Welcome to Film Frame Friday! This week was dedicated to La La Land to complement last week’s choice of Moonlight. At least that would have been the case if there wasn’t a certain film on my mind. Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 film Throne of Blood
Akira Kurosawa is a legendary director whom I am sure tops most cinephiles best director list. It was a no-brainer the director’s work would be featured in Film Frame Friday. The Japanese filmmaker was a genius behind the camera and most of his films are known for standout shots. Special shout out to Asakazu Nakai, the cinematographer of not just this film but numerous other Kurosawa films. I could write about how great the director is, and how his work changed the way cinema is viewed, but instead let’s look at the cinematic style of his 1957 film Throne of Blood.
Throne of Blood isn’t just a typical samurai film but an adaption of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Instead of medieval Scotland, the film takes place in feudal Japan. The film features powerful acting by Toshiro Mifune, but what makes it stand out among his work is an amazing atmosphere, and use of movement.
It’s a great adaptation of Macbeth, particularly in how it translates the dialogue of Shakespeare’s play into a spare visual style rather than relying on language. It jettisons anything that isn’t essential, and a number of key scenes actually play out off screen (enhancing its eerie stage-like quality). -Graham Austin, Filmera Writer
I will never forget the first time I watched Throne of Blood, how the gorgeous visuals, great use of the environment, and downright eerie atmosphere gave me goosebumps. Til this day I point people to this film out of his vast filmography simply because the camera work is outstanding.
How did Akira Kurosawa go about framing the scenes of this film? Simple, by using elements drawn from Noh.
Noh is a Japanese form of theatre that focuses on drama, dance, and music. Created in the 14th century, it is the oldest form of classical theatre in the world.
Noh theater is structured around song and dance. Movement is slow, language is poetic, the tone is monotonous, and costumes are rich and heavy. Plots are usually drawn from legend, history, literature and contemporary events. Themes often relate to dreams, supernatural worlds, ghosts, and spirits.
Noh is performed on a square stage with a roof that is supported at its four corners by pillars. All sides of the stage are open except for the back side which consists of a wall with a painted image of a pine tree. A bridge runs at an oblique angle off the stage for performers to enter the stage. Noh used to be typically staged outdoors, but recently modern indoor theaters have also become a common venue.
One key element of noh are the masks which the shite wears. They tell the audience what kind of character is being portrayed. Frequently used masks represent demons and spirits, as well as women and men of various ages. The masks are carved from blocks of Japanese cypress. Their three dimensional properties allow skilled actors to induce a variety of expressions with changes in head orientation.
Costumes consist of multiple layers and textures that create an effect of resplendent elegance but also a bulky, massive figure. Expressiveness is enhanced by props, most notably a folding fan. Closed, partly closed or open, the fan may represent any object as suggested by its shape and handling, for example a dagger or a lantern.
The facial expressions and makeup the characters displayed is an homage to Noh mask. Notice the layers of clothes the characters wear in the film, to give off a powerful yet still elegant demeanor.
Macbeth and Noh were a perfect match, and Kurosawa made excellent use of the environment to display the supernatural and dreamlike nature of the film.
It is difficult to believe Kurosawa originally only wanted to produce this film and not direct. Had he chosen to produce it we may have been robbed of some of the best fog and mist effects to ever grace cinema.
It was a very hard film to make. We decided that the main castle set had to be built on the slope of Mount Fuji, not because I wanted to show this mountain but because it has precisely the stunted landscape that I wanted. And it is usually foggy. I had decided that I wanted lots of fog for this film… Making the set was very difficult because we didn’t have enough people and the location was so far from Tokyo. Fortunately, there was a U.S. Marine Corps base nearby, and they helped a great deal; also a whole MP battalion helped us out. We all worked very hard indeed, clearing the ground, building the set. Our labor on this steep fog-bound slope, I remember, absolutely exhausted us; we almost got sick.- Akira Kursowa
Writing about this film made me appreciate the director even more and actually taught me a lot about the influences Noh had on this film, which Kurosawa says he prefers over Kabuki. I highly recommend this film, and it is the perfect entry point into the work of the legendary Akira Kurosawa. I am looking forward to writing another cinematography piece on his work in film.