I know I’ve slowed down the pace of my reviews these days – the knee rehab is taking a good deal of my focus, and we’re having a spot of technical trouble with the TV, so I have to try to watch all the DVDs on my laptop. But this time, the delay also came from a bit of a research rabbit hole with a detour through a college reunion, of sorts.
Throne of Blood was something of a passion project for director Akira Kurosawa, who read Shakespeare’s play Macbeth as a student and had long sought to film an adaptation. The chaotic world of medieval Scotland, where an ambitious nobleman could seize power in a flash by killing the king, reminded Kurosawa of Japan’s Muromachi period – a time when the Emperors’ own shogun often struggled with the Emperor himself for government control. At times the Emperor was in control, at times the shogunate – and at times both were in control, splitting the island between them and locking horns in a battle for yet more power. And that’s all before we get into the infighting amidst the shogun’s own subordinates for control of one town over another – or who might take over as shogun themselves.
Ironically, this war-torn period also saw the birth of some Japan’s most serene classical arts. Zen Buddhism flourished during this period, influencing art and culture in ways that encouraged minimalism and specificity, and a sort of “mindfulness” (as much as I hate to use that modern buzzword, it really is accurate). The classic Japanese tea ceremony was born during this time, as was ikebana, a specialized form of flower arrangement; kodo, a ritualized exploration of incense; and the tradition of creating Zen rock gardens. It also saw the rise of Noh theater, a heavily stylized form of theater involving elements of dance, mime, and the use of masks; and fittingly, Kurosawa drew heavily on Noh when adapting this work.
I’d learned a bit about Noh back in college, during a single theater history course, and had forgotten a good deal; but even so I was spotting Kurosawa using elements of Noh drama in his adaptation. This particularly stood out with the character of “Lady Asaji” (Isuzu Yamada), our tale’s version of “Lady MacBeth”; Lady Asaji is still a good deal of the time, and when she moves, it is usually with a slow deliberateness, forcing you to pay attention to what she’s doing. During the scene where she discusses a power grab with her husband Washizu (Toshiro Mifune), Washizu is charging about the room, professing his loyalty to their King, but Asaji sits completely still, her face absolutely motionless.
I’d expected to be intrigued by Kurosawa’s adaptation. I’ve read Macbeth plenty, and seen it done a handful of times, and in a handful of ways – from straightfoward productions to a Cyberpunk/Mad-Max style to an immersive theater piece; I even saw an adaptation that fused Shakespeare with the book Fast Food Nation (and insane as it sounds, it worked). But in all those cases the “bones” of the original play showed through, along with the words themselves in many cases. Here, it was the Noh that caught my eye – I wanted to know more about that specifically, or at least improve on what I dimly remembered from college.
As luck would have it, a former studio classmate, John Oglevee, went on to specialize in Noh to the point that he moved to Tokyo and co-founded Theatre Nohgaku, an international Noh troupe that performs both classic Noh works and original Noh style pieces in English (their Blue Moon Over Memphis is about an Elvis fan meeting his ghost; here’s a brief bit of it, with John as Elvis). When I wrote John explaining that I was curious about Noh after watching “a Kurosawa film” and asked for a web site he could recommend, he almost instantly wrote back: “oh, I bet you mean Throne of Blood, here’s a whole article on that.”
What astonished me is how it seemed many Noh elements were already there in the original play. The structure and pace of a Noh play seemed nearly synchronous with Shakespeare’s work (Kurosawa just had to cut a couple of scenes which Shakespeare likely only threw in for comic relief anyway). The Three Weird Sisters and the ghost of Banquo match up with Noh plays often featuring ghosts or demons. The masks of Noh were the most “novel” element here, and how Kurosawa was able to use their influence without using actual masks – particularly with Asaji’s expressions. During Throne of Blood’s take on Lady MacBeth’s sleepwalking scene, Asaji has her face fixed in a grimace that comes directly from a fukai style mask, which typically is used for a woman mourning some kind of loss. And as for Washizu, his face isn’t just Toshiro Mifune being Toshiro Mifune – several of his own expressions are also inspired by Noh masks, like this arresting reaction to his final mortal wound.
In a way, I wish I’d known even less about Noh when I first saw this, to see if I would have picked up on those elements before watching. But I’m more so intrigued by how well Kurosawa was able to fuse two very different theatrical traditions into a single piece.