Minds Full of Scorpions, Witches in the Wings: Probing the Liminal States and Marginal Spaces of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and Welles’ Macbeth
The witch hut figures as an uncanny, hallucinatory space in Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth.
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.
So ends Macbeth’s famed soliloquy in the eponymous Shakespearean play, manifesting the indelible terror of the work in its final line, a terror that has persisted through four centuries and across a wide array of historical and cultural contexts. This terror stems from Macbeth’s confrontation with an impermeable and compounded obscurity: he cannot hope to understand the vast plurality of the external world if he cannot even fully comprehend the dark recesses of his own mind, and from this Macbeth descends into a nihilism that is both moral and existential. Shakespeare epitomizes this struggle of self-doubt in Macbeth by pulling him in two directions between personal fulfillment and loyalty. Macbeth is an accomplished warrior whose loyalty to his king is questioned when three witches foretell that he, Macbeth, will be king instead. Shakespeare leaves the reader to wrestle with several questions. Was the origin of Macbeth’s murderous ambition to be king the witches’ doing, or was it his own? Was it a tragic end arrived at through supernatural influence or latent impulses; was it a matter of fate or choice? Shakespeare goes to great lengths to leave these questions unresolved. The infectiousness of Shakespeare’s obscurity shades the entirety of the play with an ubiquitous sense of disorder, a characteristic that Stephen Greenblatt, in his introduction to the play in The Norton Shakespeare, describes as the work’s emblematic theme: “Macbeth is a tragedy of meltings, of vanishing boundaries, and liminal states” (2574). It is a play in which margins — between moral and immoral, natural and supernatural, true and false, internal and external — break down and blur together in a bubbling cauldron of indiscernibility, where “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” and conflicting interpretations all seem valid without one being any more revelatory than another (Macbeth 1.1.10). A sense of singular and abiding truth seems to forever elude any one analysis of the play.
Perhaps there is no better medium than cinema to represent this particular aspect of Shakespeare’s chaotic work, the ambiguity of its liminal states and marginal spaces. As André Bazin describes in his essay “Theatre and Film,” cinema’s screen “is not a frame like that of a picture but a mask that allows only part of the action to be seen. [. . .] In contrast to the stage the space of the screen is centrifugal” (105). By dint of being filmed, an image onscreen will automatically register that which is offscreen, albeit to varying degrees. According to Bazin, this offscreen space is symptomatic of the irrevocable differences between theatrical space and cinematic space. The former “exists by virtue of the fact that nothing lies beyond it, the way a painting exists by virtue of its frame,” whereas the latter “has no wings, and could not have such a thing without destroying its specific illusion” — the illusion that the world of the film extends beyond the boundaries of the frame (193).
In Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-jō) (1957) and Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948), both filmmakers embrace the various implications of cinema’s offscreen to enhance the obscurity and disorder inherent in the play’s original text. However, both seem to amend Bazin’s description of offscreen space as a mere extension of the world of the film, an aspect that contributes to cinema’s “realism.” Instead, the conceptual, imaginative, or virtual nature of the offscreen is foregrounded in these two films, and it becomes a space that can accommodate the vast ambiguity of Shakespeare’s chaotic masterpiece, namely its hallucinatory supernatural elements. Kurosawa seems to construct the boundary of the frame as a barrier, a point of contestation between the natural and supernatural spheres, but one that is not impermeable. Welles, on the other hand, seems in a way to extend the dark, “blind” field of offscreen space into the darkness of his chiaroscuro lighting and his abstract mise-en-scène, in effect placing the offscreen partially within the bounds of the frame. These are by no means the only ways that the two filmmakers utilize offscreen space, but in general, their manipulations of the offscreen fall within these two broad impulses. This essay explores how each filmmaker utilizes offscreen space as a tool that is arguably particular to the film medium, and how the original text of Shakespeare’s play is perhaps inherently altered by the act of being filmed and not staged.
