The Symbolic Intent Of Monochrome In The films Of Akira Kurosawa

Throne of Blood,1957

It was the Whiteness of the Whale that above all things appalled me.’ 

– Herman Melville, Moby Dick

The pages of Herman Melville’s sprawling epic, Moby Dick, are awash with Whiteness. Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, is ‘appalled’ by it, but this term merely touches upon the neurotic extremes of reverence and fear it stirs within him. A moiling of emotion that reflects humanity’s universal response to the most colourless of things. For Melville, White does not wholly belong to this world; he enshrouds it in supernatural metaphor and binds it to primitive fear; it inexplicably raises hackles and tells of an unplaceable dread, as if stemming from a preternatural memory, before our time on Earth. Thus, it offers a moment of transition, a departure from being and an approach to a realm beyond the lurid every day. Be this a rarely accessed antipode of the mind, an afterlife, or the point at which we cease to be, Whiteness is a visual bridge between here and there. It frightens us because we cannot fix it. It is something we may never possess.

White’s haunting otherworldliness plays out in early 20th-century Suspense Cinema, where it shrouds picture planes, destabilises time, and draws characters in and out of being, perhaps most notably in the films of prolific Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. To appreciate the significance of Monochrome in Kurosawa’s corpus, we must look back to the tragic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

The atomic blasts levelled great cities and sickened the very land with the poison of radiation. As asserted by a teacher, who witnessed the explosion from the city outskirts, it was not the “hellish” scenes of death and injury — to which many quickly became desensitised — that most moved spectators that day, but the austere emptiness of the annihilation. These atrocities elicited anger and grief that could not easily be expressed; concurring accounts recall dazed victims wandering through the rubble in uncanny silence. Historian John Whittier Treat suggests this was not a wilful suspension of speaking, ‘but a chasm left by the collapse of meaning… For one moment no one spoke; for a slightly longer moment, words ceased to signify’. Monochrome had been embedded in the instant of atomic destruction itself. Eyewitnesses recall White light followed by a Black rain. Black and White became sublime figurations, invoking annihilation without demanding painful, inadequate recreations. As philosopher Andrew Slade opines, ‘aesthetics embedded in the event of terror may provide a relief from terror.’ 

In Kurosawa’s oeuvre, Monochrome is a representational regime — capable of bearing uniquely Japanese grief. His first postwar film, Rashomon, was released during the American Occupation, an era which signalled freedom for most directors. Severe wartime censorship was lifted under American command; however, news regarding Allied crimes like the rape of Japanese women by American soldiers was often silenced. Rashomon’s Monochrome ostensibly embodies Kurosawa’s conflicting emotions toward The Allies. 

In a bold challenge to Japanese tradition, Samurai’s wife Masako Kanazawa (Machiko Kyō), the archetypal White vision of purity, is tried alongside Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune), a bandit, clad in Black rags. The nation’s long-established class divisions are rendered worthless in a time of crisis. Kurosawa’s nuanced depiction of Tajomaru manifests his disdain for Allied crime while simultaneously acknowledging a liberating impact. Tajomaru’s grey skin and dark rags distinguish him from the rest of the pale cast; he appears the least Japanese of all the characters and a sort of incarnation of the oni, or ogre, of Japanese folklore, often interpreted as a representation of the foreigner. His purported rape of Masako naturally acquires a deeper subtext. 

Rashomon: Tojomaru
Rashomon: Masako

The two represent the foreign and the nationalistic — a metaphor furthered through lighting. Though entrenched in darkness, Tajomaru is surrounded by shards of White sunlight in the shape of the Christian cross. His sword, unlike the curved Japanese katana, is western in style, resembling a crucifix; in the assault scene, it catches the dappled light of the grove, scintillating across the frame as he approaches. A pale sunbeam throws a second cross on the forest canopy above.  The Whiteness of the cross ruptures a grey world, and Masako succumbs to Tajomaru’s advances, despite his barbarism, just as many vulnerable, traumatised women fraternised with the enemy to find a distraction from an empty existence in postwar Japan. Tajomaru is a corrupting and emancipating force, as Kurosawa promotes both caution and open-mindedness regarding social change. 

Rashomon, 1950: White light is combined with the image of the Christian Cross to symbolise fantasy and salvation, further establishing Tajomaru as a metaphor for the Allies.  
Rashomon,1950: White light, in the shape of a cross, ruptures the dark shadows of the grove, symbolising the escapism offered to the Samurai’s wife by this foreign influence. 

Hopes of social reinvention and future peace had, for some, defined The Occupation; however, upon Allied departure in 1952, Japan was left fractured and, in many ways, unchanged. The national mood darkened into Nihilistic dread as the spectral threat of the cold war loomed and the peripheral Vietnam War was beginning. 

Kurosawa would realise the Nihilism of this era in nothing but fog, wind, trees and mist. Kimonoso- Jo, aka ‘Throne Of Blood,’ Macbeth re-imagined as a Samurai film, limned these concerns into shadows. The film was a poetic ode to Black and White and a visual testament to their ability to communicate primitive human terror. Its stylistic opposition to the frenetic brightness of Western cinema reads as an attempt to re-establish Japanese identity. Its emphasis upon the pointlessness of war, and the insignificance of man, silently communed through vapours, offered a stark contrast to David Lean’s The Bridge Over The River Kwai, an exotic depiction of wartime Burma, dense with viridescent jungles and blazing lens flares, and winner of best picture at the 30th Annual Academy Awards. 

