William Shakespeare’s plays may have been forbidden in Japan during World War II, but Akira Kurosawa knew them well and dreamed of making his own version of ”Macbeth”. His original plan was to direct that movie after Rashomon… but then in the late 1940s he heard of Orson Welles adapting the play, and decided to wait. It would take a decade before Kurosawa made Throne of Blood, but it was worth the wait. Along with Roman Polanski’s 1971 adaptation, this one stands as the definitive interpretation of Shakespeare’s tale.
Meeting a spirit in the forest
Two samurai commanders, Washizu Taketoki (Toshiro Mifune) and Miki Yoshiteru (Akira Kubo), are returning to their master after defeating the enemy in battle. Crossing a forest, they meet a spirit who tells them what their future looks like. Washizu will be named Lord of the Northern Garrison and eventually Lord of Spider’s Web Castle, the place where their master rules. Miki, the spirit says, will become commander of the first fortress… and his son will also become Lord of Spider’s Web Castle. Then the spirit vanishes into thin air. Astonished, the two generals continue their journey and can’t help laugh at what they’ve been told.
But when they return to Spider’s Web Castle, their master does exactly what the spirit told them. This is unsettling to the men… and to Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), Washizu’s wife, who immediately begins to manipulate him.
Another thrilling military adventure
The film lifts the story of ”Macbeth” and transports it to the Japanese samurai culture, without adapting the language of Shakespeare’s play, resulting in yet another thrilling military adventure from Kurosawa. On the surface, it delivers plenty of tension as the Washizus engage in a plot that could bring them absolute power, but instead ends up ruining them. The final sequence, where Mifune faces his destiny in the shape of arrows raining down on him, has become a classic, and all the more stunning when you learn that actual archers and arrows were employed, with the actor using his body language to indicate where he was going, so as not to be injured.
Kurosawa decided to turn ”Macbeth” as Japanese as possible, making the spirit in the forest virtually a symbol of the Noh tradition. That type of Japanese dance-drama uses particular body movements, sets and masks, all evident in the eerie, fascinating presentation of the ghost. Other parts of the Noh tradition can be spotted in the music and some of the film’s themes. Kurosawa saw similarities between Scotland and Japan of the Middle Ages, making the transition look natural. He also envisioned a lesson for modern audiences, viewing Throne of Blood as a companion piece to Ikiru (1952). It’s easy to see how Ikiru might teach us something about how to live our lives and what family should mean to us, but what Throne of Blood says today in comparison is less obvious.
Still, a majestic experience it is, with sets (inspired by actual descriptions in ancient scrolls) built on a studio lot and on Mount Fuji, with U.S. Marines stationed nearby helping out. The evocative forest scenes were created partly in a studio, partly in a forest near Fuji. Using wind and fog effects, Kurosawa and cinematographer Asakazu Nakai certainly achieved the intended effect.
Mifune is forceful as the warrior who projects strength, but still does whatever a ghost and his wife tell him to do, no matter the bloody consequences. Yamada makes even more of an impression as the soft-spoken, bloodthirsty Asaji who moves discreetly, almost like a spirit herself, but still can’t wash the blood off of her hands once her crimes are committed.
Throne of Blood 1957-Japan. 108 min. B/W. Produced by Akira Kurosawa, Sojiro Motoki. Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Screenplay: Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa. Cinematography: Asakazu Nakai. Cast: Toshiro Mifune (Washizu Taketoki), Isuzu Yamada (Washizu Asaji), Takashi Shimura (Odakura Noriyasu), Akira Kubo, Hiroshi Tachikawa, Minoru Chiaki.
Trivia: Original title: Kumonosu-jô.
Last word: “Originally, I wanted merely to produce the picture and let someone younger direct it. But when the script was finished and Toho saw how expensive it would be, they asked me to direct it. So I did. My contract expired after these next three films anyway.” (Kurosawa, Cinephilia & Beyond)