An auspicious event: for the first time in the six seasons of Hit Me with Your Best Shot, Nathaniel has selected a movie directed by Kurosawa Akira, and shot by Nakai Asakazu, Throne of Blood. It was the seventh of twelve films the pair made together, and some of the titles they collaborated on – Stray Dog, Ikiru, Seven Samurai, High and Low (with Saito Takao), Ran (with Saito and Ueda Shoji), and today’s subject as well – are all high up on my list of the most perfectly-composed movies in the history of the art form (Kurosawa has for a very long time, in fact, been probably the director responsible for most of the films I regard as having the best compositions).
That results in an embarrassment of riches to pick from, but the minute I heard that Throne of Blood was on the schedule, I knew I was going to choose a particular shot from near the beginning, or particular shot from near the end. In the spirit of avoiding spoilers for a 59-year-old masterpiece of the world art cinema canon based on one of the best-known stories in all of Western literature, I elected to go with the former shot. It is a shot with movement, and a very long shot – too long to make a .gif of it, though I toyed with just selecting a brief swatch of it. But no, I think you need to see all of it. P.S. there’s no sound:
(But if you are strapped for time, here’s a still)
Throne of Blood teaches us how to watch it. Based on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth – rather faithfully, especially considering that it transfers the action to Sengoku-era Japan (it’s my favorite filmed version of the play and among my favorite screen incarnations of Shakespeare) – the film finds a cinematic analogue to Shakespearean blank verse in the form of Japan’s own theater traditions. Famously, the film is based upon the traditions of Noh theater, which are not remotely the traditions of cinema in Japan or any other country, and while I certainly don’t know the history of Japanese film well enough to claim that this was or wasn’t unprecedented (my guess is not: at the very least, movies drawing from kabuki tradition had certainly already been made by ’57), but at the very least it is quite unusual, and Kurosawa was enough of a populist filmmaker – moreover, enough of a populist who by this point in his career was keenly aware of American filmmaking idiom and the potential of an international audience – to ease us into the stylistic extremes of his film.
And so, the movie doesn’t simply tromp right off the deep end into extreme style, it finds its way there over the course of the first couple of reels; it’s really only during the sequence in which General Washizu (Mifune Toshiro) and General Miki (Kubo Akira), the Macbeth and Banquo analogues, find their way into an uncanny forest where unconventional editing choices and a wholly alien sound design abound that the stylisation goes from “a little, but it’s a period film” to “what the hell is this movie doing”. Particularly when they meet a spirit (Naniwa Chieko), lit up in a most peculiar way as it patiently winds yarn, chanting. Oh how I wish I could have included that chanting in my shot. But working with video is enough of a chore, and you’ll just have to go watch a great movie if you want the full effect. Besides, it’s not “Hit Me with Your Best Marriage of Sound and Image”.
So there is, first, a gorgeous left-to-right tracking shot that glides from the bug-eyed generals to our first shot of the spirit, and then the image holds; it cuts to the men, then back, then back to the men as they walk around in front of the spirit, then over their shoulders, then back to their faces, then back over their shoulders, and that is the 38-second take I had you watch way back up there.
The point of all this being: the film is in no hurry. More than two minutes of screentime elapse while the men are watching the spirit chanting and winding, and in those two minutes, their quarter-circle walk around in front of the spirit is the only action of any sort. It is magnificent. It is, I suppose, frustrating, but it’s also the film’s way, I think, of forcibly placing us into the mindset that we’ll have to live in for the rest of the movie. What Throne of Blood takes from Noh is a system of highly formulaic, ritualistic tropes for acting and presenting action. This particular shot, I don’t suppose, is part of that system – but it is entirely ritualistic, giving us absolutely nothing to do besides look at the cross-shaped wheel turning in circle after circle while the spirit sings, and leaving us only the options of finding reflective pleasure in the knowledge of a repetitive task being performed impeccably, or bailing out of the movie from sheet boredom. It is aggressively static. We, as viewers, don’t get to do anything, just like Washizu and Miki don’t: they’re transfixed and confused in presumably the same way that we are, if the film is doing its job right.
We are watching a ritual act in a film that is henceforth going to be made out of ritual acts, then, and I think this shot (this sequence, really) is the film’s gatekeeping moment: if you can modulate your viewing to match the rhythmic stasis of this image, then you get to keep watching. Because even as the film never stops in its tracks in quite this way again, it never really does stop being about this unconventional.