From the first moments of Throne of Blood, Kurosawa visually and sonically emphasizes the ephemeral conflict between the natural and the supernatural. The film opens with an extreme long shot of a barren hillside as thick fog drifts left across the screen, and in the brief pause before the chorus begins to relate the tragic tale of Washizu (Toshirō Mifune), the sound of a strong and unrelenting wind seems to resound throughout the valley, dominating the soundtrack. This sound and its visual counterpart, the fog, soon gain metaphorical, if not metaphysical, significance. Both sound and fog issue unremittingly from an indiscernible point offscreen, flooding the valley with a kind of oppressive atmospheric pressure. It is as if the sound and fog were rushing to fill a vacuum, the empty space that Spider’s Web Castle once occupied, no longer impeded by the defined boundary of the castle walls. In these very first moments, before any words have been sung by the chorus, Kurosawa has positioned two opposing forces in direct conflict — that of the external world (the weather) and the human one (the castle). Unlike the axiom of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, however, the human sphere is already proved the lesser of the two forces by the castle’s absence, and the film’s opening suggests “the transience of all earthly things, the end of all ambition, the grave which is our lot” (Richie 117). The castle walls, the boundary dividing the human and inhuman, have fallen, and this blurring of boundaries extends to the edges of the frame — the sound and fog issue in effortlessly from an unseen and unknowable source offscreen. Kurosawa seems to imply that these spaces, the castle and cinema’s screen, are anything but hermetically sealed against the infinite variables and contingencies of the external world, be it in the form of a weather system or a mountain witch. The motif of weather in Throne of Blood is introduced here as both obscure and dubiously powerful in its ability to cross the threshold of the frame, and Kurosawa will later inexorably link it with the ambiguous figure of the mountain witch (Chieko Naniwa), retroactively inflecting the wind and fog of this opening scene, as well as their origin offscreen, with supernatural undertones.
The weather obscures visibility from all sides as Washizu (Toshirō Mifune) and Miki (Minoru Chiaki) attempt to navigate the forest.
Once the chorus does begin its song, a series of pans and cuts advance toward an obscure object in the distance until it is revealed to be a column memorializing the destroyed Spider’s Web Castle. The camera arrives at the column obliquely, however — the panning camera scans the horizon of the bleak landscape, probing through the obscure fog until, as it seems, the voices of the chorus guide it to the negligible remains of the manmade fortress, the last vestigial features of the nearly annihilated human sphere. It seems for a moment that the wind has been drowned out by the voices of the chorus — that human language has gained precedence over the inhuman howling of the wind. However, the chorus — a composite of multiple voices singing in unison — does not itself seem to be entirely human. Later, when the witch is found singing in its forest hut, its voice will carry a similar timbre — one that is an amalgam of tones, a plurality of voices, gendered and genderless at once, and resistant to an interpretation of the witch as a monadic human entity. These songs of both the chorus and the witch share a similar theme: the failure of man. Spider’s Web Castle is a “castle of delusion,” relates the chorus, destroyed by “A scene of carnage / Born of consuming desire / Never changing / Now throughout eternity” (Throne of Blood).
Here, too, the offscreen is evoked. The disembodied voices of the chorus issue forth, like the wind, from an undefined point beyond the bounds of the frame, endowing the chorus with a kind of supernatural omniscience and omnipresence that further links it with the spirit world of the prophetic witch. Thus, the chorus cannot be classified as either completely human or inhuman, but seems to function as an intermediary between the two spheres. Keiko I. McDonald, in “Noh into Film: Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood,” describes this opening chorus in the context of Noh theatre, where traditionally “the chorus makes the transition from the supernatural reality to the tangible reality smooth” (37). The visual imagery of this scene mirrors this act of transition and mediation. In the closest shot of the memorial, the one in which its inscription — “HERE STOOD SPIDER’S WEB CASTLE” — becomes legible, the camera tracks down along the entirety of the column, tracing its vertical orientation between sky and earth. In the same instant that we discover its purpose as a monumental gravestone (an object marking the point between life and death), the camera’s movement traces its totemic shape, emphasizing its role as a conduit between the natural and supernatural worlds. Immediately after this, a thick fog fills the frame and a hidden cut takes us back to the period in which Washizu’s tale takes place, seamlessly transporting us from the film’s supernatural aperture to the “tangible reality” of the tale’s exposition. Once the chorus has ended its song, the supernatural wind once more resounds throughout the valley, but this time in the context of the human tale now set to unfold. Spider’s Web Castle emerges tangibly from the fog, but the invisible influence of the wind is still powerfully present, whipping the messenger’s flags back and forth violently as he advances toward the giant walls of the fortress. It is by no means coincidental that in the film’s penultimate scene, Washizu falls forward into this same fog at the moment of his death, and that through a reversal of the hidden cut in the opening scene, the chorus returns us once more to the pervasive fog and present ruins of Spider’s Web Castle in the final moments of the film.
