Class Notes


Kumonosu-jo (Throne of Blood)
Kurosawa Akira


Washizu: a Captain
Asaji Wife of Washizu
Miki A capatain and friend of Washizu

KEY TERMS Symmetry: Balance.
Cultural capital: cultural things which are seen as having value.
Discourse of adaptation: Yashimoto's idea that the original is valorized over adaptation.
Hegemony: Influence of one state over another - Control
Culture contact: Two different cultures come together
Cultural Borrowing: One culture borrows something from another
Modification: The borrowed object is made to fit the rules of the culture
Acculturation: The processes of learning a second (third or more) culture so that one can "fit in" or understand the culture.
Conventional representation: a culturally defined way of symbolizing something: Long journey depicted quickly in here and now in stylized form.
Valorized: given status over
Rank-concession syndrome: events associated with one culture conceding rank to another.
Decontextualization: Removing something from its context
Recontextualization: Placing something in a new context, .thereby altering its meaning.
paradigmatic: having to do with replacement of a part, or alternation that are possible by replacement. For example in English verbs have tense marked so a verb may occur with an "s" which is a thid person present tense marker or a "-ed" which is a past tense marker. The set of forms is a "paradigm"
syntagmatic: having to do with connectons between things. In linguistcis it deals with grammatical relationships between words


One of Kurosawa's most discussed films. Kurosawa dabbled twice in dealing with Shakespeare - this version of Macbeth and Ran, an adaptation of King Lear. Kurosawa also made two films from Russian authors - Dostoyevsky's The Idiot (Hakuchi) and Gorky's The Lower Depths, Donzoko).

Much of the literature on this film deals with cataloging the similarities and differences between the Shakespeare play and the film, although such cataloging seems not to occur with other adaptations (e.g. the Verdi opera etc.)

Thought by some to be the best adaptation of Shakespeare, and yet the one that is furthest, The theme of "fair is foul and foul is fair" that sets the tone for the Shakespeare play is certainly caught photographically with the sequences of rain and sun in the Cobweb forest at the beginning of the film, for example.

The film's Japanese title Kumonosu-jo literally means Spider Web Castle. These are the characters that appear on the pole at the beginning of the film and hence "Spiderweb Forest" has a tie to the title. It is also known as Cobweb Castle.

The film's acting style is heavily influenced by Noh style acting. It should not be taken in any way to imply "natural" style. The film is jidaigeki although some people have argued that because it does not battle with a conflict between ninjo and giri it is an atypical jidaigeki and not, as a result very Japanese.

One of the more interesting aspects of the film is its superb use of Noh. A theater form making extensive use of masks. It has been reported that the face of the witch resembles that of a mask known as yaseonna (old lady) and that later, it changes into one that resembles yamauba the mountain witch. Kurosawa said he showed Mifune the mask of heida a warrior , and shakumi that of a middleaged woman on the verge of madness to Yamada who plays Asaji.

Some critics felt that Noh is an abstract form in which a form of symbols which tries to substitute for action; the cinema on the other hand is concrete so the two don't mix well.

Noh it is said tries to remove the concrete from its presentations through a variety of formal means. Human actors are abstracted through the use of symbolic masks and dance movements as a substitute for action. Kurosawa attempts to use the concrete nature of film in a similarly abstract way.

When is the film set? Possibly early in the civil war period 1393-1568. Is this important? Yes and no. On the one hand one can argue that knowing the date allows us to talk about specific cultural ideas (e.g. whether or not ninjo.giri oppositions are there or not). Does anyone really ask this about Shakespeare's Macbeth which is about historically inaccurate as one can get.

Although there are people who could have been models for the people here , are the historical allusions more to give a feel of reality than to really set it in a time period?


Structure of the film:

Spoken word used sparingly.
Violence/pathos alternation.
Off screen violence

Cultural Questions?

Why did Kurosawa choose to make this film in this style?
Questions of cultural hegemony.
Questions about how much should Japan change, what does Japanese-ness mean? Many Japanese pondered the question (and held different ideas to the answer) of how much should Japan change. Some people felt it should go very Western, others felt it should remain Japanese and others argued for a blend of the two.
In some ways, the film attempts to blend some things by showing a story which comes from the West in a Japanese mode. It also, however shifts from being a stage play to film.


Two sets of questions - one about the film itself and one about the reasons Kurosawa had for making the film and the nature of the analysis of the materials in the film. That is to say that film is both art and social/cultural event, In this case both need to be examined.

Questions of adptataion and the nature of analysis

Not just how can a play => a film; but how can western art be translated into a non western text.

One is a question of transfer between 2 media (play and film)
One is between 2 cultures British (Western) and Japanese.

To take a physical piece of culture from one to another (e.g. archaeology and tomb robbing) is a question of taking material things away from the culture to give them to the robbers. There is generally no alteration in the mental sets (culture) of the thieving culture.Taking a design, plot or some oher abstract piece is something quite different.
Taking something like Macbeth - not the physical paper and simply transferring ownership is more complex.

There is a problem that cultural artifacts (material and ideological) are set into the culture in a network of other material and ideological artifacts. Removing one "decontextualizes" that item - that is it takes it out of its context. Placing it in a new context in a different culture with a different "spider web" of ideas "recontextualizes" the item. In museum studies this is a common problem where something is taken from a culture (including this one) and by placing it in a museum exhibit gives it more prestige than it would otherwise have had.

