Monday, August 21, 2006

Spider's Web Castle

(This is not a review or a critique of "Throne of Blood". I just wanted to write about a very minor aspect of the film. Go look up IMDB for reviews.)

While watching Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood" (or "Spider's Web Castle") recently, it struck me that almost none of the conversations between characters are filmed using reverse shots, or over-the-shoulder shots (by which I mean: when Character A talks to Character B, we see B's face from over A's shoulder and when B speaks, vice versa.)

Of course, this is by design. This theatre-like approach (AK wanted to shoot the film like a Noh theatre production) prevented me from taking sides with any character immediately. It also distanced me from the action in a way that I felt I could not intervene in these people's bloody lives and stop them from reaching their tragic conclusion. Which makes it even more tragic.

But the artist that Kurosawa is, during a critical point in the story (during the celebratory dinner sequence), he puts us in the shoes of a non-existent being for a few seconds. And what do we see? Mifune's eyes widening in disbelief and fear, as he sees the "ghost". The sudden removal of that carefully calculated distance gives us a close look at Mifune's guilty conscience.

And only then you feel truly sorry for that character.

"Throne of Blood" is not always faithful to "Macbeth" (which diminishes the complexity of Mifune's character) but Akira the Emperor always leaves you with at least one or two things that are simply unforgettable. For me, it's the sound of Asaji's silk kimono swooshing in the still of the night and the startling cry of the birds.

Here's a good essay on the film, if you want to compare "Macbeth" and "Throne of Blood".


anurag said...

I need to see more of Kurosawa. Ran was really good. You are right about some unforgettable things in his cinema. Ran has some marvelous flute pieces. Ran was also quite theatrical, but for good. I think Kurosawa said that Throne of Blood was the dress rehearsal for Ran.

GhostOfTomJoad said...

Nice one, KM

I haven't seen the film :-( but about this "reverse" shot, the intention could well have been what you've described here. However, most of the really great directors, unless it's a deliberate style they're adopting, believe in what are known as master shots, filming entire conversations or events in a single shot or, at any rate, with a minimum of cuts. Satyajit's Ray's film have this stillness and, if you've noticed, so does a film like Godfather. The quick or frequent cutting pattern is a more recent and modern malaise. We seem to believe, mistakenly, that it lends the film pace and keeps it snappy, thereby keeps the viewers' interest going.

km said...

Anurag: Yes, ToB is a dress rehearsal for Ran, but AK's dress rehearsals are other directors' epics :)

Ghost, I was hoping you would pitch in with some real expert comments :)

Another aspect of story-telling/cinematography that I realized is how Hollywood has cheapened close-up shots.

Someone like Ozu can shoot entire conversations without once cutting to any reaction. It was frustrating initially, but then I realized how brilliant the technique actually is.

(Of course, Bollywood is ALL closeups :))

Tabula Rasa said...

i'm in the middle of revisiting kagemusha right now, inspired by this post. the sad part of watching great cinema is that you get seduced by the story :-(

wildflower seed said...

Nice analysis, KM. In his book "The Films of Akira Kurosawa", Donald Ritchie offers up some very astute analysis of Kurosawa's choices (re. technique) for this film. I saw TOB for the first time back in the mid-'90s on Star Movies (they were doing a Kurosawa week). Time to watch it again, I think.

km said...

TR: so true. I was watching Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" again a few days ago and realized I had missed so many details.

VB, Ritchie does point out some amazing things about AK's visual compositions. For e.g., have you noticed the diagonal-line motif used in Rashomon?

Tabula Rasa said...

diagonal-line motif? please tell!

GhostOfTomJoad said...

KM: Yes, what is this diagonal-line motif?

TR: About being seduced by the story... isn't that the point? Technique, I think, is secondary, as should be anything else that deviates from the story, no?

vili said...

An interesting article! Definitely made me want to watch the film again, even if I have seen it about a gazillion and one times.

Anurag: I wouldn't personally call Throne of Blood a dress rehearsal for Ran. The films, I think, are very different from each other. One takes a Shakespearean play and makes it a Noh play while the other takes another Shakespearean play and turns it into a film epic. I couldn't say which one I like more. Ran, perhaps, is the one I would nominate as my "favourite Kurosawa film" if my life depended on picking just one, but Throne of Blood is the one I would rather watch if I had to watch one of them right now. Which is perhaps a bit weird, now that I think about it...

I agree with ghostoftomjoad (I hope I got that right): technique is secondary to the story. And I would argue that Kurosawa knew that, and it is exactly there where his brilliance lies. Within a single movie, he could offer the best of both the "entertainment" and "art house" (whatever that means) cinema, as well as social commentary.

km said...

TR, Ghost: According to Donald Ritchie, Kurosawa uses diagonal lines to "indicate" when a person is in opposition to something - the truth, a group of people, anything. This, and I am cringing at the use of the word, symbolizes divergence.

If you watch Rashomon closely, you will notice how diagonals and triangles fill up the frame. (triangles are not that hard to spot in Rashomon, actually - the film is filled with them.) I've noticed AK uses a similar technique in Yojimbo also.

I agree with Ghost in most parts and maybe all this is over-analyzing, but sometimes, visual clues are fun to observe. After all, film is a "visual medium" :)) Why restrict ourselves to enjoying only one dimension (i.e. plot or acting or story)?

Vili: Thanks, and I must say, your Kurosawa site is simply excellent.

GhostOfTomJoad said...

KM: I'll be looking out for this diagonal and triangle stuff the next time. It's interesting and, if you think about it, makes sense :-)

You know, every director (most, at any rate) will follow a certain technique in a given film. And, s/he need not be a Kurosawa to do that. Except, when Kurosawa does it, he can knock the pants off people :-)

Tabula Rasa said...

km: thanks for the clarification. like ghost, i'll have my eyes open for it next time.

ghost: yes absolutely, technique should be secondary. it should be invisible -- when you're not looking for it. i'd be more than a little annoyed if i didn't see any triangles in rashomon next time :-D

km said...

LOL, have we reduced AK and Rashomon to geometric shapes? :))

"How was Bergman?"

"Not enough Rhombuses in it"

Tabula Rasa said...

"better than 8 1/2, that was just a square."

bbats said...

Kurosawa said Kagemusha was a dress rehearsal for Ran, not Throne of Blood.