Kurosawa’s transposition of text to screen was undoubtedly guided by Japanese theatrical tradition, most notably Noh theatre; speaking with Donald Richie, Kurosawa explained: “I like the Noh drama….because it is the real heart, the core of all Japanese drama. Its degree of compression is extreme and it is full of symbols.” The blend of Noh’s minimalism and Shakespeare’s poetic depth results in a succinct yet profound exploration of the human psyche, where Black and White become cross-cultural signifiers of malfeasance and foreboding. 

Noh’s influence defines the film’s cinematography; dark, mist-shrouded castles and pale phantoms recall the indistinct lighting of the former, yielding the same characteristic combination of beauty, suspense and horror; however, a postwar reworking of tradition is evident. Noh was originally shrouded in darkness. Its pall had once recalled the lamp-lit rooms of daily life. As observed by poet Tanizaki in 1933, White-clad performers were accented against the surrounding Blackness like ‘phosphorescent jewels giving off their glow and colour in the dark, and losing their beauty in the light of day’. 

Postwar Japan was long bereft of poetic shade and comforting darkness; the haunting memory of Black human shapes stark against pale walls imprinted its own nuclear shadow upon the collective conscience, while escalating nuclear threats prevented the nation from shaking this horrific vision; the inspiration, perhaps, for Kimonoso- Jo’s small Black forms amid planes of Whiteness. 

The entire film is shrouded in White mist, eerie in its understatement and full of illusive malevolence. This owed neither to post-production effects nor smoke machines. Kurosawa filmed on Mt Fuji, described by art director Yoshiko Muraki as ‘a Hokusai haven of mist and fog,’ but in no idyllic terms. Through a Haiku like Basho’s ‘How pleasant -/ just once not to see/ Fuji through the mist,’ we feel the aptness of this setting for the Shakespearean Heath, smothered by the Weird Sisters in ‘fog and filthy air’. 

Academic Sonia Massai, writing in World Wide Shakespeares, believes the fog establishes a ‘minimalist and antithetical representation of time and space’. Through it, Kurosawa suspends his audience in a permanent state of ill ease — establishing the unfixable atmosphere of predestined doom which defines Macbeth, recalling the smog-filled air of nuclear fallout, and, possibly, evincing the nation’s fears of future desolation. 

Throne of Blood, 1959: protagonists Miki (Monoru Chiaki) and Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) make an uncertain approach to Cobweb Forest

Western critics of Kurosawa’s work have tied this imagery with Suiboko-ga, the traditional Monochromatic form of ink painting which involves ‘empty expanses of White separating intense brush strokes’; a visual genre to which Yoshiro Muraki, Kurosawa’s art director, also credits influence. 

Hasegawa Tōhaku, 16th century: right panel of the Pine Trees screen
Throne of Blood, 1959: Cobweb Forest, the equivalent of Shakespeare’s Blasted Heath. 

In these dark lines, Kurosawa philosophises about the very moral fibre of mankind. Rather than trees or mountains, human deeds are these intense Black blots in a realm of pervasive Whiteness; this approach echoes Robert J Lifton’s theory that ‘trauma points to a loss of meaningful forms to present human significance’; man’s baseness and insignificance is foreground, in both life and death. 

It is this simplicity which defines the film as an act of bravery. Obliteration is tangible in its carbon-Black shadows and haunting vapours, never fully realised but ever present in the peripheries of our gaze. This is particularly evident in the final scene. Kimonoso- Jo concludes with the death of Washizu, Kurosawa’s Macbeth, in a vaporous courtyard; Birnam wood, minimised into a volley of arrows. A pale end, highlighting the smallness of his Black deeds in this White land: ‘Black Hecate’s summons… in Pale Hecate’s realm’. 

This manifests Kurosawa’s sorrow at the pointlessness of war. After scheming, bloodshed and battle, Washizu is simply distilled into air. His passing invokes no sense of mono no aware, the Japanese ‘elegiac attitude to suffering,’ but merely highlights human frailty.

Throne of Blood, 1959: Swirling fog claims Washizu’s defeated corpse 

Kimonoso- Jo, like Rashomon, was an international success, though the film divided Japanese opinion. Contemporary artists, eager to redefine Japan’s identity, viewed it as unrepresentative of the domestic milieu; its’ Samurai themes seemingly invoked uncomfortable notions of Japan as an aggressive country. Had these artists looked beyond Kimonoso-Jo’s costumes toward its symbolism, they would perhaps have appreciated its criticism of conflict, aggression and greed. Kurosawa’s postwar works fully utilised Monochrome’s horrific beauty, celebrating its universal readability and offering a viewer true power over the tragic events it recalled. 

by Emily Tuttlebury

Emily (she/her) is an international script consultant, Goldsmiths Fine Art grad and folk history obsessive who has studied film just about everywhere, from Sundance Institute to Cambridge University. Whether doctoring features, reading for film fests or devouring low-budget 70s horror flicks, she’s usually immersed in movies. Her all-time favourites include Paris, Texas, Point Break and Don’t Look Now. You can follow her on Letterboxd.  

1 reply »

  1. This is one of the most important essays on Kurosawa’s works that I have read in a long time, particularly since THRONE OF BLOOD is particular and universal in the way it casts a shadow of brooding remembrance in any committed viewer.

    Like all great writing on cinema, your words and thoughts belie the social, cultural and psychological import of the works. Your insights are lucid and deeply penetrate of the inner world of these works. Kudos.

    Keep writing.


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