A few days after Rashomon, we took a whole class to the Alamo for this one, all of our first times seeing it. A version of Macbeth that is plenty enjoyable on its own, through its great atmosphere and unique variations on the story, and even more so after reading about some of the design elements and historical context.

From Stephen Prince’s Criterion essay:

Noh shows up everywhere in Throne of Blood, making the project a real fusion of cinema and theater… Noh elements include the music (that assertive flute, for example), the bare sets, and especially the stylized performances by Mifune and Isuzu Yamada … Actors in Noh use masks, and while Kurosawa doesn’t do anything so blatantly artificial here, he does have Mifune and Yamada model facial expressions that resemble popular Noh masks (a strategy he extended in Yamada’s makeup) … Kurosawa strips all the psychology out of Macbeth and gives us a film whose characters are Noh types and where emotions — the province of character in the drama of the West — are formally embodied in landscape and weather. The bleached skies, the fog, the barren plains, and characters going adrift against and within these spaces — this is where the emotion of the film resides … Kurosawa wants us to grasp the lesson, to see the folly of human behavior, rather than to identify or empathize with the characters.

Toshiro Mifune’s ninth Kurosawa film, with Isuzu Yamada (landlady of The Lower Depths) as his Lady, and Minoru Chiaki (the priest in Rashomon, also Hidden Fortress and The Face of Another) as his friend-turned-rival. The three witches are replaced by a single spinning-wheel ghost, with a neat single take when the spirit house vanishes while the warriors (and camera) are distracted.

I love the performances even more than the multiple-perspective conceit, how Mifune goes from devil-may-care trickster thief to pathetic coward, the wife from tormented crying victim to cold duel instigator. Three points of view including the dead husband’s through a medium, then a fourth version from a witness woodcutter, then he’s also revealed to be a liar/thief, having stolen a valuable dagger from the crime scene, and all this causes the local priest to despair until his faith is restored by the woodcutter adopting a baby that was apparently abandoned at the temple while they were telling crime stories. The priest’s bit is overdone, rest of the movie is perfect. Watched on the big screen at Alamo with my Katy.

Won top prize at Venice against Diary of a Country Priest, Renoir’s The River, Ace in the Hole, Born Yesterday, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, and won different oscars in two consecutive years, since their rules used to be even stupider than they are now. This was Toshiro Mifune’s fifth Kurosawa film, and his breakout role to the Western world. The wife Machiko Kyô starred in Gate of Hell, the dead husband Masayuki Mori in Ugetsu, and the medium Noriko Honma in each of Kurosawa’s final three films.

Toshiro Mifune is Kingo, an executive plotting to take over his company and force out the board who wants to make inferior products for higher profit – so he’s set up as one of the good rich guys. In the city below, in the shadow of Kingo’s ostentatious house atop a hill, a medical intern doesn’t see the goodness, just the richness, kidnaps Kingo’s son and demands millions in ransom. Turns out the kidnapper got the chauffeur’s son by mistake, but still insists on his ransom, and Kingo pays it, becoming a media hero.

Meanwhile, Detective Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai, star of Harakiri) is hot on the case with his team tracking the kidnapper, going way further than Stray Dog into the lower depths of the city, culminating in a grimy alley full of strung-out addicts, where kidnapper Takeuchi (Tsutomu Yamazaki, later of Tampopo and Farewell to the Ark) kills a woman with a knockout dose of uncut heroin, a test for his plan to get rid of his accomplices. Few visceral thrills, mostly a slow and methodical investigation, leading to an ambiguous ending – the kidnapper/killer providing no clear answers, and Mifune starting over (not exactly, but it’s starting over from a rich guy’s perspective) with his own small business.

Based on an American pulp crime novel. Bernstein gave a good intro and Q&A, and G. O’Brien has a nice long Criterion essay.

