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Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa) 1957


    In the first moments of Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa’s self-assured reimagination of Shakespeare’s Macbeth as a samurai epic, we see the Japanese landscapes that provide the backdrop for the action as they are enveloped in a thick mist. In the final moments of the film, after the people’s plans have been thwarted and the mighty have fallen, we see the mist roll in to reclaim the land. By framing this tragic tale of human ambition this way, Kurosawa seems to be underscoring the futility of any such determination. Unlike Shakespeare, he doesn’t even pause to show us the successor to the throne. At the end of this game, nature, not any man, is the true ruler of the land. Everything about Throne of Blood is similarly focused on an earthy insistence that these ambitions are entirely unnatural. Instead of chastising her husband’s masculinity as Lady Macbeth did when Macbeth balks before killing the king, Lady Washizu prods her husband (Toshiro Mifune) onward by reminding him that the king himself killed his predecessor to ascend to the throne. This radical shift in the text slides the blame from Washizu specifically onto the culture at large. He’s not transgressing the rules of his society so much as living up to its skewed standards.


    Kurosawa’s dim view of humanity in the face of nature in Throne of Blood is reflected everywhere visually. The forest spirit that prophesizes Washizu’s fate (and recalls the medium from Kurosawa’s Rashomon) is only the most overtly eerie benchmark of the consistently disturbing imagery that the film offers up. The shots of her spinning her silk as she sings a mysterious dirge of doom are scarier than any Western witch ever was. Nearly every visual that the film throws at us similarly seems as if it’s been calculated to stir up unrest in the audience though. Kurosawa creates here a world with a real sense of scale, but then uses filters of rainfall, sunlight, and dust to create a moody atmosphere that you can’t quite shake. When the forest begins to encroach upon Cobweb Castle at the end of the film, and birds begin to assault Washizu, Kurosawa’s imagery creates the same sense of dread in the audience as in Washizu since it’s so disturbingly unreal. He masks the soldiers that are carrying the bushes in a thick shroud of fog so that it seems as if nature itself is approaching the castle, ready to attack.


    Kurosawa’s tone is a little slower than usual here, but when compared to most Shakespeare adaptations, it’s downright zippy. His focus on the battle scenes makes sense since they were the turning points of Shakespeare’s narrative. Huge chunks of narrative fat have been sliced away, and the bits that are remain are often conveyed nearly exclusively in visual terms (most notably the silent night during which Washizu murders his liege). Mifune’s acting has always been a bit theatrical, so his slight exaggerations here only add to the impact of what’s such a strongly illustrated film. His reaction when his guilt causes him to see the ghost of his former king is only surpassed by the stunning finale in which he seems to be shot by a seemingly infinite rain of arrows. As imposing a caricature he is, Isuzu Yamada’s Lady Washizu stands up to him as an equal. Her flat affect and emotionless demeanor make her sinister plots all the more unsettling. She’s not the most sympathetic actress to have played Lady Macbeth, but she’s one of the most frightening. It’s only in the few moments where he pauses to show us the reactions of the peasants that Kurosawa’s film stumbles. Although Kurosawa always likes to stratify the society that his films take place in, here the inclusion of the peasants’ voices seems a more serious misstep than usual. Throne of Blood is a story of a man who attempts to challenge nature itself. To stop to listen to what the peanut gallery has to say seems utterly beside the point. Still, the film is hardly affected by what amounts to about three minutes of footage since it otherwise spins such a darkly compelling worldview.


* * * * Masterpiece 


Jeremy Heilman