Thursday, January 19, 2012

Movie – Throne of Blood (1957)

The movie Throne of Blood is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth set in feudal Japan.  Its original title is Kumonosu-jo, which literally means "Castle of the Spider’s Web".  That title is just as fitting, but I suppose "Throne of Blood" catches more people's attention.  In addition to adapting Macbeth to this place and time, director Akira Kurosawa also combined it with elements of the Japanese Noh Theater, which would have been prevalent at the time the film is set.  The result is the best movie adaptation of Macbeth ever filmed, and one of the greatest movie adaptations of any of Shakespeare’s works.

You do not have to be familiar with the Macbeth story in order to understand what is going on in this movie.  In fact, it changes a few things in the story, so if you are the kind of person who knows the play by heart, you may be disappointed by some of the changes.  If you do want an overview of the plot, I have it in the parent post for this category.  In it you can also find links to the other Macbeth movies I have reviewed.

Throne of Blood stars the great actor Toshiro Mifune in his ninth collaboration with director Kurosawa.  They would work together 16 times from 1948 to 1965.  They are easily the greatest director/actor team in film history.  Yes, even better than Scorcese and Deniro.  (And don’t try to compare the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp pair, which is hit and miss.)

Mifune plays Washizu, the Macbeth character.  Playing his wife Asaji, the Lady Macbeth character, is legendary Japanese actress Isuzu Yamada.  She was basically the Meryl Streep of her time.  Lady Macbeth is Shakespeare’s second most famous female character (after Juliet) and is definitely his meatiest role for an actress.  That is why Kurosawa went out and got the best.  The Banquo character, named Miki in this film, is played by Seven Samurai veteran Minoru Chiaki.  The King Duncan character, named Lord Tsuzuki in this film, is played by Hiroshi Tachikawa.  Finally, a very familiar face to Kurosawa fans, Takashi Shimura from Seven Samurai and Ikiru, plays Noriyasu.  He is sort of a combination of Macduff and another character.  Up to this point, Shimura had been just as big as Mifune in Kurosawa’s films, but in this one he plays a smaller, supporting role.  From this point forward, Mifune would become Kurosawa’s primary actor.

I’ve seen some long versions of Macbeth, but this movie zips along in under two hours.  Like any adaptation, there were some changes made to the story.  Instead of meeting three witches, Washizu (Macbeth) and Miki (Banquo) meet a forest spirit.  Both this scene, and the appearance of the spirit in it, are done in the tradition of the Japanese Noh Theater.  Other Noh aspects are the opening and closing songs, the occasional flute and drum heard in the score, and especially the appearance and movement of Asaji (Lady Macbeth).  You can read much more about the Noh style here.  You do not have to know anything about it to understand what is happening in the movie; it simply adds more depth to the presentation.

Other differences are that the film is broken into four acts, not five.  The first meeting with the spirit has the same prophecies – new commands for both, the throne first for Washizu, then Miki’s son.  The second meeting with the spirit only mentions the prophecy of the forest coming to the castle.  People immediately suspect Washizu in the death of the Lord, but he is supported by Miki because Washizu will appoint Miki’s son to be his heir.  Kurosawa made the motives for most of the key characters a little different and lot plainer that Shakespeare did.

Asaji, the Lady Macbeth character, is especially great in this film.  She is not strident and demanding like in many adaptations.  In this one she sits absolutely still for a long time, simply pointing out to her husband things that really make a lot of sense, even when you know she is guiding him toward doing what she wants him to do.  When she finally turns her head to face him (and incidentally, to face into the camera) it is actually kind of scary, even though she has done nothing but speak quietly up to this point.  When she finally gets up and walks out of the room, then back in, it is actually creepy.

Asaji is simultaneously nicer (less demanding) and more evil (she is the one who convinces Washizu to kill Miki) than Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth.  She tells Washizu that he will not be safe if Miki ever reveals the prophecy to their Lord.  If he knows Washizu is to be Lord someday, then the current Lord will come and kill Washizu.  The only way to be safe for sure is to kill the Lord first.  After all, that’s how the current Lord got the throne.  Right as Washizu is considering this, there is an unannounced visit by the Lord, with a huge amount of soldiers, right outside Washizu’s castle.  Is this the attack his wife just predicted?

