Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-jo)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Akira Kubo
I have a thing for Shakespeare. In college, with a biochemistry major and an honors program minor, I had almost no time in my schedule for electives of my choosing. In fact, I only ever chose two electives, and it wasn’t until my senior year I had the space available in my schedule. The first elective was the standard Shakespeare literature course the college offered (because biochemistry majors totally need to take Shakespeare). The second was an independent study with the professor of the aforementioned Shakespeare course where I designed my own project. What did I design? I examined different film adaptations of Shakespeare plays and compared them to the original texts. Again, because biochemistry majors clearly need to do this.
I really wish I had known about Throne of Blood back when I was doing that independent study. It would have been an amazing film to examine in that context.
Throne of Blood is Macbeth set in feudal Japan. Warrior Washizu (Mifune) is Macbeth, and the film opens with him and his friend Miki (Kubo), the Banquo role, riding back to their lord after finding success in battle. They find a spirit in the woods who tells both of future success, specifically Washizu that he will rule the land, and tells Miki that his son will then rule the land. Both men laugh, but when the spirit’s predictions begin to come true, the psychological battle begins. Washizu’s wife, Lady Asaji (Yamada), goads her husband to off his superior to become high ruler. Issues of power, corruption, greed, and guilt are explored as violence begets violence.
Of all the Shakespeare plays, films, and various adaptations I’ve seen, Macbeth is the play that has been presented most creatively and in many different settings. I’ve seen it live three times, one of which was a deaf student production with deaf actors on stage acting the roles while speaking actors read the lines into a microphone from backstage, and another of which was a five-person production, with little to no set dressing and each person playing at least half a dozen parts. Things got interesting when the actor who played Macbeth also played one of the witches – it meant the witches were talking to nobody onstage. (Man, I’d kill to see the current Alan Cumming one-man Macbeth on Broadway right now… anyone want to take me to Manhattan for the weekend?) In terms of film and TV, there’s the iconic blood-filled Polanski film version, the much more interesting Shakespeare Revisited BBC version starring James McAvoy that transplants the action to a modern cutthroat restaurant empire, and then there’s Throne of Blood.
And for my money, Throne of Blood is the best of the bunch.
It staggers me how amazingly well Shakespeare’s story, written in seventeenth century England, translates to the feudal society of centuries-old Japan, a place and time Shakespeare himself probably had no idea existed in the least. The credit for this falls on two men’s shoulders. First of all, due must be paid to Shakespeare’s original tale, one with such universal themes that it was carried to such an opposite place from the one he originally intended and yet the message still remains. But Throne of Blood would not work nearly as well as it does were it not for the brilliance of Akira Kurosawa to understand how to translate the Bard’s tale to his own homeland. It’s Kurosawa’s doing that he knows how to make Macbeth fit into feudal Japan, how to swap kings for kimonos, and Laurence Olivier for Toshiro Mifune (really, not a bad swap). Everything that makes Macbeth special is still here, and it’s still potent. The three witches are transposed into a truly freaky single ghost spirit, surrounded by fog, speaking with an unearthly hollow voice, and constantly spinning the web of fate. The banquet scene with Banquo’s ghost, probably my favorite scene from Macbeth and one that HAS to be right for me in order to enjoy a Macbeth production, is here, and just as disturbing and upsetting. The camera keeps cutting back to Banquo’s empty chair, then back again to his pale ghost. It’s a terrific scene, one that certainly allows Mifune to display tremendous range as the paranoid and frightened Washizu, and just one of the many examples of how well Shakespeare works when telling a samurai story.
The two standout performances are that of Mifune as Washizu and, to be expected, Yamada as Lady Asaji. Mifune is always good, always watchable, and I prefer him playing the tragic hero, as he does here, over playing the buffoon as he does in Seven Samurai. Sure, he yells a lot – that’s Mifune’s style – but Mifune has range. Here, as Washizu, he can go from scared to paranoid to frightened to angry in the span of about thirty seconds, and it’s entirely believable. His silence is eerie after he kills the reigning lord in his sleep and thoroughly unnerving. His death scene, as Washizu is riddled with a ridiculous amount of arrows, is memorable to the last. (Apparently, in order to ensure the fear on Mifune’s face was real, Kurosawa used real arrows for the shots that were not to hit Washizu.) In short, Mifune knows how to play Macbeth. But it’s Yamada as Lady Asaji who really steals the show. Yamada had great source material to work with, as Lady Macbeth is one of the most magnificent literary villains of all time, but even so, Yamada manages to take the evil and crank it up a few notches. Her Asaji is frankly frightening in her cool demeanor and cutthroat words. She barely moves a muscle as she slowly spells out to Washizu that he must take control of his own destiny to fulfill the spirit’s prophecy. Her decisions to underplay nearly every scene are the perfect balance to Mifune’s aggressive screen presence. It gives the impression of a calm, cool, and incredibly strict master with a somewhat crazed bulldog on a leash. The minute the master gives the word, the bulldog will attack.
Kurosawa’s production is beautifully imagined and photographed. Ultimately realizing it would be more economical to just build an actual damn fortress rather than the simply façade, Throne of Blood is done on a grand scale. The volcanic mountainside of Mt. Fuji is unsettlingly desolate, and the bright fog that seems to envelop nearly every outdoor shot is deliciously atmospheric. When the woods of Dunsinane – or, rather, Spider Web Forest – begin to move, it’s easily the best cinematic representation of Shakespeare’s moving forest I’ve ever seen. I love how Kurosawa presents the spirits, how without any computer effects and purely through in-camera techniques, we get an effective representation of other-worldly beings. The makeup, the altered voices, the flying above Washizu in the forest paths, the disappearing and reappearing: it’s a great interpretation. The costumes are utterly divine as well. These are not the poor, destitute, rural warriors of Seven Samurai, but true lords displaying all the trappings of wealth. If Mifune is not dressed in full armor regalia, decked to the hilt in decorations, then he is wearing luxurious costumes full of layers and billowing fabrics. This is a beautiful film to watch.
Is this the best Shakespeare adaptation I’ve ever seen? Well, that’s a big ask. I don’t know if it’s the best, but it’s certainly one of the best, easily top five, and definitely gets the award for Most Imaginative Transposition. This and Ikiru (which one I pick depends on my mood – do I want adventure or sorrow?) are my two favorite Kurosawa films. An absolutely brilliant film.
Arbitrary Rating: 10/10.