It is generally easier to decide which directors to include in any top 100 than which film would best represent them. Akira Kurosawa, who died last year, looks likely to remain by far the best-known Japanese director, while others as great or even greater, such as Mikio Naruse, Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, are known only to cineastes.
But which film should one choose to typify his art? Most would say either The Seven Samurai, the epic that inspired John Sturges’s popular but lesser The Magnificent Seven; Rashomon, the film that so amazed the West at the Venice Festival of 1951 with its versions of a murder as described by different witnesses; or Living, the elegiac story of a civil servant dying of cancer, who tries to find a meaning to his life by building a children’s playground in a slum area.
Each of these is a masterwork,and there are others. But my choice remains 1957’s Throne Of Blood, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that turned ‘the Scottish play’ into a ravishingly visual exploration of the warrior traditions of Japanese myth. It was, for what it’s worth, TS Eliot’s favourite film. The drama is presented with stark economy, its words subservient to the slow exposition of its plot, and the characterisation admittedly less subtle than Shakespeare’s. But I doubt the Bard would have turned in his grave. Kurosawa’s parallel eloquence matches Shakespeare’s so completely that it even outshines that of Verdi’s musical version.
Right at the beginning we watch Kurosawa’s Macbeth (here called Washizu and interpreted by Toshiro Mifune, his favourite leading man) and his friend Miki riding through the misty, rain-soaked pine forests before his meeting with the witch (the director allows us only one).
When they return, we are not sure at first where we are, even as observers. The pair ride 12 times towards the camera before turning away, as if inhibited by some unseen obstacle. Finally they reach the plain from which they see the warlord’s castle. It is a daring coup the like of which I have never seen before or since, and as perfect a series of tracking shots that have ever been devised.
But the technique doesn’t draw attention to itself, except in terms of its dramatic impact, and nor does it when Washuzi watches as Cobweb Forest (Birnam Wood) looms nearer and nearer to the castle or when, at the end, wooden arrows from the avenging army virtually crucify him again and again.
The film alternates a deathly stillness with crescendos of such violent action, and gains from its relationship not just to the bones of Shakespeare but to the tenets of Noh drama. The mask-like white face of Asaji (Lady Macbeth) seems to make her into a ghost long before she is driven into madness, while the panic of Miki’s horse before the off-screen murder of his master, the sudden invasion of the throne room by a flock of birds, and the slow funeral procession advancing on the castle gates look like prophecies of the Macbeths’ inevitable doom.
Kurosawa has been both criticised and praised for being the most Western and thus comprehensible of Japanese directors. The criticism is that his work is somehow not properly Japanese. And it is certainly true that the Japanese at one time rejected it, accusing Kurosawa of being too much in thrall to outworn traditions.
The criticism, and his abortive efforts to continue working, caused him to attempt suicide in 1971. In the end he was able to continue with the help of Spielberg, George Lucas and others who saw in him a kind of Eastern David Lean. More than most of Kurosawa’s numerous films, Throne Of Blood shows that although the director digested many Western influences – including training as a painter at a Western art school, and an abiding admiration for John Ford – he was as much a product of his own culture as Mizoguchi (whom he acknowledged as his master).
As a piece of cinema, however, Throne Of Blood defeats categorisation. It remains a landmark of visual strength, permeated by a particularly Japanese sensibility, and is possibly the finest Shakespearean adaptation ever committed to the screen.