping with atmosphere, it's almost oppresively foreboding. The 3 witches from the famous opening of the play are replaced with a single spirit here, and it's much creepier than any interpretation I've ever seen. They somehow altered the actor's voice to give it a ghoulish deepness, with an almost metallic tone to it. It's very effective when combined with the eerie score and nightmarish forest setting. Mifune is a good deal more subtle in his performance here, there are some over-the-top outbursts, but mostly he internalizes Washizu's struggle. It's a brilliant performance, although arguably not even one of his two best. Really that's his fault for being so consistently brilliant though.

The most famous sequence of the movie is the finale, where instead of dying in a duel, as in MacBeth, Washizu perishes in a hail of arrows in a scene that might be my favorite from any Kurosawa movie (I'm not giving anything away, it's an adaptation of a Shakespeare tragedy, of course the protagonist dies). Washizu is able to dodge many of the arrows, some only inches from his head, but he's not able to dodge them all. Someone once told Toshiro Mifune that his acting in the sequence was terrific, that he actually seemed scared. Mifune replied that he was terrified, that Kurosawa had people shooting real arrows only 2 feet or so from his face. He said he was not really acting at all. Whatever he was doing, it works. And the culmination of the scene is an image burned into the brains of many a film fan. It's not hard for me to love such a wonderful movie. Samurai movies are like American westerns, typically staid exercises in variation on a "one man against them all" kind of formula. But sometimes filmmakers come along to challenge those conventions and give us something really special. Throne of Blood is a great example of exactly that happening.

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