Macbeth as Zen Stick: The 60th Anniversary of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood
Throne of Blood, Yukio Ninagawa, 1980
by Eric D. Lehman
When I was a college freshman, I took a Shakespeare class with a very old-fashioned professor. It was a fun class for someone like me, who loved the Bard, didn’t mind memorizing sonnets, and actually read the plays rather than the Cliffs’ Notes version. Then, for my final essay, I wrote an analysis of “fate” in Macbeth, and was shocked to have it returned to me with a “C” and a one-sentence explanation for the grade. “Fate in a play is like watching a small dog being run over by a truck.” I was furious, and when I became a teacher myself I often reached back to this moment – reminding myself not to grade students on whether I agreed with their thesis, but how well they supported it. And in the prophecy-filled Macbeth, there is ample support for the idea that the characters “live” predetermined lives.
However, this inflexible professor was not wrong in singling out the idea of “fate” as a problem when the Scottish play is performed, particularly for modern audiences. After all, if the poor players on the physical theater or film stage are caught in a world without free will, how does this affect the performative situation? Almost every modern person, whether actor, audience, or critic, must answer “negatively.” Do we want to watch a play performed by robots?
In Shakespeare’s time, “fate” may have not presented such a problem. After all, for his audience of Protestant Christians, the idea of predestination may have been comforting, and indeed given meaning to their lives as evidence of a higher power. In the 20th and 21st century many of us (even most Protestant Christians) see the ideas of predestination and fate and the negation of free will as something that sucks all meaning out of our lives. And so, the Scottish play presents a particularly sticky problem. We can no longer interpret or present the events as a Christian morality play, nor portray Macbeth as possessed by “evil spirits,” nor give a simple “gotcha” self-fulfilling prophecy to the audience, all of which were popular in previous centuries. What to do?
In response to this problem, many 20th and 21st century critics have related Macbeth to a sort of meta-theater, with actors demonstrating the futility of acting in a predetermined world. Critic Malcolm Evans used Derrida to posit a “triumphant plural,” a “world of signs which has no truth.” Joseph Bryant applied Hegel, saying that Macbeth’s tragedy is that he “clings to his dream of a universe of absolutes inhabited by supernatural powers.” James O’Rourke writes of the “surreal” experience of Macbeth’s experience, in which nothing signifies “beyond itself.” In other words, they have embraced the lack of free will and lack of meaning as Shakespeare’s intention.
In the 20th century these sorts of philosophical interpretations seeped into almost all discussion of the play, creating a serious challenge for actual performances. As early as 1921, Robert Edmond Jones’ production on Broadway used the first “extreme example of abstract symbolism” offered in the commercial American theater. Using black drapes and selective lighting, Jones’ set resembled a void. Fragments suggested arches and three large silver masks loomed over the stage during the witches’ scenes. As the play coiled to a close, the fragments wobbled, paralleling Macbeth’s disintegration. In “The Void in Macbeth,” Dana McDermott interprets this particular performance, “Man exists in a dark desolate place; his attempts to shape his environment are futile; his destiny is controlled by fate. The void portrays the unknowable realm within which man lives; the structures illustrate his attempt to shape that void. Their malleability and apparent fragility suggest the transitory, ineffectual nature of man’s endeavors.”
The reception to this interpretation was less than cordial. Nevertheless, it was the first of many to attempt to concretely portray the inner landscape of Macbeth’s apparent nihilism. As many directors and actors who tried this found out, it is not so easy to make an absurdist Waiting For Godot-like performance out of Macbeth. Furthermore, this meta-theatrical nihilism continues to crowd the room, leaving little space for any new interpretations. In fact, stuck in this critical quagmire, few noticed when sixty years ago one Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, took a sword and cut through all these problems with the swift stroke of Throne of Blood.
Much of modern Japanese adaptation of Shakespeare has been a reflection of internal tradition and social concern. For example, years after Throne of Blood was released, in 1980, Yukio Ninagawa’s Macbeth drew parallels between medieval Scotland and Japan. He brought in many Japanese cultural influences and therefore created an interesting hybrid play. For instance, falling cherry blossoms were used to denote mortality throughout the performance, a technique that had to be explained in the program for Western audiences. As critic Dennis Kennedy pointed out, the overuse of symbolism and the relation to Japan’s past came mostly from Kabuki theater. Ninagawa’s thrust was to make his audience question western values, but his philosophical interpretation seems fairly standard: an exploration of how humans are motivated to commit “heinous crimes,” those of “lust for power, greed, suspicion, and envy.” When Macbeth is killed, “the nightmare of murderous ambition had finally ended.” So, like many foreign adaptations of his plays, the contemporary political situation was enlightened by Shakespeare.
