In the years following WWII, the American military sought to eradicate all trace of Japanese military tradition and, around the same time, tested atomic bombs in the Pacific Ocean. This testing resulted in the deaths of several Japanese fishermen. The Japanese grew in their resentment. A fundamental quality of the Japanese military tradition was the use of bushido, or the samurai code of ethics. Furthermore, this code was and still is an important factor in Japanese culture so by attempting to remove this from Japan, the American military was, in effect, attempting to eradicate a core element of Japanese culture. Kurosawa's Throne of Blood mirrors this socio-political conflict thematically and technically; in doing so it examines the destructive nature of mankind as a whole.
The proximity of Japanese culture and military within Bushido warrants a thorough examination. Bushido is a philosophy composed of several other philosophies including Taoism, Buddhism, and Shintoism. One side effect of having multiple source philosophies is the presence of paradoxes. One such example is that Bushido stresses loyalty and duty to one's family or overlord while also demanding one's responsibility to make morally “right” decisions (Parker, 510). What is the cultural significance of these paradoxes? In the years leading up to WWII, the emphasis on loyalty and duty was exploited for militaristic ends. Kurosawa's attitude towards Bushido seemed to be ambivalent though he disagreed with certain aspects such as its regimentation and brutality (Parker, 509). In Throne of Blood, Kurosawa examines the significance of the breakdown of this code in addition to examining the code's paradoxes.
Kurosawa is often called the 'most Western' of Japanese directors but considers himself “the most Japanese” of directors (Parker, 508). In the case of Throne of Blood, Western influences appear on several levels; strong wind is reminiscent of American Westerns while the story is based on Shakespeare's MacBeth. However, in his adaptation, Kurosawa utilizes Western influences within a Japanese framework (Noh theater) to focus on the collapse of the samurai code, a phenomenon that is distinctly Japanese.
There is a stylistic contrast within the film. Kurosawa draws heavily from the traditional Noh theater, saying that it, “is the real heart, the core of all Japanese drama” (Richie and Mellen, 117). The actors' make-up is reminiscent of the masks worn by Noh actors. The cinematography is largely static which transforms locations (rooms in the Cobweb castle, or the evil spirit's forest hut) into stages. The characters are in primarily wide shots making them appear as if they are actors on a stage. A common thread in these scenes is the emphasis on the individual or socio-political issues. When Washizu (Mifune) and his wife (Yamada) enact the plan to kill his daimyo, for example, the style is very Noh: the murder occurs off screen, we watch Lady Washizu whose make-up resembles the shakumi mask, and hear the nohkan (the Noh flute). Their murderous plot is a rejection of the Bushido's call for both loyalty and for moral decisions. However, the decision to commit murder wasn't reached by Mifune strictly out of a desire for power. His wife pointed out his natural, and understandable, fears. She says that if Miki (Kubo) goes to the daimyo and explains the foretelling of the evil witch, the daimyo would probably kill Washizu. It is a realistic possibility which motivates Washizu to kill just as much out of self-preservation as it is a hunger for power.
One important quality of Noh theater is the emphasis on the universality of its subject matter. That is, the audience isn't supposed to relate to the characters lest we “...lose spiritual transcendence” (Parker, 512). As Parker also notes, such a style has received harsh criticism from some Shakespearean critics who find the result distancing “emotionally unsatisfactory” (512). This indicates the level to which Kurosawa has adapted the play by making it distinctly Japanese. By presenting a classically Japanese social issue, the breakdown of Bushido, within the context of Noh theatre, Throne of Blood resonates with the issues of identity felt by post-WWII Japan. The film ponders the physical and metaphysical implications of rejecting the supposed social order.
Sequences which involve nature or the supernatural mark a departure from Noh to something more dynamic. Tracking shots are the most characteristic detail. As Washizu and Miki ride through the cobweb forest, for example, the camera smoothly follows their movements. This movement coupled with the spider-web like branches between the actors and the camera causes the audience to relate to the forest (Parker, 515). By forcing us to relate to the forest, we lose the impartiality of Noh to be entangled in the cinematography and action on screen. This suggests another level of conflict between film and Noh theater.
This film is noted as being a completely cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare's play and yet it draws heavily on Japanese theater. The line “all our yesterday's have lighted fools / The way to dusty death,” is altered to Washizu shouting “Fool,” while looking at his predecessor's regalia. It is an image which contains the same message but in a visual way. At the same time, Throne of Blood utilizes the telephoto lens which flattens and shortens a shot. It alters “the perspective to the two-dimensional, surface orientation traditional in Japanese art” (Parker, 513).
The stylistic difference develops the conflict between nature and society which Parker discusses (513). Nature, he explains, is presented in completely negative fashion. The prologue and epilogue, which frame the story as a flashback, establish a tone of desolation. Nature will undermine and outlast society and that any attempts of mankind to prove otherwise will only result in destruction. The army of trees shot in the film's finale is a key moment of nature's characterization. The army is surrounded in fog revealing only the tops of the trees. It is shot in slow motion with a telephoto lens which fills the frame with a cascade of branches. The music is menacing. It is a short image but it projects the sense of dread felt by Washizu. To emphasize the eventual erosion of society, Washizu's death comes at the hands of his own men, within his own castle.
If we consider the fact that, although Throne of Blood is considered completely cinematic, it is influenced heavily by other styles, this alters the initial conflict-based notion about the film as a whole. It isn't “nature vs society,” but “society functioning with respect to nature” or “societies building and crumbling through the passage of time.” In terms of cinematography, Kurosawa presents Noh theater using the language of film to capitalize on qualities of each style. We are forced to address the film from a disconnected perspective but still have the visual complexity provided by film. If we consider the larger cultural issues of post-WWII Japan, we will see a similar situation. Western military versus Japanese military fails to address the complexity of the situation. The Japanese were recovering from WWII while being influenced to adjust their culture by way of the removal of Bushido, a code which only years previously been utilized to cause untold destruction.