Turning Japanese? Kurosawa, Mifune, Armitage — Oakenshield

Richard Armitage as Peter Macduff in ShakespeaRE-Told: Macbeth. Source: Richard Armitage Net

Interviewed by Entertainment Weekly in August 2008 and responding to reader questions, Richard Armitage was asked inter alia, “If you could star in a remake of a classic film, what would it be?” His answer: “Crikey, that’s a tricky one. I tell you what: Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. It’s his Macbeth. That’s where I’m at at the moment: Something kind of epic, dramatic, and atmospheric. Obviously I wouldn’t be Japanese.”

As a scholar who wants to explore every part of her subject that she can get access to, Servetus watched Throne of Blood [Original title: Kumonosu-jō (蜘蛛巣城)] Thursday night. She was really surprised by how well she liked it. (Suggestion: if you watch the Criterion edition, as Servetus did, skip the audio commentary. It’s tedious and the commentator is more interested in displaying his self-important erudition than in explaining things to the viewer. He never predicted any question I (as a novice to Japanese film) actually had. Serious fail. On the other hand, you can choose between two different sets of subtitles, although the only way to find out what distinguishes them if you don’t own the item yourself is to google. After testing them both out briefly, Servetus went with the  subtitles by Linda Hoaglund and was not disappointed — they have a formal feel that is more what she expects from a Shakespeare adaptation than the ones created by the Kurosawa expert, which are allegedly more literal.) Admittedly, she was near collapse and probably not thinking straight, but Servetus was wrong about what she thought she was going to see. She thought she was getting a heavily stylized version of a familiar story that she was going to need a guide to understand because of the differing cultural conventions of Japanese film and theatre — something obscure and challenging and artsy. She got something else entirely.

The plot of the film: After a battle in which they triumph despite a thoroughly anticipated defeat, soldiers Taketori Washizu (Toshirō Mifune) and Yoshiteru Miki (Akira Kubo) get lost in the forest around Spiderweb Castle, where a forest spirit foretells the fate of each. Spurred on by his ambitious wife, Asaji ( Isuzu Yamada), and with the prophecies ringing in his ears, Washizu kills his lord and frames two guards for the crime. After making himself lord of Spiderweb Castle, Washizu begins to lose his grasp on reality and slaughters both his enemies and friends before a cataclysmic showdown of armies.

Be Japanese? Um, no, obviously you wouldn’t. However, Mr. Armitage, I can definitely see why you’d be interested in participating in a remake of this piece — and I assume it’s not just because you’ve been in Macbeth twice and probably have the original play memorized and have looked at most of the adaptations and interpretations of it — Kurosawa’s piece seems to share some strong affinities with tendencies in your work (your acting, but also your role choices) in a number of senses.

What do I see as the points of intersection between this film and Armitage?

For the Armitage fan, something that is immediately identifiable are similarities between Armitage and the male lead of Throne of Blood — Toshirō Mifune, who plays Washizu, the Macbeth character –, even on the basis of appearance. You’ll probably snort when you read that since, indeed, Mr. Armitage reports accurately that he does not look Japanese. But their facial features and they way they use them have a similarly striking quality. Mifune has, in my opinion, one of the most arresting faces of screen history, and the viewer is transfixed the second she sees him on the screen.

Peter Macduff (Richard Armitage) awaits the arrival of Joe Macbeth in the telling final scene of ShakespeaRE-told: Macbeth. Source: Richard Armitage Net

I’ve never really been attracted by Japanese men, but Mifune just has an unforgettable face, from the second we see it.

Washizu (Toshirō Mifune) reacts to a moan he attributes to a forest spirit as he and his comrade Miki (Minoru Chiaki) traverse Spiderweb Forest on their way to Spiderweb Castle in Throne of Blood. My cap.

In particular, both of these actors have a real talent for the look of resentment from under the eyebrows:

Lucas North (Richard Armitage) looks resentfully towards Harry Pearce’s office in Spooks 9.1. Source: Richard Armitage Net

Washizu (Toshirō Mifune) looks to the side from under his brow, this time in a mixture of frustration and apprehension, at the empty places of Miki and his son, whom he has recently ordered to be assassinated, in Throne of Blood. My cap.

This striking quality of expression extends to both actors’ general use of their faces. Kurosawa said of Mifune, “Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding. The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor. And yet with all his quickness, he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities.”

