#4 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.
This is a director’s showcase, Akira Kurosawa showing off with all of his skills, adapting Shakespeare’s Macbeth to feudal Japan while heavily using Noh as a source for visual influences. Everything is heavily stylized from costumes to performances, the play has been cut down to its core, and Kurosawa is in complete command of the entire production, giving us an ideal adaptation that retains the point of the original play while transposing it convincingly into a new cultural space at the same time. It’s also wonderfully entertaining.
The story is the same as the play, of course. A vassal to a great lord receives a prediction of his rise to ultimate power that he and his wife use to justify their actions which also leads to their ultimate downfall. The vassal is Washizu Taketoki (Toshiro Mifune) who, alongside his childhood friend Miki Yoshiaki (Minoru Chiaki), wins a great battle against the rebellious forces of Inui for their Great Lord Tsuzuki Kuniharu (Takamaru Sasaki). On their way to their lord’s castle, Spider’s Web Castle, they get lost in the forest surrounding it (Spider’s Web Forest), and come across a mysterious evil spirit who gives them the prophecy of Washizu’s rise to power and Miki’s son’s subsequent rise. They refuse to believe the prophecy until the first stage (their promotions) gets fulfilled that very night.
One thing about this movie visually, it is very precisely designed. The first thing to notice is the heavy use of fog in the establishing shots of Spider’s Web Castle, engulfing it completely and barely letting us have a clear look. The forest is thick with vines and branches, giving a visual representation of the eponymous spider’s web in the forest’s design. The ghostly image of the evil spirit (as well as the later ghost of Miki) is made bright white against darker surroundings, and the voice is some kind of heavily manipulated sound that doesn’t quite match the mouth, giving it an otherworldly quality that is genuinely disquieting, especially in the spirit’s second appearance late in the film.
The sudden rise to power and the rest of the prophecy spark something in Washizu’s wife, Asaji (Isuzu Yamada). In a movie of stylized performances, Yamada’s performance as Asaji stands out for its stillness. There are moments where she’s moving around and acting (sometimes even frantically so like the “out damned spot” scene), but mostly she resembles a porcelain doll. This is contrasted, since all of her scenes are shared with Mifune, by Mifune’s near-inability to stay still. Both are given rather pronounced makeup regimes with Asaji bearing the pronounced and exaggerated eyebrows high on her forehead while also painting her teeth black (a common practice for wealthy Japanese women in their medieval period) while Washizu has an overstated set of facial hair and makeup that helps his eyes pop out of his face. Asaji’s look like a porcelain doll feels somewhat ironic. She may be a weak woman physically, but she is the driving force for the paranoia that she implants in Washizu’s mind.
I have a well-documented history of despising prophesies in fiction, finding them lazy drivers for characters instead of finding ways to get them actively in pursuit of whatever they’re supposed to want. It’s no real surprise that I’ve always found an exception for how Shakespeare used prophecy in Macbeth, and that extends to Kurosawa’s adaptation. The prophecy isn’t a gameplan for the characters to follow, it’s a question that they ponder over. Can they influence it? How will it manifest? When will it happen? These questions drive the husband and wife to make decisions they would never have made in order to fulfill their own private ambitions. The prophecy is an excuse.
It starts with Asaji implanting the seed of doubt in Washizu’s mind about the loyalty of his childhood friend Miki. One loose word from him, and the Great Lord could come down upon Washizu in his new post and kill him. Asaji convinces him that killing the Great Lord and becoming the Great Lord himself isn’t a faithless act of ambition but an act of self-defense. The murder he commits gets blamed on Noriyasu (Takashi Shimura) because it was his men defending the Great Lord who then flees the country with the Great Lord’s son. Miki vouches for Washizu to the council, and Washizu is declared the new Great Lord. Seems like Miki wouldn’t have betrayed Washizu to me, after all.
Still, the latter part of the prophecy is still out there, that Miki’s son will become the Great Lord, and Asaji still has her claws in her husband’s mind. Washizu simply wishes to announce Miki’s son as his heir, but Asaji announces that she is pregnant, changing everything and leading to Washizu’s attempted assassination of the father and son. Only Miki is killed, his son fleeing to join with Noriyasu under Inui, and the ghost of Miki visits Washizu at a great banquet. It’s really striking visually with Mifune doing his best showing his character losing his grasp on reality.
The great confrontation with Noriyasu’s forces comes after Washizu goes into the forest to visit the evil spirit one more time, given the well-known promise of never falling until the forest rises up against him (the mother-born stuff of MacDuff doesn’t get through the adaptation). The ending turns out completely different, eschewing any personal confrontation and instead going with his men turning on him. It’s an interesting change that works quite well, I think. First is Mifune’s manic performance as he watches his situation fall apart around him. It’s compelling to watch. The other side is narrative, allowing a much tighter focus on Washizu that doesn’t involve outside elements. His destruction is entirely his own. That’s still true in the original play, but in the slightly abbreviated adaptation, it allows for the characters that would have done the action (namely Miki’s son) to mostly remain on the side of the action without needing to fully build them as characters. When shaving down a source to fit within the confines of a 110-minute film, it’s a good decision.
Handsome, well-acted, intelligently adapted from Shakespeare, and otherworldly all at the same time, Throne of Blood is a great film. This feels like Kurosawa stretching his muscles both artistically and within the power structures of the Japanese film industry to make a large, esoteric adaptation of a piece of major Western literature. This feels like Kurosawa at the height of his power, doing something different, and finding great success.