However, these sorts of political and cultural interpretations simply avoid or ignore the text/performance problem created by Shakespeare’s actual words. Interpretations by modern film and theater directors or critics are dealing with a very real problem – the dialectic that encompasses all of Western thought. In fact, the play itself seems to be suffused with dialectics. Macbeth states, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” (I, iii, 38), echoing the witches’ “Fair is foul, and foul is Fair”(I, I, 11). Malcolm says, “Such welcome and unwelcome things at once.” And Macbeth’s “This supernatural soliciting/Cannot be ill, cannot be good” (I, iii, 130-1). How does an actor, director, or audience member react when given, “Nothing is/But what is not.” A political reading or performance of the play only sidesteps this materialism, and does not confront it.
Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood has also been accused of sidestepping this issue, by minimizing the original language. Critic Peter Brook, while commenting on the “sad history of Shakespeare on screen” notes that “the great masterpiece, of course, is the Kurosawa film, Throne of Blood.” But even Brook also points out that the movie hardly uses the translated text of Macbeth, though it was the director’s favorite Shakespeare play. We might say, though, that Kurosawa has translated its language visually. Critic James Goodwin writes: “The film dialogue makes no attempt to transpose Shakespeare’s poetry into Japanese. Instead the visuals create the film’s metaphoric imagery.” The heart and soul of Shakespeare’s play remains, though many of the words are missing.
It is easy to see how Throne of Blood lends itself to the nihilistic readings of modern critics. Donald Richie writes: “The characters have no future. Cause and effect is the only law. Freedom does not exist. Those who complained that [Throne of Blood] was cool were only half right. It is ice cold.” He believes that Kurosawa comes to the conclusion that “To be human means to realize yourself, to realize yourself means ambition, ambition is what others call evil.” Other critics prefer fitting this version of Macbeth into the idea of meta-theater, because Kurosawa undeniably uses elements of the Noh theater, in which emotions are absolutes.
In The Warrior’s Camera, Stephen Prince writes that the aim of Noh play, then, is to “create an atmosphere pervaded by these emotions instead of localizing them as the expressions of specific characters.” Therefore, he continues, “To interpret the imagery of Throne of Blood as if it were psychological in nature…is to miss the shift of signification that Kurosawa is carrying out…Kurosawa’s characters and images counter the Western codes of realism and psychology…this film detaches these emotions from the psyche, studies them as absolute forms, and permits their mediation through the landscape and environment.” Erin Suzuki’s recent article in Literature-Film Quarterly repeats these discussions of free will, Western meta-theater, and Japanese Noh forms, though ultimately her point is a different one.
We can see how the existentialist watchwords of nihilism, detachment, and meta-theater have become ingrained not only in criticism of Macbeth, but also in Throne of Blood. Perhaps it is time to look at Kurosawa’s movie through different eyes, through a Zen Buddhist lens, so to speak. After all, saying that the film is like a Noh play is a comment on style, not substance, though of course Noh plays themselves often focus on impermanence. Looking at other Kurosawa films like Ikiru or Ran, we can see that one of his main themes is a self-realization (or lack thereof). He often uses the classic structure of Buddhist understanding, in which a character perceives the world is meaningless and everything becomes an abyss, and then the character either comes back to the world, understanding that it is real on a different level, or else, like in Ran, does not. The key to Buddha-hood lies in this self-knowledge, and in an inherent, not just intellectual, awareness of the nature of existence.
At the beginning of Throne of Blood, two samurais, Miki and Washizu (played by the immortal Toshiro Mifune) return to their lord’s castle after a battle. A demonic spirit confronts them and prophecies the future, just as the witches do in Macbeth. Their lord, Tsuzuki, is master of Spider’s Web Castle, and Washizu kills him at the urging of his wife Asaji. He goes on to slay his friend Miki, and basically follows a downward spiral paralleling Shakespeare, right down to Asaji trying to wash her hands of imaginary blood and the trees of Spider’s Web Forest rising to attack the castle. The entire story takes place in the thick fog of Mount Fuji, which seems to adhere to the characters, the set, and even the black-and-white film stock.