From samurai to shoe manufacturer: Gondo retains the combative instincts and self-conscious pride of an earlier era while struggling to reconcile himself to life as a company man. Much like Kurosawa (who had left Toho to form his own production company in 1960) fending off the perceived cheapening of Japanese cinema, Gondo touts the virtues of his own individualistic path: “I’ll make my ideal shoes: comfortable, durable, yet stylish. Expensive to make maybe, but profitable in the long run.”

The pink smoke—the only burst of color in a black-and-white film—marks the moment when the film definitively descends from heaven to hell, the point of entry being a dump that burns “everything that can’t be disinfected.” This is the juncture when those above finally take notice of the life below them, even if only in the form of burned evidence. Those below, on the other hand, could always see what was above them. “From down there,” as the inspector notes on his arrival in Gondo’s apartment, “if he’s got a telescope, the kidnapper can see this entire room.” The kidnapper, then, has possessed from the beginning the same power as Kurosawa’s camera: to command space and find every hiding place within Gondo’s seemingly impregnable aerie. To hide from those eyes, even the police are forced to crawl on the floor.

An epic trilogy, obviously conceived as a single story – it would be foolish to watch just one. It might, in fact, be foolish to watch all three. A weighty, picturesque drama with restrained emotions, occasional action, and side characters I kept losing track of, adding up to a decent story about a great fighter learning to be a great person.

1600 AD: Toshiro Mifune (in his follow-up to Seven Samurai) is violent, spontaneous Takezo, whose weak-willed friend Matahachi (Rentaro Mikuni, lead of the first segment in Kwaidan, son in chains of Profound Desire of the Gods) joins him in going to war, leaving behind Matahachi’s mom and his fiancee Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa, who starred in Madame Butterfly between sequels). Their side is wiped out, and the two misfit warriors wash up with a mother and daughter, where they recover from battle wounds amidst sexual tension cued by rape attempts.

wide-eyed Matahachi and grim Takezo at war:

Takezo up a tree:

Mother and daughter survive by stripping dead samurai and selling their equipment – just like in Onibaba. Takezo flees after defeating the bandit that torments the women, then shrugging off the mom when she throws herself at him. She changes the story: “He attempted to assault me. He’s a savage.” Matahachi marries the mom, while his ex, Otsu, joins the search for Takezo, who is repeatedly captured by a smiling priest, who finally locks T. up in an attic full of books. T. emerges years later, calmer and wiser, renamed Musashi Miyamoto, tells Otsu to wait, and wanders off.

Akemi, Matahachi and Oko:

Otsu left behind:

Part two opens with a duel, MM telling a young kid called Jotaro to leave the arena. But of course he doesn’t, and tags along behind our hero after he kills the chainfighting Old Baiken. Akemi (Mariko Okada, married to director Yoshishige Yoshida, also star of some Ozu films), the girl whose mom married Matahachi is now darkly obsessed with MM, also pops up to torment Otsu, seems to be everywhere. Most of the movie concerns MM challenging the master of a fighting school, who will not fight him honorably so MM kicks the asses of some hundred students instead. By the end, the teacher mans up and meets MM, who does not kill him, after remembering how pissed everyone was when he killed the chainfighter.

MM vs. the chainfighter:

MM controlling his rage at the second duel:

Meanwhile some dickish birdslaying swordsman, supposed to remind us of young MM, wants to duel MM. And Otsu keeps pining after MM, who insists that he needs to keep training. I like the brief moments of animation (a lightning strike, cartoon birds flying across a painted sky) and the catchy theme music.

Akemi:

Part 3: predictably, Akemi has met the birdslayer. MM is still an undefeatable warrior, but now believes it’s best to avoid conflict. He postpones the birdslayer’s duel challenge and lives in a farming town with the kid and ever-suffering Otsu. The town is under siege by bandits (what peaceful small town in ancient Japan was not under siege by bandits?), and Akemi makes a deal with them. The siege goes wrong – MM kills many bandits and they kill Akemi shortly after she fights Otsu with an axe.

Bird guy:

MM and his little follower:

MM finally decides to give up his sword and marry Otsu, but first has to kill the birdslayer, which he does with a wooden sword, keeping the sun behind himself so the other man won’t notice.