For a demonstration of this point, look at this clip from Throne of Blood, in which the lord of Spiderweb Castle is rewarding Washizu (Mifune) for his service and victory in the battle. (Sorry about these clips — it took me a whole day to find a version of the movie that was clippable, and it happened not to have subtitles. But that will focus you even more on Mifune’s physicality as an actor.)

In six seconds of film we see three different reactions cross Mifune’s face. Compare to Mr. Armitage, here as Mr. Thornton, deciding how he’s going to deal with Margaret’s deception as to her presence at the train station on the night of Leonards’s murder, in the third episode of North & South:

It’s a similar performance with about three distinct emotions appearing in six seconds. We can see Mifune’s expressions a bit more boldly than we do Armitage’s, but this is partially because of the intentionally exaggerated style of performance in Throne of Blood, which mimics some conventions of Noh theatre, which involves the wearing of a mask by the main character.

Washizu (Toshirō Mifune) reacts in astonishment to his wife Asaji’s (Isuzu Yamada) insistence that he harbors military ambition and the desire to kill his lord in Throne of Blood. My cap.

Armitage and Mifune also both act with their entire bodies. An impressive scene from Throne of Blood involves Asaji (Washizu’s wife — a bloodthirstier character by far than Lady Macbeth — played by the seriously impressive Isuzu Yamada, a taught, suppressed, malevolent force in contrast to Mifune’s brash physicality) pushing him to murder his lord. Here there’s a cooperation between Mifune and the camera, in that as Asaji projects the murderous venom of her conniving suspicions into Washizu’s mind, we don’t see Washizu’s face, but rather his stance. How he reacts to anything she says is read entirely in his feet. See them especially at 0:59, and the motion of his shoulders and breathing toward the end of the clip below.

We something similar in Armitage’s work, though not as pronounced, in Spooks 9.4, as Lucas / John discovers that Vaughn’s been watching his encounters with Maya:

In the scene above, we see an interesting contrast between the tension Armitage places in Lucas / John’s shoulder’s, and the care with which he walks, almost tiptoeing as he surveys his perimeter.

In the end, too, both actors share a sort of dancelike approach to the execution of their action scenes. Fantastic in Throne of Blood is the scene where Washizu, having ordered the assassination of his friend Miki and his son (heir to Spiderweb Castle, a decision made before Washizu realized his wife was pregnant), sees Miki’s ghost at a banquet he’s holding, ostensibly in Miki’s honor, but really to establish an alibi for himself.

Above, note also Mifune’s use of his hands at 0:26 and following — very dramatic, very striking. This dancelike movement through action is something that Armitage is a pro at, something that we can identify again and again in his work, and definitely keeps me watching. Here, for instance, John Porter, breaking Felix Masuku (Shaun Parkes) out of Chikurubi Prison, in Strike Back 1.3:

Or here, Lucas chasing down a Central Asian terrorist wannabe in Spooks 9.3:

Okay, I went on about that at a little too much length. You’re probably thinking now (and I agree) that the point of Armitage’s quote wasn’t to identify himself as an actor like Mifune. Our man is far too modest. Nonetheless, I think the quality of Armitage’s acting is not irrelevant to his choice of this particular piece as a potential ideal remake. That is to say — one of the fascinating qualities of the film is that after a relatively “active” opening scene, all of the significant action occurs off camera until quite late in the film, enhancing the dramatic quality of the breathtaking violence with which it ends. For most of the film, the drama stems not from the characters witnessing or committing crimes that the viewer sees — so that we can compare our own moral reactions to this violence to that of the characters — but rather from their reactions to them. This is a great dramatic technique because it reduces the audience’s potential alienation from violent or immoral characters and allows us as viewers to focus on understand their emotional and psychological states. This prioritization of reaction over action seems to me to be a key principle of Armitage’s acting style. I’ve noted in particular that we almost never see Lucas North’s actual emotions, but only Lucas struggling to react to, retreat from, or gain control over them. Moreover, opting for reaction vs. action when one can also potentially underlies Armitage’s insights about the significance of creating multilayered characters with a strong dualism at their core. In essence — this sort of the script is the sort of piece that would really show off key facets Armitage’s acting style. No wonder it appeals.

