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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Throne of Blood

My latest Netflix DVD was a movie I'd seen years ago, Throne of Blood--Akira Kurosawa's magnificent Japanese adaptation of Macbeth. A couple of things struck me this time around that I hadn't remembered from last time. One was that in terms of plot and characterization Kurosawa's version is, in some ways, an improvement on Shakespeare's (yes, blasphemy, I know).

In Shakespeare, we jump from the witches predicting that Macbeth will become the king to Macbeth already having discussed the murder of Duncan with his wife and beginning to get cold feet about it. In Kurosawa's version, Washizu's wife Akaji lays out a logical (if paranoid and cynical) reason for killing the Great Lord. If Miki (the Banquo equivalent) tells the Great Lord about the prophecy, then the Great Lord (who himself got his position by killing his predecessor, unlike the saintly Duncan) will move to crush Washizu. As they're discussing this, word comes that the Great Lord's forces are moving through the forest toward the castle. It turns out that it's a surprise visit (in Macbeth, Duncan gives notice that he's coming) and that the Great Lord has appointed Washizu to command the vanguard in the coming war. Washizu sees this as reassuring--the Great Lord clearly still trusts him--but Akaji suggests that the overlord is trying to get him killed, while giving Miki command of the central "Spider Web Castle."

Washizu decides to go along with the murder. Miki throws his support behind Washizu, citing the prophecy. But, as in Macbeth, Washizu now mistrusts Miki, since the prophecy had said that Miki's son would rule. However, since Washizu has no heir, he thinks he can fulfill the prophecy without more bloodshed by declaring Miki's son his heir (Macbeth never considers doing this as far as I remember). Akaji objects strenuously, and finally reveals that she is pregnant. Washizu again capitulates, for the sake of his unborn child, and has Miki murdered. As in Shakespeare, Miki's ghost appears at the feast and scares Washizu out of his wits. Akaji's child is stillborn, and as the invading army cuts branches from the trees (just as in Macbeth), Washizu's own men, whom he has told of the prophecy about the forest "rising to attack," turn on him and riddle him with arrows.

Washizu's actions, while essentially the same as Macbeth's, are far more comprehensible. At every step, he seems to have good reason to fear that his potential victims will turn on him. (He also doesn't kill women and children as Macbeth does.) His wife is paranoid rather than simply ambitious. The result is a story that perhaps has less pathological intensity than Macbeth's, but actually makes more sense as a study of power and how those who seek and wield power wind up destroying themselves.

The Criterion commentator sees Kurosawa's version as nihilistic and fatalistic, arguing that Washizu (unlike Macbeth) has no real choice. I think this is nonsense. At any point, he could have rejected his wife's cynical logic and chosen to risk death rather than act dishonorably. And this brings me to the second point I noticed this time around--the role of Buddhism in the forest spirit's prophecy.

The spirit is referred to in the English subtitles as an "evil spirit," and the commentator calls it a "witch," assimilating it to Shakespeare's three "weird sisters" to which it clearly corresponds. But the song the spirit sings as Washizu and Miki discover it in the forest is full of Buddhist language such as karma and the neverending cycle of human life fueled by desire--language also found in the opening and closing chorus of the movie. The spirit turns a wheel (presumably a spinning wheel) as it sings, evoking the basic Buddhist symbol of the "wheel of dharma."

The spirit's words to the two generals are full of promise and temptation, but the song that precedes those words points in the opposite direction, reminding them of the futility of desire and ambition, since everything ends in "rotten flesh."

It seems to me that Washizu does have a choice--he could have chosen to listen to the spirit's song rather than its alluring words, refusing to heap up bad karma by pursuing the path of selfish desire. He could have chosen to act generously and justly even in the face of the real possibility that others would not behave that way toward him. The prophecy unveils the web of karma in which he is caught. But there is always a way out. Stop craving, stop fearing, stop grasping at time and fate in order to control them.

And the same is true for us, as we worry about what Donald Trump might do or what Hillary Clinton might do or what ISIS might do or what the fundamentalists or the liberals or the gays or the socialists or the capitalists might do to us. We can persuade ourselves that the part of wisdom is to strike first, to treat others as if they were the monsters our fear makes them, or we can choose to break the wheel. We're going to die either way, sooner or later, and we're probably going to die sooner if the cycle of fear and violence isn't broken. So what do we have to lose?

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