There is also a problem in hegemony or asymmetrical status:
Yoshimoto points that comparisons between the originals in one culture and reworks in another are not intrinsically bad unless they are used to develop a hierarchal relationship between the two.
Many authors have not done this but assert a primacy to the original, and are unwilling to take the film on in its own terms.
Throne of Blood/Macbeth is tied to Noh theater and it is said that this "Japanized" the story in the film.
Consider Mishima Yukio, right wing pro emperor pro Japan writer who formed his own army tatenokai and had a French designer design their uniforms. Use of things is not acculturating, only use of ideas and patterns. Americans have karate schools which are not like Japanese ones. People talk about Japan westernizing because they have blue jeans and so on, but not about America Japanizing because we have karate, karaoke, Suburus, Toyotas, Sony, Mitsubishis and so on.

Rank Concession Syndrome
Before entering into the political arena of cultural imperialism, hegemony and the like, it is important to recognize that it may be necessary for one country (or culture) to concede rank to the other. This may be an enforced concession, (hence one where political power, military might and so on, imply superiority in one area, which is then taken to mean superiority in all areas).

In this case, Japan was told to open up its doors or get blown out of the water, From there to the end of WWII proceeds in an uninterrupted flow. Japan, at the end of the war concedes rank (in at least power and military might) to the US and the allies
Yet Japanese still felt some aspects of the culture were worthy (and although there are differences between people about the degree of the acculturation) there is still some feeling for "Japaneseness".
Some people have argued that this was an attempt to create a new kind of Japanese cinema whereas others feel it is just an attempt to expand the possibility of form.
Does it have relevance to the world in which the film was created as we have asked about other jidaigeki? The film argues that these problems (desire for power, arrogance , and so on) are both universal and timeless. But is there a connection with the Japan of 1957?



Are the characters well drawn? Do we understand motivation? Is that necessary?
Does the film comment on layalty vs. ambition
Does one have to be held in check or tempered by the other? Asaji is connected to spirit in the wood. Both female, both have prophetic comments. Asaji reinterprets all of Washizu's meanings relative to his relationship with the king and Miki.


Where does Lady Asaji come from? Where would one find such a model for such a woman? Is there some feeling about her as "woman"?


Remember that symbols may be somewhat universal, or cultural or personal. Universal symbols tend to "make sense", like burying bodies facing west, because the west is associated with the area where the sun the moon and the stars set. Setting can be "reasonably" connected with dying as a metaphor.
Cultural symbols are generally recognized by memebrs of the culture, but are not always clear to outsiders. For example, using the colors white and black for weddings and funerals is clear here, but much of Asia uses which for funerals and red for weddings. These symbols are learned by growing up in the culture.
Indivdually created symbols are understandable only if enough data is given to make the connection between the symbol and the referent. Films or other works of art where the symbols are not made clear are seen as "thick" or "inaccessible".

Rain and mist for mystery
Lightening and thunder - supernatural occurrence (remember Rashomon when Miko is about to appear there is the only lightening flash in the film
Use of animals as responding to supernatural:
     horse is aaid before spirit in woods.
     crows are often heard indicating knowledge
     horse is panicked before Miki's murder

Opposition between violence and pathos in the film. Scenes of great activity are repeated rather than developed. They often, if not always, are tied (signify) some off screen turbulence.
They are often not pivotal to the plot. They are generally opposite scenes that are tensely static and dramatic:
Burch says:

Active: Scenes that signify rather than depict the action

     Dashing messengers (off stage battle)
     Headlong ride through fog swept forest (gathering of occult forces)
     Confused gallopings (the battles following the kings murder)
     Panic of Miki's horse which prefigures Miki's off screen murder
     Invasion of birds (which results from the cutting down of Cobweb forest)

Protracted tensely static (REMEMBER FREEZE FRAMES) and dramatic

     Meeting with the witch
     Asaji waiting for Washizu to come back from murdering the lord.
     The funeral procession headed to the gates
     The long introduction to the Ghost Scene
     The dance like scene where Asaji waits for the first murder (also indicated here of off screen violence)
     The opposition between the two types resolves in the final scene in which action and on screen violence merge

Film As Narrative.
Ride through forest has 12 shots all approximate the same in that they define grey misty abstract forest. Only in last shot is it clear it is the forest.
Repeated action, yet never the same:
Distance from camera when shot begins and ends
Ride into view out of mist, other times into mist and out of view
Distance from camera at which horses halt
Duration of the turns and the radius of their arc

From shots 8-11 the situation is more complex:
     Riders reverse direction as they ride past panning camera
     Riders get separated as one rides out of the shot and then rejoin
     Ride out leaving an empty frame.
     Reenter unexpectedly in close up

Shots are sometimes revere 180 degree shots which appear statistically more commonly in Japanese films than Western ones.
Final shot as landscape emerges from fog and we return to original motif - horsemen riding to castle Medium shot - At last we are out of the forest.
The 13th shot shows the men seated on the ground now separated by the castle as they discuss the prophesies.

This shot is very symmetrical and symmetry is important in the artistic organization of the film.

Symmetry may be within the frame (in effect paadigmatic) or in a sequence of shots (syntagmatic)


Burch points to the following symmetries in the Ghost scene:

     (a) dancer appears between rows of guests on either side of the hall (Asaji and Washizu are at the far end.
     (b) The camera moves with the dancer sowing him framed (i) between two guests (ii) between the two empty mats (c) Asaji and Washzu.
     (c) Cut to absolutely centered Washizu
     (d) Washizu looks left at mats, (close up of mats) then looks away

Typical of many Kurosawa films the spoken word used sparingly.

Film ends almost as it begins with chant - symmetrical.
What does symmetry represent? Balance? relationship betwen then and now?
Relationship to balance in life? Between sexes? Fair and foul?