Kurosawa utilizes the offscreen in a subtly different fashion in the two scenes where Washizu confronts the mountain witch, although these scenes share with the film’s aperture the ultimate end of portraying a meeting point between the natural and supernatural worlds. A disembodied laugh offscreen prompts Washizu and Miki (Minoru Chiaki) to accelerate the pace of their already disoriented trek through the Spider’s Web forest until they seemingly inadvertently arrive at the witch’s hut. Their confused approach has already been characterized by a disorder of the natural sphere through an inexplicable thunderstorm. “What is this day? I have never seen such peculiar weather,” comments Washizu, but a stark change occurs once they arrive at the spirit’s dwelling place (Throne of Blood). The space immediately surrounding the hut is emptied of all atmospheric conditions except a curling white fog — the thunder, lightning, and rain, as well as any accompanying sounds, all cease once the hut is in view, serving to differentiate the space of the hut from the surrounding forest. The witch’s lean-to is a stark, ghostly white against the general darkness of the forest, and is hemmed in on all sides by cage-like bamboo bars — its cast and construction both serving as further markers of the hut’s asynchronous existence in the natural setting of the forest. Here, Kurosawa seems to present the supernatural world within the bounds of his frame — but it is a space that must be reoriented within the larger frame of the screen, doubly confined within the boundaries of the hut and the edges of the frame. This reframing is further heightened once Washizu and Miki settle into their static, observant positions on either side of the screen. The camera, placed behind them, allows us to “watch their watching” of the mountain spirit in a space beyond the periphery of either character’s visual range — it is as though we are inhabiting the characters’ “blind field,” their personal “offscreen space.”
The boundaries of the reframed hut do not last long, however. Washizu’s first action in speaking to the witch is to pull open the door that divides the exterior space of the forest from the lean-to’s ghostly interior. Washizu and Miki retain their positions on opposite ends of the frame, and the camera, while closer to the hut, remains behind the duo. Once the witch has related its cryptic prophecy to Washizu and Miki, it stands and a sudden gust of wind blows its robe toward the camera. A hidden cut — not unlike the cut that took us from the film’s supernatural aperture to its natural exposition — obscures the witch’s departure. Washizu and Miki then enter the lean-to, and a reverse shot places us once more behind them before they push down yet another of the hut’s four cage-like boundary walls. They exit the back of the hut, and the camera tracks forward to follow them. Here, the space beyond the periphery of either character’s visual range is more closely aligned with the “true” offscreen of the film’s frame: neither we nor the character can see the recently vacated lean-to. When Washizu and Miki turn back around, the camera tracks back out to its original position, but the hut is inexplicably absent. The mountain witch has played a supernatural trick on the two characters in the same moment that Kurosawa has played a cinematic trick on us, once more tying the offscreen to a hallucinatory and inhuman sphere in which ambiguity is compounded with further ambiguity. When Washizu later returns to the forest to seek out the witch, it constantly disappears and reappears in different forms and different positions, forcing Washizu to dizzily reorient himself in order to keep it from escaping into the blind field beyond his peripheral vision.
Welles handles the supernatural facets of Macbeth quite differently. Rather than sanctioning off the inhuman sphere in the offscreen and having it inevitably invade the frame as Kurosawa does, Welles places the supernatural squarely in the center of his camera’s gaze from the very first scene of his film. Despite the rigid formalism of Throne of Blood and its debt to the tradition of Noh theatre, the mise-en-scène of Kurosawa’s film is inarguably the more naturalistic of the two adaptations. One needs only to read Donald Richie’s account of Throne of Blood’s production to get a sense of the meticulous preparation Kurosawa undertakes to give his film a sense of corporeal realism, to the point that, for example, he constructs the entirety of Spider’s Web Castle — not as a set, but as an actual fortress — on the side of Mt. Fuji. Kurosawa also tends toward more naturalistic lighting in his film, utilizing a more gradual shift from dark to light along the grayscale, whereas Welles embraces the stark tonal contrast and sharply defined outlines of chiaroscuro lighting (either case is not without exception, but these general trends are quite apparent in each film). These aspects of Welles’ mise-en-scène have much more in common with abstract and expressionist cinema than does Kurosawa’s minimalist mise-en-scène, and this decision on the part of Welles is as much a thematic choice as it is a stylistic one (Naremore). The supernatural forces of good and evil within Welles’ film are unambiguously so. “Orson Welles’s production . . . relates the tale of a man caught in the crossfire of warring deities, ‘between the pass and fell incensed points of mighty opposites.’ A shadowy figure, Welles’s Macbeth is set in a surrealistic world dominated by supernatural forces,” describes Wendy Rogers Harper in her examination of the film (208). Welles’ abstract presentation of Macbeth allows him to portray both the natural and the supernatural aspects of the play together within the same stylized frame, as opposed to the within-without structure that Kurosawa utilizes to delineate the two spheres. However, as is immediately apparent in the opening scene of Welles’ Macbeth, this does not mean that all traces of supernatural ambiguity are vacated from the film. Rather, they too are placed within the frame.