The other thing is the drama. As I mentioned above, I thought I was going to get a piece that only an arthouse film lover — which I am not really — could love. Instead I saw a piece that pared down the essentials of the story in a narrative that was dramatic without going overboard, in which everything about the film (shots, settings, acting, script) constantly focused me on the essentials. This is a distilled, heady version of Macbeth that electrifies because it deals in archetypes, not language per se. No wonder that critics describe this as the best film version of the story. You really get a sense from this version of it of the essential power of Shakespeare’s construction of the story, even apart from his delicious language. But I think there’s a broader similarity here to Armitage’s impulses and tastes as actor — I’ve noted in passing, for instance, an example of ties between Lucas North and Achilles, and how the photography of the defeated John Porter takes on this same mood. This ongoing struggle with identity and the attempt to create great personalities — seeing Lucas as a sort of superhero, for example, as Mr. Armitage noted in the DVD extra “Making of” for Spooks 7 — fits well with this sort of drama, in which the good qualities are always in flux with the hero’s tragic flaw(s).

Finally, these last two matters suggest to me that if Throne of Blood is the sort of remake Mr. Armitage would choose to be in, to me, anyway, it also explains something about the decision to do The Hobbit, apart from its potential pecuniary or career benefits. If you want to go for the big story, the archetype, and the character as reactor, not just as actor, that story, and the role of Thorin Oakenshield, are both great choices.

[Sorry I’ve been so elusive lately. I’m still trying to finish reading and reacting to fanstRAvaganza two, and of course to comments on my own blog. Please be assured of my good will.]

~ by Servetus on April 3, 2011.

27 Responses to “Turning Japanese? Kurosawa, Mifune, Armitage — Oakenshield”

  1. This actually sounds like something I will see and thanks for the tips on subtitles. I agree, I can see why he would be interested in the story itself. I think he would be stellar in a film like this. My 2 cents…oh, btw, re-accreditation for University, highly successful!


    • That’s good news — not that I was worried!

      He’d be great in this. Let’s finance a remake 🙂 Seriously, I liked this a lot better than North by Northwest.


  2. I think that the fantasy/romance aspects could be levied a little to balance the violence so that it wouldn’t be unbearable as in lots and lots of non-stop bloodshed. I’m a little tired of it. There are 2 vehicles of Richard’s that I can watch that do not leave me depressed, VoD and the Impressionists. That is saying something. Our dear boy needs to lighten up…alot!


    • It is certainly true that if you’re looking for levity you’re not going to get it in the stuff he’s been in so far … let’s hope he does get something that’s “all about love” soon.

      On the other hand, as someone who’s fundamentally melancholic, I don’t really have a problem with the mood of the other stuff. When I really need a jolt, I just watch the N&S kiss a few times. Usually does the trick.


      • True..that kissing scene and a few choice bits of VoD and the Tavern scene from S3 Robin Hood.

        I haven’t been around lately as RL has been whacked but I do appreciate you and your insights. Just wanted to say that.


      • What an interesting analysis! I saw Throne of Blood as a young teen – much too young to get it. I can’t wait to give it a close viewing.

        There is sure to be some levity in The Hobbit, at least until they get on with the mayhem in Part 2.


  3. Shame on me, I missed Richard talking about “Throne of Blood”.

    Ahhh, Kurosawa! One of my all time favourites, together with his star, Toshiro Mifune. I watched all of Kurosawa’s films repeatedly at the Viennese Filmmuseum. Toshiro Mifune is striking in more than one way – looks, intensity, the way he breathes life into the very stylised way of Japanese acting. In a way, the look of resentment on Lucas’ face is very similar to that – it doesn’t seem so subtle as Richard’s usual acting. But I better don’t go on about Spooks 9, it hurts too much, and I noticed that the pain doesn’t go away.

    Do you know Kurosawa’s “Kagemusha”? Apart from the story, his handling of colour is breathtaking. And of course there’s the wickedly funny and cynical “Yojimbo”. He has a way of playing with the clichés of Japanese heroic tales that makes you think.


    • Nope, this is the only Kurosawa film I’ve ever seen, and I’m sure one of the few Japanese films I’ve ever seen (can’t think of any other ones off hand although there must have been some — I vaguely remember one about a noodle shop).

      From what I’ve gathered reading about this in the last few days, Mifune’s facial gestures are more pronounced here than usual because of the explicit relationship the film draws to Noh theatre.


      • Have you seen Ran, perhaps? It’s another take on Shakespeare, this time King Lear (sort of). I don’t know if it is generally considered to be one of Kurosawa’s masterworks, but visually it’s quite memorable. If you watch it, be forewarned: this film is breathtakingly violent.


        • I think the film I was thinking of was “Tampopo” (1985). Have not seen “Ran.” I was discussing this with Dear Friend the other night — I know “about” Kurosawa in the way most educated people do — that “Rashomon” pioneered the technique of looking at things from different perspectives, that “The Seven Samurai” was the inspiration for “The Magnificent Seven,” etc., but without knowing the films themselves.

