Grade: A-Throne of Blood (1957)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Minoru Chiaki

Release Company: The Criterion Collection

MPAA Rating: NR

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Kurosawa: Throne of Blood


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Laurence Olivier once proposed making another film version of MacBeth, but the prima donna actor could find no financial backing despite having successfully adapted and directed Hamlet, Richard III, and Henry V. It's just as well since Olivier had some pretty ham-headed ideas for the tragedy, and a much better version had already been created in Japan. Forced on nearly everyone graduating from high school, Shakespeare's Scottish play hasn't fared as well on film with straightforward productions. Wise English teachers should eschew the usual 1948 Orsen Wells' interpretation, and adopt Akira Kurosawa's masterful Throne of Blood (Kumonosu jo) as the standard to attract more fans to the bard. Combining Japanese No drama with unparalleled cinematic artistry, Kurosawa's synthesis of historical accounts and Shakespeare is definitive.

Partially filmed on location on Mt. Fuji (as was Ran, his 1985 adaptation of King Lear), Throne of Blood certainly takes on weather suited for the highlands and for Kurosawa--extreme winds, rain, and fog (lots of fog). Rare are tranquil scenes in this film. The inclement weather adds dynamic power, and the fog especially amplifies the nihilistic themes about man's inevitable appointment with destiny. No matter what action the protagonist takes, his fate has already been determined. Note the early scene where samurai warriors Taketori Washizu (Toshirô Mifune) and Yoshiaki Miki (Minoru Chiaki) confusedly ride back and forth in the fog, often arriving back at the same place they started, only charting a clear course once the fog lifts. Washizu is never in charge of what his future holds.

Those familiar with MacBeth know the basic plot, but Kurosawa strips away Shakespeare's verbal poetry and inserts additional layers to reflect his unique philosophy. Using the theatrical device of the chorus, the director bookends the film in circular fashion, indicating Buddhist conceit that mankind itself is doomed to repeat senseless patterns of violence and bloodshed. Such existential ponderings veer off from Shakespeare's themes, but the plot remains familiar. The most obvious changes transform Scotland to 16th century feudal society in Japan. Paralleling the three witches, a mysterious woodland spirit prophecies immediate military promotions for both Washizu and Miki but also hints at their inevitable demise. Significantly, Miki's clan banner depicts a rabbit (a symbol of fertility) while Washizu's banner pictures a caterpillar, whose metamorphosing abilities symbolize his inner turmoil and confusion.

Washizu clearly establishes himself as ambitious, evidencing no conflict over seeking power. He's pleased to become the Lord over Spider Web Castle and its environs, but it's his wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) that pushes him to the extreme, convincing him to kill off rivals and comrades to obtain additional power. She meets his natural reluctance with both logical and emotional counters--reminding him how the king had also killed his predecessor and then informing him that he has a future child to plan for. Poor Washizu has no control over his actions. Whether acting on his own behalf or for his wife, prophetic doom continually hangs over him--even the foreboding weather opposes him, all leading to the classic climax where Washizu shares the screen with hundreds of arrows.

Kurosawa's visual style dominates Throne of Blood. No one captures large battles on film more beautifully, and especially notable are the shots through the forest shrubbery and inclement weather that track the horseback riders. Especially enamored of the two-dimensional effects of the telephoto lens, Kurosawa uses it to full advantage for this deliberately theatrical production. Highly stylized No drama relies on masks and symbols as well as music and dance to communicate with the audience, and the filmmaker incorporates these elements masterfully. Most noticeable is Yamada's character, who appears to be masked with her makeup and non-blinking expressionless composure. Her movements are also extremely stylized, notably her gracefully slow glides in and out of darkness with loud rustling of her long dress. Of course, Mifune also incorporates the stylized sensibility of No drama by using his face much like a mask to represent his thoughts. It's no wonder that Mifune and Kurosawa were destined to collaborate on sixteen films--the director's photographic preferences match Mifune's acting style perfectly.

For years high school English teachers have struggled to make Shakespeare come alive through MacBeth, only to find that most students only tolerate the bard and remember the three witches and Lady MacBeth's hand washing scene. Although Throne of Blood doesn't preserve the Bard's iambic pentameter, the stripped down narrative artistically supplies the essential plot elements and shows how universal Shakespeare is, and can serve as an effective introduction to the source play. In its own right, Kurosawa's film ranks as a classic that holds up over the years for its tight construction and masterful cinematic technique, often regarded among his strongest films. It is likely to be held as an instructive example for as long as film remains an art form and, sadly, for as long as man continues to go to war.


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