This is just one example of the great tension that this film has in it.  Even though you may be familiar with the Macbeth story, there are still multiple places where the tension just builds and builds.  If you have seen the first section of Kurosawa’s film High and Low, then this film is able to achieve the same effect just by doing a number of little things –  Washizu approaching the silent, and possibly hostile, Spider’s Web Castle with the coffin of the Lord; silent looks between Washizu and Miki after the Lord has been killed; etc.

In regards to the film itself, Kurosawa pulled out all the stops.  He wanted to shoot on the side of Mt. Fuji because of the weather conditions (foggy and windy), and the look of the black volcanic soil.  The castle set was massive and U.S. Marines actually helped in the construction.  In addition, many truckloads of the soil were brought back to the Toho Studios’ backlot to be spread on the ground of sets that had been built there.  For its time, this was a very expensive production.

Kurosawa didn’t try to fake it when it comes to the biggest action scene of the film, either.  Washizu is under attack and many people are firing arrows at him.  There were no special effects in these scenes; lead actor Toshiro Mifune was really being shot with arrows.  Kurosawa hired marksmen to stand just outside of camera range.  For the arrows that had to hit Mifune’s character, he wore a wooden shield under his armor and the marksmen fired the arrows into the trunk of his body.  For the chase scenes, the shots where Mifune is showing tremendous fear at a hail of arrows embedding in a wall just inches from his head are real.  As great an actor as Mifune was, Kurosawa wanted the real reaction.  Imagine Brad Pitt in a Spielberg movie where marksmen are firing real bullets into a wall inches from Pitt’s head, over and over again, as he runs around a set.

Finally, the black and white cinematography is fantastic.  The location on Mt. Fuji really paid off, with the fog adding a whole other layer of eeriness to the film.  The volcanic soil looked great in black and white.  The best shot in the whole film, though, is when the forest is coming to the castle.  It’s really great and even if there had not been a prophecy about it, you could see how it would still have freaked people out.

This is an absolutely terrific film.  Even if you know nothing about Shakespeare in general or Macbeth in particular, this is still a must see film.  I consider it one of the three greatest films Kurosawa ever made (Seven Samurai and Ikiru being the other two).  I give it my highest recommendation.

Chip’s Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

           DVD                  Criterion DVD


  1. I agree! It is the greatest director/actor combination even better than Herzog/Kinski! Throne of Blood is one of Kurosawa greatest work too! Excellent write-up! I've seen this film some years ago I think I will give it a re-watch sometime soon.

  2. @Michael Parent - Thanks! Even though I've seen the film a few times, I popped it in to quickly scan through it to refresh my memory and damned if I didn't end up watching it from beginning to end again.

  3. This is my favorite MacBeth adaptation by far. For me, the highlight of the film is not Mifune, but (and for the reasons you mention above), the Japanese equivalent of Lady MacBeth. With the odd, stylized appearance--the eyebrows drawn so high on her forehead in particular--she looks like something out of the spirit world. Couple this with the way that she walks, almost gliding rather than simply walking, and her presence becomes something more otherworldly than even the spirit encountered early in the film. There is almost a palpable evil that radiates from her, moreso because so much of what she says (as you say) is so reasonable in the moment.

    It is one hell of a film, even if it's a little goofy at the start. I have trouble suppressing a laugh when Washizu and Miki ride around in the forest for what seems like half an hour lost in the fog.

  4. @SJHoneywell - "There is almost a palpable evil that radiates from her". That's a very good way to put it. I didn't get into much detail on the Noh Theater, but the way her face is made up is intended to mirror one of the key masks worn by Noh performers.

    I agree on the fog scene. After three or four times I was kind of wondering how many more before Kurosawa was satisfied.

  5. I really need to see more Kurosawa films. This one in particular sounds like a rather unique take on the play. I will definitely have to check this one out. Great review.

  6. @CS - Thanks. I don't think you will be disappointed at all if you watch this film.

  7. Yep. Awesome awesome awesome. Such a great film. People talk about Kurosawa's "Ran" as being his magnum opus, but for my money, "Throne of Blood" is better. There are definitely similarities (especially using Mt. Fuji as the setting) between two beyond the Shakespeare adaptations, but... I think this one tops them all.

    1. I'd go with Seven Samurai as Kurosawa's best, but this film and Ikiru are also five star films for me.