In a time of feuding houses, Washizu, a general to the Lord of Spider's Web Castle, turns what promised to be a crushing military defeat into a decisive victory. While on his way to receive praise from the Lord, Washizu gets lost in a fog and encounters a forest spirit who tells him he will quickly rise the ranks until he himself is Lord of the Castle.
The early parts of the prophecy soon prove true, leaving Washizu in a very prominent position. While he's content with his current success, his wife is fearful that he's being set up and urges him to commit murder in order to not only fulfill the prophecy, but guarantee their safety.
After much deliberating, Washizu performs the task of killing his Lord, blames the fleeing prince for the crime, and assumes the mantle of Lord of Spider's Web Castle. But leading a house is no easy task when you are constantly looking over your shoulder, fearful that a friend who knows too much may turn on you.
What Doesn't Work:
- Washizu. Sadly, Toshiro Mifune takes one of his over-the-top, snarling approaches to the character and plays him as a brutal thug of a man right from the start. Like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, the descent of a normal, upstanding man into a brutal monster just doesn't carry any weight if he's a little unhinged from the moment we meet him. Since his character arc is the centerpiece of the story, it's a pretty major failing.
- Unfortunately, the other major character of Lady Washizu is just as ill portrayed. In a performance influenced to a radical degree by Noh drama, Isuzu Yamada plays the part far too stiff and formal and doesn't have the charisma of Mifune to at least make it watchable. Yes, there are tiny moments where she nicely breaks through the mask, but they're few and far between and much of the original character's texture is lost.
- In an addition to the original story, Lady Washizu gets pregnant. While this does tie into a broader plot involving heirs, it's an unnecessary addition that not only alters certain motivations, but keeps Lady Washizu off screen, thus further hurting her development.
- There's a scene near the beginning where a pair of horsemen are lost in the fog. It's beautifully filmed and certainly captures their desperate confusion, but it goes on far, far too long.
- Near the end, Kurosawa puts together a pair of huge, beautifully shot armies, but does nothing with them. The play has a huge clash and siege, but Kurosawa cuts it out here, leaving hundreds of extras with little to do.
What Does Work:
- Despite lacking any of the original text, it's a marvelous adaptation of the original play, perfectly transposing it from one culture to another.
- The elaborate costumes and sparse, striking sets are simply superb, giving the film a look that balances cinematic stylization and historical authenticity.
- Kurosawa knows how to shoot and edit well. I'm not the most technically proficient when it comes to camera lenses and angles, but the telephoto work he does here is among the best we've seen so far. And, aside from that dragging scene in the fog I mentioned earlier, his editing is spot-on, keeping every element of the story distinct and making certain it moves at a solid pace.
- I love the way Kurosawa drenches the entire film, the entire reign of Washizu, in a soup of sun-sucking, geography-blurring fog. It perfectly captures the ill weather often metaphorically mentioned in the play, while also giving the entire story the sense of a supernatural spectre, a tragedy playing out before our eyes across the boundaries of time.
- Masaru Sato's traditional Noh score is the best for a Kurosawa film yet. The reed pipes, drums, and chanting are absolutely haunting and seem to carry the crushing weight of destiny that Mifune's performance lacks.
- Despite misguided performances from the two leads, Minoru Chiaki is absolutely wonderful as Miki, a fellow general of Washizu who has doubts about his old friend's actions, but stays loyal until his timely end. I've failed to mention Chiaki in past reviews, but he truly is a fantastic addition to Kurosawa's troupe of regulars, equally at home with roles that are humorous or dramatic, lovable or menacing. Here, he's marvelous as a man always cast in his best friend's shadow, yet who never wavers in his support. And he makes a freaky ghost.
- Aside from a few unnecessary ghost samurais waving spears, the scenes with the forest spirit are fantastic. It seems like a bit too broad of a change to replace three cackling hags with a deathly still, whispering old woman, powdered to the point where she glows, but it works.
- The assault by the "very woods themselves" is a brilliantly eerie, epic moment.
- Washizu's piercing finale is certainly one of the most memorable scenes I've witnessed on film.
While, no, it's not one of Kurosawa's best, it certainly is an intelligent, beautifully made film and a remarkable adaptation of the original play. I think the problem with the lead roles being influenced by Noh traditions is that the surrounding supporting cast plays their parts in a much more grounded, naturalistic style. This creates a sense of disconnect, an air of disharmony that mars what otherwise could have been Kurosawa's next masterpiece.