Orson Welles’ Macbeth makes use of the atmospheric motif of fog.
Welles’ film opens, like Kurosawa’s, with the visual motif of fog — but even at first glance, the difference between the two films’ opening shots is readily apparent. As opposed to Kurosawa’s fog, with its perpetual and merciless movement into the frame, Welles’ fog moves much more slowly and gently, seemingly billowing out and over itself, roiling and expanding from within like the image of the witches’ cauldron that is soon to be introduced. This cloudscape dissolves into a long shot of the three weird sisters perched on a rocky outcropping, lit from behind in a stark silhouette. As a consequence of the chiaroscuro lighting, the witches are portrayed in an even, consistent darkness, their figures largely indistinguishable from the cliff on which they stand. Despite being shot from a distance that would reveal every detail of their figures, the backlighting of the scene shrouds them in a shadow that seems to extend from the frame into the offscreen in one continuous, dark shape. In a sense, they are no more “visible” than if they had not been shown at all. They are corporeally present within the frame, but stripped of any defining details that would draw them out of a dark obscurity. They are presented similarly throughout the rest of the film — shot from behind or above, bathed in shadow or pieced apart through extreme-close ups of their disembodied hands, their faces never revealed — to the point that their physical presence within the frame is not necessary to their “presence” within a scene.
This paradoxical situation of the witches being at once present and absent is perhaps most deliberately expressed in the scene of the second confrontation between the weird sisters and Macbeth (Orson Welles himself). After Macbeth climbs to the precipice of a cliff, vehemently summoning the three hags while presented waist-up in a medium shot, the camera lifts and he drops out of the bottom of the frame. A bolt of lightning then flashes white across the screen, and the next shot is from far above Macbeth, angled almost vertically downward to where he stands, illuminated in a spotlight that provides the only small pool of light in the frame — the rest of the screen is filled with an opaque, consistent darkness that seems almost palpable in its singularly black hue. It is easy to imagine the effect of the frame’s near-perfect darkness in a similarly dark theater — the boundary of the screen’s frame would become utterly indiscernible, and the black of the screen would bleed unimpeded into the unlit space surrounding it. From somewhere within this vast expanse, the witches whisper a response to Macbeth’s summons, and even from far above we see him constantly shifting his gaze in an attempt to discern the place from which their voices issue. As the witches relate to Macbeth their second fatal prophecy, the camera slowly tracks forward, closing in on his face. The volume and tone of the witches’ voices, however, run counter to this methodical and unidirectional advancement. Their responses to Macbeth’s questioning build from the quiet, intimate proximity of a whisper to a distant and echoing screech. By the time the camera has tightened in on Macbeth’s face in a close-up, the voices of the weird sisters have evened out in both volume and tone, but the disorienting effect of their scattered and disembodied voices persists — it seems as though they are free to move throughout the black expanse surrounding Macbeth, whether it be inside or outside the now obscured bounds of the screen’s frame. As the scene draws to a close, Welles reinforces the unrestricted autonomy of the witches’ ostensible movement with a wry gesture — he looks directly into the camera as he delivers his final lines, and includes the third dimension of space behind and in front of the screen within the range of the weird sisters’ mobility. Perhaps, Welles seems to playfully imply, the witches could even be seated directly where we are.
