*. Shakespeare isn’t known for his great original plots. He usually just borrowed some old (sometimes very old) stand-by or took an episode from a historical chronicle to dramatize. Among the few plays where he did come up with an original storyline (The Tempest was one), it’s not the story that stands out.
*. So when a director decides to “do” a Shakespearean play in another language, thus losing all the language and only keeping the plot, he’s playing from behind. He’s going to have to go big (meaning give the play a novel interpretive angle or a bold look) or else go home.
*. I think Akira Kurosawa pulls it off in this movie, in large part because he’s drawing on such an alien theatrical tradition. And while I can’t be sure, I think he’s made a movie that probably means something very different (though still meaningful) to Western and Eastern audiences alike.
*. A literal translation of the Japanese title (so I’m told) is Spider Web Castle. Not as catchy, but it does introduce one of the main motifs of Kurosawa’s interpretation of Shakespeare: from the mist that conceals and reveals to the “labyrinth” of the forest, we feel we’re lost and caught in a trap.
*. In my notes on Rashomon I talked a bit about how the point of that movie was not that people experienced the same events differently, but that they were all lying, not least of all to themselves. Kurosawa saw the theme as being that “human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves.”
*. This is the same point being made here. The Witch is surprised (or perhaps just disappointed, it’s hard to tell) that Washizu isn’t happy about having his good fortune told. “You humans. Never will I comprehend you. You are afraid of your desires — you try to hide them.” Washizu should embrace his fate, and not lie to himself about it. As the Witch tells him during their second meeting: “If you choose ambition, choose it honestly, with cruelty.”
*. The Witch is against hypocrisy. But hypocrisy, for Shakespeare, is what makes the world go ’round. All of it, after all, is a stage. Washizu and Asaji are players in both the old and the modern sense. They strut and fret their hour upon the stage and then disappear.
*. This is especially interesting in relation to Asaji. She’s made up as a stage actress and is obviously performing for her husband (I don’t believe her for a second when she tells him she’s with child). The keynote of that performance is her surprisingly cool demeanour.
*. David Thomson says Asaji “fails to suggest the nagging sexual force that urges her husband on”. True, but different cultures find different things sexy. Asaji knows her gender role and she knows her man: she can play the yin to his yang, her quiet, unemotional cool against Washizu’s hyper-emotional, eye-rolling glowering.
*. Toshiru Mifune’s acting really carries a load here. Everyone else around him is far more composed, sedate. It’s not just Asaji but Miki as well. It’s even the sets, the interiors of which are quite minimal and theatrical. You need a passionate performance to play against so much blank canvas.
*. At the end, the same temperature differential can be seen writ large inside the fort as Washizu screams and yells at his men, who listen in stony silence before reaching for their bows.
*. Yes, shooting real arrows at Mifune makes the finale seem even more impressive. But you have to wonder then if the soldiers in the fort are all such bad shots or if they’re trying to miss him. Sure he gets hit, but the arrows all cluster to one or the other side of him. Of course that was necessary to film it the way they did, but despite being “real” it doesn’t look entirely realistic.
*. I’ve seen Birnham Wood go to Dunsinane many times, on stage and screen, but I don’t think it’s ever been done better than it is here. Pauline Kael thought this one of the two great moments in the film. It helps that no human figures are seen, only the soft, shaggy tops of the trees undulating in the mist, looking like an evergreen amoeba coming to absorb the castle.
*. I’m not as fond of the opening and closing chorus. The effect is to present the movie as a legend, a ghost story, a tale of long ago. Compare the equally un-Shakespearean epilogue to Polanski’s Macbeth, where the effect is very different. Polanski underlines that this is not a unique story but one that will be repeated many times in ages hence.