At first, we might see the foggy landscape as a visual metaphor for meaninglessness, and the undeniable Noh elements as another manifestation of meta-theater. However, the fog could just as easily be the fog of illusion, and the stylistic Noh elements could point us to the substance of Buddhist ambiguity. The uncertainty of the Mount Fuji landscape, the fog and rain, helps to give what words cannot, a middle area between meaning and meaninglessness.
Throne of Blood is a journey into this world of fog and illusion. If the world is illusion, then a man can do what he will. And Washizu does, killing the king, killing his friends. However, in Buddhism, knowledge of illusion is the first step to knowledge. We must realize the self in the void that is reality, and when enlightenment is achieved, the world becomes real again. This may be a reason Kurosawa was attracted to Macbeth in the first place. Marvin Rosenberg theorizes about this aspect of the play, writing “The primitive need to recognize a self, to construct a center of personality, an identity — resisted by the shock of recognizing thoughts and acts as foreign to the constructed identity…Macbeth, like others of Shakespeare’s heroes, experiences a succession of perspectives on the self – and we more keenly share that process because it is the painful process of life.”
Where does the wisdom to do this come from? The Heart Sutra tells us that it comes from emptiness itself, which does not differ from form. When Macbeth confronts the meaninglessness of life, he comes to this conclusion:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing (V, v, 19-28).
In emptiness, there can be no form, no sensation, no consciousness. There is no suffering, no path, no death. A person must first achieve this emptiness before achieving enlightenment. But in Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth himself does not seem to achieve that final stage, at least in his scripted words. But as a filmmaker Kurosawa has other tools, and as a director he rightly focuses not on the results for his character, but rather on the results for the audience.
By the end of the film, most viewers find it nearly impossible not to follow Washizu into his foggy limbo of no-meaning. What does anything matter? Everything seems to be pre-determined, fated, meaningless. Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The forest begins its prophesied assault, and Washizu calls to his troops to defend the castle. They refuse and accuse him of murder, turning their bows toward him.
And then, as the arrows strike his armor and the walls around him, his expressive eyes register a shock. Kurosawa had the bowmen use real arrows in this scene, and you can see that knowledge in Toshiro Mifune’s face. What do we see there? Is it a shock of realization? Has his character woken up to the real world again? Enlightenment is not just an intellectual understanding, it is intuitive, transformative, deep in the heart. Does Washizu actually have this self-realization, the next step of Buddhism where the world becomes real again? Unclear. Regardless, it is too late, and he dies pinioned by the arrows of his own men.
On the other hand, the audience can be shocked back into the real from their sleepy acceptance of the world of illusion by this terrifying scene. Awake! Kurosawa says, Awake! It is too late for Washizu but not for you. In this way Kurosawa is taking the audience to a place we otherwise could not go (at least so quickly), through the fog of illusion to the moment of epiphany. Throne of Blood acts not only a metaphor for the process of enlightenment, but as a method for it. Like a Zen master smacking you with a flat wooden keisaku stick at just the right moment, he compassionately attempts to bring about your enlightenment.
Looking back at Macbeth through a Zen Buddhist camera, we can see that meaning and meaninglessness are a dialectical trap that must be avoided. We might wonder if Shakespeare was attempting to avoid this problem when he used phrases like “fair and foul” (rather than fair or foul). But words, especially in the English language, remain ingrained with dialectic thought, and even the Bard has a problem fixing that on the page. As a director, Kurosawa has attempted to use action to surpass this conflict in his version of Macbeth. Washizu does not give introspective speeches in Throne of Blood, and this helps, rather than hurts, the audience’s ability to grasp his dilemma. The huge gaps of silence in the film seem to point to the hopelessness of using words to describe and define.
Furthermore, this focus on reaching and even changing the audience in this way might be a key to recovering performances of Macbeth from existentialist dilemmas. Whether Kurosawa succeeded in solving those dilemmas is a matter of opinion, as is the legitimacy of a performance with so little of the original text. Nevertheless, whether Kurosawa succeeded in adapting Macbeth is secondary to whether his keisaku stick did its work. Did you watch a world of meta-theater, of meaningless, fogbound action, of hurtling toward the fated ending? Did you think it was all illusion? A film? And then, suddenly, when those very real arrows came so close to Toshiro Mifune? What did you see in his face at that moment? Fear? Was it the shock of the real? Time to wake up.
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About the Author:
Eric D. Lehman teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Bridgeport and his work has been published in dozens of journals and magazines. He is the author of twelve books, including Shadows of Paris, Homegrown Terror, and Becoming Tom Thumb. Follow him @afootinconnecticut, and visit his website at www.ericdlehman.org.