These two instances, the film’s opening and Macbeth’s second confrontation with the hags, are by no means the only scenes in which the weird sisters come into play. Harper goes as far as to claim that they are never absent from the film. “Welles raises his supernatural agents, either in person, by voice, or by proxy in the form of the voodoo doll, numerous times. From first to last, they hover over the film, extending their influence even to the apparitions which assault Macbeth,” she argues (204). To accept her conclusion does not require too broad of a logical leap. In many ways, the sparingly few visual motifs that Welles surrounds his weird sisters with are dispersed throughout and absorbed within the film’s mise-en-scène even before Macbeth commits the blasphemous crime of regicide. The cloudscape that precedes their introduction in the film is for all intents and purposes the same image that Welles turns his camera to once Macbeth and Lady Macbeth begin reciting their most famous monologues — “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” (Macbeth 5.5.17-28) and “Unsex me” (Macbeth 1.5.41-55), respectively — and in effect, the voices of the Macbeths, like those of the weird sisters, become disembodied in the billowing fog. The geometric motif of the witches’ forked staves also becomes a concrete aspect of Welles’ mise-en-scène — for instance, their immediately recognizable V shape becomes the insignia with which the shields of Macbeth’s soldiers are emblazoned (Naremore). One scene in particular is constructed almost entirely of these demonic V’s. Macbeth, seated between the obliquely angled armrests of his new throne, backed by a giant triangular flag, and crowned with an angularly horned diadem, instructs the two feral hunters to find and kill Banquo and his son. Macbeth, in more ways than one, is at the inverted apex of the witches’ triangle — a shape that interminably points downward towards betrayal and damnation. Despite their ostensible absence throughout the majority of the film, Welles inscribes the witches within the very plastic construction of his mise-en-scène, and each invocation of these motifs — be it the fog, the staves or the doll — serves to register their presence offscreen.
The motif of the witch’s triangle is on display graphically throughout Welles’ Macbeth, keeping their strange presence and influence in play.
The ambiguity of the hallucinatory supernatural elements in both Welles’ Macbeth and Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood in the end seems to rest largely on their respective representations of the illusory witches of Shakespeare’s play. Greenblatt, speaking exclusively in terms of theatre, says as much of the weird sisters. “Virtually all productions have recognized that the witches’ scenes are among the most theatrically powerful and compelling in the play,” he states — but goes on to also say that “the status of the witches in Shakespeare’s play remains uncertain and seems to be so by design . . . . The theatrical power of Macbeth seems bound up with its refusal to resolve the questions raised by the witches” (2574-75). Kurosawa embraces this ambiguity armed with the tradition of Noh theatre, marshaling the “mugen, or phantasmal noh,” in which “reality is more complex . . . a blend of natural and supernatural planes of experience” in order to portray the indiscernibility of Shakespeare’s weird sisters (McDonald 36). Welles, on the other hand, takes a mythological and sublimated approach to adapting the figures’ obscurity: “The story takes place, Welles says, in a time ‘between recorded history and legend,’ when civilization is literally being created out of the primeval gloom” (Naremore 361). Despite these disparate trajectories, both films utilize the means afforded by cinema’s offscreen space to heighten the witches’ scenes, and even further, to permeate the entirety of their cinematic worlds with the same compelling power. Through the offscreen, both films achieve a distinction that Bazin makes between “filmed theatre” and “cinematic theatre.” Rather than serve as rigid adaptations of Shakespeare’s chaotic masterpiece, both undergo “a process of induction, which in the arts means purely and simply a new creation,” and become plays staged “by means of cinema” (83, 93). Qualitatively different than their theatrical equivalent, these films by Welles and Kurosawa use the inherent illusions of cinema to dramatically present the indelible illusions of our own perceptual world.
Bazin, André. “Theatre and Film.” What is Cinema? Translated by Hugh Gray, University of California Press, 2004, pp. 72-124.
Greenblatt, Stephen. “Macbeth.” The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 1997, pp. 2569-2577.
Harper, Wendy Rogers. “Polanski Vs. Welles On Macbeth: Character or Fate?” Literature Film Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 4, 1986, pp. 203-208.
McDonald, Keiko I. “Noh into film: Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 39, no. 1, University of Illinois Press, 1987, pp. 36-41.
Naremore, James. “The Walking Shadow: Welles’s Expressionist Macbeth.” Literature Film Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 4, 1973, pp. 360-366.
Richie, Donald. The Films of Akira Kurosawa. 3rd ed., University of California Press, 1996.