Japanese

Throne of Blood [蜘蛛巣城-Kumonosu-jô]

Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa (1957) [110 minutes]

I adore watching adaptations. Some are truly awful, taking the original work and tearing it to proverbial shreds. On the other hand, some are brilliant. These take a familiar story to a new, fascinating place. I love seeing how different cultures, generations, or mediums interpret the tale. In Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa takes Shakespeare’s Macbeth (If you need a summary/refresher on the Scottish Play click on that link) and transports the play  to Feudal Japan. Macbeth is probably my favorite of the Shakespearean dramas. Watching one of my favorite directors, Kurosawa, make it a film, is a true delight.

Kurosawa takes many liberties with the plot of Macbeth. He crosses this masterwork of British drama with his native Japan’s Noh theater. Noh is a medieval form of extremely stylized, high theater. The basic story of Macbeth remains in the film, as well as the themes that drive through it, but the visuals are unlike anything we would see on Shakespeare’s stage. The acting illustrates this beautifully. While watching the film the facial expressions seem a little exaggerated. The performances may appear over the top to American eyes, our theater tends to be more naturalistic. In Noh the actors wore masks to represent different characters and emotions. In Throne of Blood, he doesn’t go that far, but he told his actors to mimic those masks with their expression and they wore makeup to further highlight that. You will see our Macbeth, called Taketoki Washizu (Toshiro Mifune), and his Lady (Izuzu Yamada) use this hyper expressiveness a lot throughout the film. Until I found out about the Noh and the masks, I found it all enjoyable but still rather confusing. This is one of those cases that the more you know, the more you can enjoy the film. You don’t need to know much! Just a little bit about Noh and a little more about Macbeth and you’re good to go!

The narrative is structured in a circular format. That’s not necessarily a big deal, many movies start and end in the same place. The way that Kurosawa weaves this tale is different from most of what I’ve seen. It’s not just the final scene that is “repeated”, but many scenes throughout the film. In the beginning, there is a scene in deep fog, a conversation with the demon (who replaces the three witches from Macbeth) and a montage of the characters riding through the forest. You will see those scenes again at the end, but with a completely tone and context.

This storytelling technique, along with the Noh influence make you hyper-aware of the narrative structure. Nothing in the film is realistic, and there is no attempt to make it seem so. Personally, I find this kind of refreshing. Throne of Blood fully embraces that fantastical, poetic tone, which makes the film such a delight. The problem I have with many Shakespeare adaptations is that they really suck all the fun out of it. They’re so worried about the dialogue and how faithful they are to the play. It becomes a bunch of people showing off how great they are at acting and British accents. You watch them in high school just so you don’t have to struggle through the written play. With Kurosawa’s version you may not get an A on that English paper on Macbeth, but hey, that’s what sparknotes is for!

Nerdy Linguistics Moment: The Japanese title literally means “Castle of Spider’s Web/Spider’s Web Castle.” I can see why they changed the English one, though. Throne of Blood sounds more enticing.

Famous Fans: According to this article T. S. Eliot said that this was his favorite movie! If you don’t buy my recommendation, you’ve got to believe him 😛

Commentary Critique: The commentary for this film is among the best I’ve ever heard. It was so informative and entertaining. A little tip: I generally watch commentaries while doing some menial task (like laundry); that way you are getting something done and learning something in the meantime!

How to watch: The dialogue isn’t too important in the film. Sometimes I noticed that I hadn’t been reading the subtitles for the last few minutes… oops! This film is so visual, though, that you really don’t miss a beat. You learn much more by what you can see, rather than what you hear.

Who to watch with: Again, this film won’t help you with your English test on Shakespeare, but I found that I learned more about what the play is truly about by watching this. So watch this with Shakespeare fans and non-Shakespeare fans (hopefully this will convert them!).

Final Verdict: You will have a good time watching this. Especially if you keep that Noh theater stuff in mind; the film will make much more sense. And even if you still don’t “get it,” just enjoy it. I still don’t understand why most of the stuff that happens goes on, but it didn’t take anything away from the experience. If anything, the mystery made it more entertaining.

Now, watch it and let me know what you think! 🙂

Harakiri [切腹- Seppuku]

– After all, this thing we call samurai honor is ultimately nothing but a facade.

Harakiri, Masaki Kobayashi (1962) [133 minutes]

After seeing Harakiri, I really need to reevaluate my list of favorite Japanese movies. And coming from me, that is a pretty big compliment (I have a tendency to like all things samurai). It is so beautiful, horrifying, poignant and brash. It shows the hypocrisy and corruption of the ancient Japanese samurai honor code. Kobayashi shows us that this code is just as empty as the suit of armor pictured above.

