- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The ongoing “Shakespeare in Washington” celebration has a movie component. Several of the better-known Shakespearean features are being revived at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre as part of a series called “Shakespeare in the Cinema.”

The most antique examples are about to be showcased at the Library of Congress’ Mary Pickford Theater, which begins a series called “Screening Shakespeare” on April 20 with a program consisting of early silents, made between 1905 and 1912. The shortest is a 40-second fragment of a duel from “Macbeth.” The longest is a half-hour digest of “As You Like It.”

During the next two weeks the AFI Silver Theatre will showcase two of the greatest achievements in this tradition: Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” (1957) and “Ran” (1985). Splendid as pictorial spectacles, the movies are distinctive in part because they imaginatively transpose landmarks of English-language theater, “Macbeth” and “King Lear,” respectively, from one language and culture to another. In the process they extend the range of meaning in the original plays, reconcile disparate artistic traditions of the Elizabethan stage and the Noh drama — and confirm the creative potential of cinematic adaptation in the hands of a master stylist.

Mr. Kurosawa died in 1998 at the age of 88. This passing and the release of “Ran” are still within living memory of most art-house moviegoers. “Throne of Blood,” now in its 50th anniversary year, belongs to a more distant, albeit illustrious, period of Kurosawa classics.

Like many imports of that time, it was slow to reach the U.S., opening here in November, 1961 — long after its Japanese premiere in January 1957.

Mr. Kurosawa had abandoned an earlier “Macbeth” project when he heard about Orson Welles’ intention to shoot a film version in the late 1940s. He ended up with the more satisfying variation, although “Throne of Blood” — titled “The Castle of the Spider’s Web” in Japan — proved a box-office disappointment for its distributor, Toho, which was hoping for a spectacle to duplicate the popularity of “Seven Samurai” three years earlier.

The fatalistic emphasis that controls both settings and characters in “Throne of Blood” keeps conventional human interest and empathy at arm’s length, but this was Mr. Kurosawa’s first historical movie after “Seven Samurai,” so the pictorial influence of the triumphant earlier film is unmistakable. Mr. Kurosawa reunited numerous crew members and cast members, and the unit again simulated the same period — an age of warlords in the late 15th or early 16th century — with a comparable dedication.

Shakespeare’s play envisioned an age of Scottish warlords perhaps four centuries earlier. The war-torn backdrops seem thematically interchangeable, but you’re pretty certain that Mr. Kurosawa is illustrating his period with more vividness and authority than even gifted stage directors are likely to bring to “Macbeth.”

The sacrifice of Shakespearean language, including all the eloquent speeches associated with the title character as he descends from warrior to murderous usurper, helps to facilitate an exotic, elaborately pictorial downfall. The downfall is anticipated wherever the camera directs your attention: weather, landscape, costuming, settings, gesture, voice, sound effects.

The opening and closing images seem to emerge from a metaphorical mist of antiquity as they disclose the ruins of the title castle. In the body of the film it materializes in a kind of glowering, doomed, weirdly spidery magnificence along Mount Fuji’s volcanic slopes.

The movie probably provided a first exposure to Noh theater stylization for many of us — a desirable place to start, since Mr. Kurosawa’s approach is so streamlined and astute that it makes an unfamiliar tradition dramatically coherent. He set the movie in a period when Noh drama flourished among the aristocracy, but in a practical sense he adapted and revived it — with its typical poses, tableaux, gestures and allusions — as a versatile instrument for his stock company of film actors.

As Lady Asaji, the counterpart for Lady Macbeth, Isuzu Yamada was a spidery triumph in her own right — a black widow in pallid disguise. Eerily pale and pent-up, she encourages murderous aims in her powerful but far from introspective mate, Toshiro Mifune’s Gen. Washizu. A delicate enabler of infamy, her character suffers a shocking loss of control when released into madness by Lady Macbeth’s hand-washing compulsion.

Mr. Mifune also enjoys a demented highlight for the ages when slashing at the ghost of Washizu’s slain comrade Miki, the equivalent of Shakespeare’s Banquo. The general always looks as if ferocity and futility are preparing to unhinge him. This undercurrent culminates in a remarkable denouement, in which Mr. Mifune’s sustained mask of fear reflects a great pictorial improvement on Macbeth’s offstage beheading — Washizu bombarded with the arrows of his own renegade archers. A sensational stunt sequence, it caused the actor some genuine apprehension. Mercifully, he’s given the gentlest of death falls while staggering with about 20 arrows in his torso, not to mention the coup de grace, a shaft that supposedly pierces his neck.

Almost three decades later, “Ran” appeared as a great valedictory successor to “Throne of Blood.” The presentation of human folly and desolation remained as haunting as before, although color photography had given a different, disarming visual quality to the filmmaker’s meditation on Lear’s downfall, embodied by Tatsuya Nakadai as an aging warlord.

“Ran” may have done more housekeeping favors for its prototype, since “Macbeth” always offered a more incisive scenario to movies than “King Lear.” Mr. Kurosawa had several years to refine his plans while seeking financial backers, but age didn’t exhaust his resourcefulness or assurance. “Ran” devised counterparts for most of the major characters, clarified the dynastic tangle and fused two hateful daughters, Goneril and Regan, into an awesomely bloodthirsty daughter-in-law, Kaede, a fabulous role for Mieko Harada.

Macbeth’s beheading was also retrieved — as a suitable punishment for the ruthless Kaede. If you can’t have Shakespearean language in a Shakespearean movie, the best alternative is a scenic framework created by Akira Kurosawa.

SERIES: “Shakespeare in the Cinema”

WHERE: American Film Institute Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road in Silver Spring

WHEN: Tomorrow through April 26

ADMISSION: $9.25 for the general public; $7.50 for AFI members, students and seniors (65 and over). Weekdays before 6 p.m., $6.75

PHONE: 301/495-6700

WEB SITE: www.afi.com/silver

SCHEDULE: “Throne of Blood,” Friday-Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday, April 19; “Ran,” April 21, 22 and 26.

TITLE: “Throne of Blood” (“Kumonosu-jo,” literally “The Castle of the Spider’s Web”)

RATING: No MPAA rating (made in 1957, years before the advent of the rating system; adult subject matter, with violent episodes)

CREDITS:: Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Screenplay by Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni and Mr. Kurosawa, suggested by William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” In Japanese with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

DVD EDITION:: The Criterion Collection

WEB SITE: www.criterioco.com

TITLE: “Ran” (“Turmoil” or “Chaos”)

RATING: R (Occasional graphic violence and morbid illustrative details)

CREDITS: Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Screenplay by Hideo Oguni, Masato Ide and Mr. Kurosawa, based on Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” Music by Toru Takematsu. In Japanese with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 160 minutes

DVD EDITION: Wellspring

WEB SITE: www.wellspring.com/homevideo

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