          Now: German art film of the 1920s and 30s? I could have that as a Jeopardy! category 🙂


          • Servetus, you must think I’m crazy. For some reason your initial comment registered as “this is one of the few Kurosawa films I’ve ever seen” hence the mention of Ran. It’s not the sort of film one is likely to confuse with Tampopo, that’s for sure!


  4. Wonderful post Servetus and great comparison between Mifune and Armitage.

    I think Kurasawa’s Shakespeare “adaptions” are some of his best work. Interesting also to follow the growth and relationship between director and actor (Kurasawa/Mifune) through a long association. I hope the same for Richard Armitage after The Hobbit – though I was thinking what director would be a good partnership for him (maybe I’ll do a poll on my blog – LOL).

    I grew up watching Toshiro Mifune movies since he was my mother’s favorite – her RA in a way (but also Laurence Olivier!). She was a fan all throughout her life. We always watched Mifune’s films together and used to go to a restaurant in my town that Mifune once visited. My mother liked discussing Mifune with the staff there – but that was long ago now, but your post took me down memory lane a bit today.


    • I learned while writing this post that Mifune played the role of Toranaga in Shogun, the miniseries that was one of two big tv productions that caught my attention as a child / preteen (the other being Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth). I remember being very impressed by him even at that very late stage in his career.

      Love the idea of a poll about which director should fall in love with Mr. Armitage’s work!!!


  5. Quite attracted to Ken Watanabe, too. just thought I’d throw that in. The Last Samurai, with Watanabe acting rings around scene-chewing Cruise…Taller than Cruise, too. 🙂


  6. […] Armitage may have individual areas of which he has a strong structural command; the mythic structure of drama could be one of these (and it’s something I’ve wanted to write about more) — but if so, it would be […]


  7. […] as something “epic, dramatic, and atmospheric” — and as I’ve pointed out, his acting style squares well with the themes of such works, allowing him to move emotively and phys…. At the same time, however, the kind of acting style and process that Armitage describes, for me, […]


  8. Kurosawa/Mifune were a great team, all right, and Mifune’s heightened acting style appeared in the Samurai/period pieces, not the then-contemporary stories. Also, I’ve never liked the term ‘art house’ as a description of a number of films that make up my favorites. Mr. Spielberg – whose Jaws is in my top ten – and I share the same favorite all-time film: Kurosawa’s Ikiru, which isn’t an “art house” masterpiece, but a HUMAN masterpiece.


  9. […] –see Obscura’s notes on this play in relationship to Armitage– or Macbeth – see my notes about Armitage’s interest in Throne of Blood of The Cherry Orchard. This mode of explanation casts an interesting light on how we as humans make […]


  10. “allows us as viewers to focus on understand their emotional and psychological states. This prioritization of reaction over action seems to me to be a key principle of Armitage’s acting style.” quote from your writings above…..I have been very curious about what character RA is going to play in the project he just lately announced, The Pilgrimage. Although to some it seems incredulous (because they point out Mr. A has a lovely voice, which of course he does, and they feel his presence in the movie would be wasted if it wasn’t used), I have been wondering if Mr. A might be taking on the role of the mute monk? He has said he speaks French in the upcoming movie, that could take place in flashbacks of the ‘the characters violent past’. Anyways, I am wondering if the mute role would appeal to him because it would afford him such wonderful opportunity to showcase how subtle and yet how expressive his acting could be without the use of speaking. I am wondering if something like that would be appealing to him as an actor.


    • yeah, if all I’d have known about that film was that a mute monk was in it, I’d have guessed that’s the role Armitage would choose. Which is cool with me — after seeing him in London, honestly that man can do so much with his body and I bet now that he has left the sort of blunt gestural language of TH behind him we will see even more of that — so I hope you’re right. I hope he was a French monk with a voice before he ended up in Ireland, or whatever, but honestly — I can wait to find out the deets.


  11. […] it’s hard to escape the notion that with Thorin Oakenshield we are yet again confronted with something epic that could have been tailor-made for him. From things he’s said this time around it sounds as if this role found him — and […]


  12. […] to me, it feels a great deal like the sort of movies Armitage used to say he wanted to be in: epic and atmospheric. (Laying aside the crazy political rhetoric at the beginning, pitched at the U.S. audience, one […]


  13. […] as preferring plays that are either more openly visceral — The Crucible — or with epic themes — Oedipus. Vanya speaks both to his appreciation of modernism (Bulgakov), his love for mood […]


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