Throne of Blood is a Japanese transposition of William Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’, directed by Akira Kurosawa. Far from a pat GCSE reading of the original play, the film manages to make the story it’s own with some haunting visuals and a surprisingly successful cultural shift – it being a samurai version of the play.
The film begins in a timeless, mist-strewn and desolate landscape, which, as a foreboding monument informs us, was once the site of Cobweb Castle, briefly held by Washizu, the Macbeth figure, played by Toshirô Mifune in his typically hyperbolic fashion. The film then goes back to time to an unspecified war-torn period in Japan. Lord Tsuzuki (Hiroshi Tachikawa) is facing insurrection from all sides and it looks like it may soon be the end of his reign. However, reports that the battles are turning in his favour are soon coming in, and it is revealed that the valour of two of Tsuzuki generals, Washizu and Miki (Minoru Chiaki), are responsible. The insurrection is soon stopped.
While travelling to Cobweb Castle to be rewarded for their efforts, Washizu and Miki get lost in Cobweb Forest, waylaid by an intangible evil spirit. They confront the spirit, played as an old woman by Chieko Naniwa, who tells them that they may each expect good fortune in the future. Washizu is to become master of North Castle, and later Cobweb Castle itself, while Miki is to become master of Fort One and later, that his son will take control of Cobweb Castle. The two samurai laugh this prophecy off, until they arrive at Cobweb Castle, where Washizu is rewarded with North Castle and Miki with Fort One.
Throne of Blood begins with a slow-paced, but atmospheric prologue that established the overall tone of potent and contagious evil and cold determinism. It is clear from the beginning, particularly to anyone familiar with the play, that Washizu will come to a bad end, but Kurosawa is not interested in creating a surprising narrative with several twists and turns. Filled with slow-paced panning and tracking shots and with an offbeat score, the film moves along slowly, but with much deliberateness. From the moment that Washizu meets the evil spirit, he starts down the path that will lead to his ruin. The final five minutes plays out as a startling but inescapable conclusion. It is excessive and horrifying in both its brutality and in its inevitability.
Kurosawa’s pessimism concerning the nature of fate drips into the film’s settings, which are all shrouded in mist and appear to be on the verge of collapsing into sheer chaos. Cobweb Forest, particularly, is a maze of impassible foliage and dark shadows, frequently shrouded in a rather sinister mist. Similarly, the battle scenes in the film are fast-paced and confused. War, like the spirits in the film, is remorselessly evil and too huge for the scope of this film. As a result, most of the battles are kept off-screen but their disastrous effect is all too keenly felt. The Japan of Throne of Blood is ravaged by war and at the mercy of evil forces such as the spirit who puts Washizu on the path of destruction and who seems to live in the ubiquitous mist. War and evil spirits are impenetrable forces, under which man is a small and somewhat comical figure. When the ghost of the Banquo figure appears at Washizu’s celebrations, the film uses this not as a manifestation of Washizu’s guilt, but as another moment in which Washizu is manipulated by spirits. Kurosawa is not interested in the psychology of his characters, but in detailing their constant and unavoidable decline. His is not so much a story of ambition, but of collaspe and ruin.
Mifune plays Washizu in his usual register, mad and flamboyant. He constantly overplays, whether he is cowed in front of his manipulative wife, who spurs him on towards murder after murder, or when panicked or angry. No one watching the film could mistake Washizu for a sympathetic character, as Kurosawa and Mifune are more interested in presenting a tyrant. Similarly, Washizu’s wife Asaji, played by Isuzu Yamada, with almost demonic make-up and a slow, haunting voice, whispering her short manipulative sentences, is an unrealistic but nonetheless revealing creation. In fact, Yamada is so convincing as a cold and evil woman driven to succeed that her decline into madness – presented suddenly and rather matter-of-factly – can’t help but be unconvincing.
Throne of Blood is not without its flaws. An icy-cold and detached film about determinism and evil, it is slightly overlong and there are a few sequences that should be haunting and atmospheric but instead feels just wilfully slow. At times, the film seems to stall and it is a few minutes before it picks itself up again. As well as this, the film is extremely theatrical, in a manner that is meant to be distancing, but which becomes, at times, unintentionally funny and, frequently, overblown. The film seems to begin with the apocalypse and to get more chaotic from there, and while this approach is an intriguing reading of the original play and makes for some fantastic sequences, such as Washizu’s second encounter with the spirit in Cobweb Forest, it can be off-putting, distracting and a little annoying.
Throne of Blood is a powerful and challenging film with a pervasive feeling of malignant forces working away under the surface, not unlike the black figures of Japan’s Bunraku theatre. Despite a tendency to overplay, which is rather rare for Kurosawa, and some difficult pacing, the film is an intriguing version of Shakespeare’s play. While not entirely faithful to Shakespeare’s plot, it is faithful to Shakespeare’s mood and meaning. As far as Shakespeare adaptations go, Throne of Blood is one of the best as well as one of the more interesting.