The story itself is nonlinear, and told through a set of flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks. As a viewer you will switch sides many times throughout the film; it keeps you on your toes, never knowing what to believe. It begins with a samurai (played by Hanshiro Tsugumo) entering a large manor. His purpose is to ask if he can use their courtyard to commit harakiri. He has lost everything, he has no master and has been living in poverty. This is no way for a samurai to live; so, he says that in committing harakiri he would at least die with honor. Now, the lords and their retainers are not too sure that this man’s intention is honorable. At the time, many masterless samurai, called ronin, would go to homes claiming that they wished to commit harakiri. No one wants a person to disembowel themselves in what is the equivalent of their front lawn, so they would usually offer the samurai a job or give them some money. This household believes this man is also out for some cash. They proceed to tell him a tale, it feels like a parable, of a young ronin who tried to fool them. After hearing the tale, the samurai responds with a story of his own.

I must warn you, however. This film is not for the faint of heart. I mean, it is called Harakiri after the ritualistic suicide performed by samurai. There is less violence than one would expect, but when it appears it is very graphic and unsettling. I’m not bothered by too much blood and such, but even I was a little freaked. Unless you’re super sensitive, don’t let it stop you from watching. If you are a bit nervous about it, maybe you can get someone to cover your eyes and ears during those scenes! They give you plenty of warning.

This film is super stylish. Now, by stylish I don’t mean that it has great fashion or interior design skills (even though the costumes and sets are very nicely done). When you watch it you will see what I’m talking about. Every shot is composed perfectly.  It really is a beauty to watch. The trailer bellow will show you what I mean better than any words can:

Nerdy Linguistics Moment: Harakiri and Seppuku mean the exact same thing. Harakiri is just a more vulgar way of saying Seppuku. For more info about what it is click here.

How to watch: Of course, you must watch in Japanese with subtitles. I also must recommend that if you can you should watch this on a nice, big TV. This movie is very visually engaging, so it benefits from a dark room and a large TV.

Who to watch with: This movie is not for children. Teenagers and up are fine, but younger kids will not understand the majority of what is going on and will be pretty freaked out. Other than that most people would enjoy this. As I mentioned before, if you really don’t like violence this will be tough. It is very graphic.

Final Verdict: This is one of the greatest samurai movies I have ever seen. It does a wonderful job of painting a complex narrative full of twists and turns. The visuals and soundtrack are among the best I’ve seen/heard. You will be thinking about this movie long after it ends. It will be the topic of many a conversation with your fellow viewers. So, watch this movie. It may be difficult to get through at times, but it is most definitely worth it.

Now, watch it and let me know what you think! 🙂

Jumping into the Frame

The time has come; I am finally doing my first blog post! I’ve decided to describe in detail a scene from a movie. I’ve chosen to look a short segment from Ugetsu Monogatari. It is actually the scene where the still, which is featured on my banner is from. Honestly, I chose this movie because I think this exercise in description is a great example of how to watch a foreign film. Sometimes we get too bogged down in understanding and reading subtitles that we don’t really take in the visual or auditory aspects of the scene. For this post I took off the subtitles and really just immersed myself in the diagesis.

Here we go:

The night is dark. A dense fog has formed over the lake. It looks like smoke, pale yet all-consuming. A canoe approaches from the distance. As it lulls through the fog the small canoe and its passengers become clearer. A woman dressed in kimono looms tall over the vessel. She rocks back and forth with the boat as she pushes and pulls the oar. All we can hear is the splash of the oar as it moves through the dark water. She begins to sing, first softly and then more clearly. Her lone voice unaccompanied, except for the sounds of the water lapping against the vessel. Her song becomes part of the atmosphere, more than just a mere human creation. Her tone is tragic. Her voice sounds like a deep lamentation, perfectly mirroring the oppressiveness of the ever-present fog. The sight is reminiscent of tales of Arthur journeying to Avalon to call upon the Lady of the Lake.

As the boat approaches the camera, we cut to a closer shot of the other passengers on the ship. We first see two men. They are sitting casually on the boat gulping down sake from a bowl. They are constantly drinking and refilling their glasses, seemingly oblivious to the “magic” around them. Another woman on the boat sits with her son on her lap. She is looking out at the water smiling, while her son seems troubled. Throughout this shot these other characters are eating and speaking without a care, but the woman’s song carries on as she continues to rhythmically row. The sounds of the water and her voice underline the conversation. The camera cuts away from the others and moves closer to our singer. Here we see her tired eyes and disheveled hair. She sways with the boat; her movements are fluid mimicking the water all around her. Suddenly she stops everything and looks off-screen. She stops singing. The camera cuts to a shot of another boat approaching. It appears to be unmanned as it comes ominously through the fog.

The scene is silent, except for the water lapping up against the boat. The boat gets closer and closer. We get another shot; this time with both boats in the frame. They are almost touching when one of the men pulls the mysterious boat parallel with their own. It has gotten much darker now. The black of the water creates a stark contrast with the white fog. We, the audience, cannot see anything in this foreign boat, it is completely shrouded in that deep black. In the meantime, the passengers look into the boat. We see them flinch in disgust and fear flash on their faces…

To find out more you’ll have to watch!