We then travel back in time to medieval Japan where two warriors, Washizu and his friend Miki (Akira Kubo) have won a military victory for the Great Lord against his enemy, Inui. On the way to receive thanks from their leader, the two men become lost in the very forest which is supposed to confuse the enemy, which hints at problems to come. (Forests in traditional literature are many times places of danger where one can stray from a safe journey because of a loss of direction. A couple of films, The Wizard of Oz, and The Princess Bride, are movie examples). As we see here, one can also become lost in such a place morally. They hear a screeching which they attribute to an evil spirit. They discover a shack which was not there before. There is what looks like an old person spinning yarn, and the turning wheel he uses also points to the theme of repetition of birth and death in the material world. He is singing words that mirror some of the chanting chorus. He sings about the meaninglessness of the nature of man, who will eventually “decay into the stink of flesh.” Man also burns himself up in the “flames of desire.” Mortal man is part of that eternal return of the same since from the foul stench of human decay comes the sweet perfume of the flowers. The man also says that men can’t see into their own “hearts,” which points to an inability to recognize a person’s inner nature, including its flaws. These words are warnings which go unheeded by the men, especially Washizu. When they interrupt the man, who is really a spirit, he reveals that he knows their names and commands, and predicts that Washizu will be made Commander of the North Garrison, and eventually will be the sovereign who will rule from the castle. Miki’s son will eventually become ruler, too. Then the spirit and his shack disappear, but what remains are mounds of dirt filled with human bones, meant to remind them of their mortality and the price that is paid for indulging one’s selfish ambitions.
The impenetrable mist and the blinding wind in the movie suggest that inability to see through to the truth of the “vanity” of human pursuits and to gain insight insight into a person’s true self. The two men laugh about the predictions as they rest outside the castle. Later, however, the Great Lord awards them the exact posts the spirit foretold they would receive. Washizu anguishes over his fate, since he is torn between his loyalty to the Great Lord and his own wish to replace him. Washizu spoke to Miki about how the meeting with the spirit was like a dream, and dreams expose our baser natures. In psychological terms, the unconscious mind harbors the selfish yearnings of the uncivilized id. Instead of the encounter in the forest dictating Wahsizu’s destiny, it instead allows his true immoral character to emerge.
We then see Washizu with his wife, Lady Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), (the Lady Macbeth of this film) who he has told about the prophecy. She wants him not to feel guilty because she wants her husband to act on his ambitions, which she says are natural desires given his military standing. She sows paranoia by warning him that if Miki tells the Great Lord of the prophecy then he will kill Washizu to protect himself. She urges him to kill the leader first, and escape retribution and fulfill his destiny. Her motto is kill or be killed, which derives from a sort of survival of the fittest jungle law. Washizu says that Miki would not put him in danger since he is a loyal friend. Asaji says that he can’t rely on that friendship because the times are degenerating, and instead of trying to fight that trend, she urges accepting it and acting accordingly. Obviously, she wants to satisfy her appetite for power through her husband. Asaji’s alternating deliberate and quick movements, which are stylized, like a sort of ballet, derive from the Japanese centuries old theatrical tradition of Noh. The word means “talent” or “skill,” and the art form employs stock movements to convey emotion and masks to represent character types. In any event, Asaji’s motion implies that there is something off about her. Her rehearsed motion suggests she is staging a performance to influence Washizu.
The Great Lord visits Washizu’s garrison to fortify the border and attack Inui when possible. He makes Washizu a vanguard commander and assigns Miki to guard the castle. Asaji twists the ruler’s intent around, basically providing her husband with medieval “fake news,” telling him that the Great Lord is exposing Washizu to an attack, hoping he will perish, while protecting Miki in the castle fortress. She eggs Washizu on by saying that Miki will laugh at him from his place in the castle. She wants to put the guards, who are under the command of Noriyasu (Takashi Shimura), to sleep by plying them with sake, kill the Great Lord, and then blame it on Noriyasu for using a guard to commit the murder. After the guards are asleep, Asaji brings Washizu his weapons in the room where a traitor was placed after capture and killed himself. The association of the room with Washizu designates him as a traitor, also. He seems torn, but goes to kill the Great Lord. He returns with a bloody sword, which Asaji takes from him and places it in a guard’s hand. She then washes the blood off her hands. She yells out that the ruler is in danger. Washizu kills the guard to make it appear he was exacting revenge for the Great Lord. Noriyasu flees with the Prince, who is the Great Lord’s son, while yelling that Washizu is the traitor. Washizu goes to the castle to find out what Miki will do. Miki says that the Great Lord’s wife killed herself, wanting to die rather than witness her husband’s enemy taking over the castle. The irony here is that Washizu, supposedly a loyal servant, is the enemy. Miki says that the prophecy is coming true, and Washizu is the best person to defend the kingdom from the enemy, Inui.
Later on, there is to be a ceremony to anoint Miki’s son as Washizu’s successor, as per the prophecy, since Miki has been loyal in supporting Washizu as the new ruler. Also, Washizu and Asaji have not been able to have children. Asaji argues against announcing Miki’s son as the next sovereign. Asaji drops a bomb when she tells her husband she is pregnant. Now it is no longer in Washizu’s best interest to make Miki’s child the next leader. We hear screeching birds, which Miki’s son says is a bad omen, and the young man is able to see that the forest spirit did not cause the prophecies to happen, but allowed the men to bring it about. At the banquet, Miki and his son are absent. Just as in Macbeth, the ruler sees the ghost of his friend. We now know that Miki has been killed. Washizu acts like a madman as he talks to the empty air and stabs at the ghost that nobody sees. After dismissing the guests, the assassin sent to kill Miki returns with the dead man’s head wrapped in cloth. Miki’s son, however, was able to escape.
We hear soldiers saying that the realm is starting to decline, with fewer noblemen showing up at the castle. Some were forced to take their own lives because the paranoid Washizu doubted their loyalty. Asaji has spread the false rumor that Inui’s spies killed Miki, but many of the soldiers do not believe it. There are rumors, which turn out to be true, that Miki’s son, Noriyasu, and the Great Lord’s son have joined with Unui to fight against Washizu. There are more omens, such as rats running away from the castle, which indicates to some that the rodents “flee a house before it burns.” Later, numerous screeching birds invade the castle, mimicking the sound of the evil spirit in the woods. Another bad omen is that Asaji gives birth to a stillborn baby. Washizu in private calls himself a fool after losing a leader, a friend, and now a child, but he continues on his self-destructive path.
Washizu tries to rally his troops by sharing the prophecies, and telling them that of course it is impossible for the trees to march against the castle. As it turns out Noriyasu’s soldiers use the tree branches as camouflage to attack the castle, so it appears that the trees themselves are approaching. Washizu’s own men attack him, showering arrows upon him. He looks like he is ensnared in a web of violence he has created, and dies wrapped in the weaponry of death.
The film ends as it began, in a wasteland of dirt and wind, with the chorus chanting that only a monument remains where there once stood a castle of men’s delusions, a symbol of the misguided idea of worldly achievement through selfish ambition, which is transient. This is a story that says that personal, indulgent desire is consuming, and burns itself out, passing into ruin.
The next film is The Silence of the Lambs.