The movie starts out in a gorgeous black and white fog with some ominous chanting about fate etc. Then it quickly sets up the hierarchy of lords in the castle before finally introducing us to Toshiro Mifune’s Macbeth riding through a dense forest with the best friend, one he will murder for political gain within an hour and half’s running time.
This first half hour seemed foreign to me -- and not just because it is, you know, a “foreign film” -- but because the tone was more whimsical than anything I remember from reading the Shakespeare play in twelfth grade. If there’s one thing I remember about Macbeth, it was not the whimsy. There’s some good natured ribbing between Macbeth and his buddy before meeting the soothsayer that will spell out their tragic fates, in this version a sort of Buddhist blind man spinning what appeared to be two hamster wheels on a string. The scene has its appropriate ominous portents, but it also plays very campy, with Mifune and his pal laughing off the prophet as if he were some
palm reader. Venice Beach
Soon after, on their way back to the castle, they get lost in the densest of dense fogs and ride around like bumbling idiots back and forth for what seemed like five minutes in a scene straight out of a Keystone Cops one-reeler. Finally, they approach the castle but decide to take a breather before entering. They sit down to have a very playful Beckett-like conversation about the absurdity of fate, namely the one that has been laid out for them.
By this point, I’m thinking…this is not your mother’s Macbeth. We’re already a half hour in with no sign of Lady Macbeth, not a single politically motivated murder as of yet, and no “damn spots” to be outed. But you know what? I’m liking it...
Well, as soon as they pick up and arrive to the castle, the familiar plot mechanizations (or should I say Mac-hanizations?) kick in and in a very condensed fashion. Before you can blink, a very disturbing, Kabuki-like Lady Macbeth is giving her husband very precise instructions on how to climb the warlord ladder, and the bodies quickly start piling up. Kurosawa himself is ruthless at gutting the play and keeping it to the bare essentials, speeding the familiar plot along quickly and efficiently.
Sure, you lose a lot of what’s great about Shakespeare in the translation, namely those soliloquies. But what you lose in words Kurosawa makes up for in images. That fog. The forest shooting. The spare symmetry of the meeting rooms and lines of soldiers. All of it, in beautiful high-contrast black and white.
But Kurosawa saves the set piece de resistance for Mifune’s end death scene. It’s one of the best, over-the-top, going-out-with-a-bang death scenes I’ve ever seen (rivaling Peckinpah I dare say). Thousands of arrows corner Mifune atop his wooden pulpit overlooking the castle, then porcupine him one by one as he struggles to escape. Whatever effects they used for this sequence (I’m guessing it was carefully placed arrows on wires and a lot of creative editing), it’s ten times more effective than any CGI shot they would come up with today. Screw the swarm of digital arrows flying every which way in last year’s Hero, these were immediate and painful even to watch. And then that final arrow through Mifune’s neck…priceless. The “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” indeed.