Between 1952 and 1965, Akira Kurosawa make eleven films, and even the worst of these were near-masterpieces. His 1957 Macbeth adaptation, released in the United States as Throne of Blood, is among the most popular of those films.
But for me, it’s among the least great of these films. Although Throne of Blood (or Spider-web Castle, an actual translation of the original Japanese ) creates a heavy and relentless mood, and contains many great scenes, it lacks the warm humanity of his best work. There’s little room for charity, kindness, or even humanity in a stylized, noh-inspired piece about the inevitability and cruelness of fate.
If I recall correctly, I first saw Throne of Blood at the Roxie in the late 1970s. I’ve seen it theatrically once or twice since then, as well as on TV. The last time I saw it, before watching a rented DVD Sunday night, was an HD broadcast on the now-defunct Voom Network.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth examines a man with the potential for good who nevertheless chooses evil—that’s why it’s a tragedy. But here, Kurosawa doesn’t seem interested in people who might turn good—or, for that matter, in flesh-and-blood people. Instead, he’s creating a myth, and one not so much about the corrupting influence of ambition as the inevitability of regicide. Kurosawa’s Macbeth (named Washizu and played, of course, by Toshiro Mifune), is backed into a corner and has no choice.
This is the first Kurosawa film in more than a decade where Takashi Shimura’s part is little more than a cameo. Since Kurosawa often used Shimura as the embodiment of kind and charitable humanity (not always, though; he played a fascist inquisitor in No Regrets of Our Youth), and there’s no room for these feelings in Throne of Blood, that’s hardly surprising. But although he would continue to use Shimura for the rest of the actor’s life, he would never again give him a significant role.
Throne of Blood takes its stylistic cues from noh—an extremely stylized, traditional form of Japanese theater (see the video below). A spoken chorus starts and ends the film. Sets are often minimalist, as are the actors’ movements. This is especially true with Isuzu Yamada as the Lady Macbeth character. She barely moves a muscle as she goads her husband to murder. She’s such an embodiment of pure evil that her guilt-ridden insanity in the final act hardly seems credible, even though it follows a miscarriage.
The effect is a film that keeps you at an emotional distance, and never lets you feel the death and disaster around you.
Yet Throne of Blood is utterly compelling, and filled with some of the greatest moving images in cinema history. Terrified riders on terrified horses, lost in a foggy forest. The death shutters of an assassin killed for only half-completing his job. The evil spirits whose prophesy sets the plot in motion.
And, of course, the finale. Kurosawa changed Shakespeare’s ending, giving it a more 20th century, democratic flavor, and making it one of the greatest action sequences ever. It’s an amazing sequence, and one for which Mifune risked his life.
This is indeed a tale told by a genius, filled with striking images, and yet, not really signifying all that much.