Film Study: Throne of Blood (1957)

Throne of Blood is Akira Kurosawa’s re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in feudal Japan.

Macbeth is a sacred story to me, looming large in my heart and memory. As a boy, I made several attempts at understanding Shakespeare well before I was equipped for the task. I wanted to be seen as urbane, learned, precocious, et cetera — so I did obnoxious things. Example: as a fourth grader, I once asked my grandma to buy me a book of essays by David Hume, and then conspiciously read it in the schoolyard. I scanned the words, furrowed my brow, and nodded thoughtfully, even though I may as well have been looking at a tome of Aztec hieroglyphs.

I tried the same kind of thing with William Shakespeare, after swiping his Complete Works book from my mother and trying to get my head around it. I struggled with the thees and thous. I grasped some of the plots, and developed an elementary appreciation for the beautiful language. Then I read Macbeth, and I could practically hear something clicking in my head. If you don’t know the story, here is a basic synopsis from my favorite website Wikipedia:

“A brave Scottish general named Macbeth receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that one day he will become King of Scotland. Consumed by ambition and spurred to action by his wife, Macbeth murders King Duncan and takes the Scottish throne for himself. He is then wracked with guilt and paranoia. Forced to commit more and more murders to protect himself from enmity and suspicion, he soon becomes a tyrannical ruler. The bloodbath and consequent civil war swiftly take Macbeth and Lady Macbeth into the realms of madness and death.”

I won’t prattle on here about my own thoughts on what Macbeth says about fate and free will — others have explained these themes better than I ever could. I will say that Macbeth was the first piece of art that put these questions in my mind: Is destiny a thing? If it is, can we change it? Can we really become something greater than what we are? Or are we simply trying on ill-fitting clothes?

I devour all adaptations and permutations of Macbeth I can find. Reading it on the page was an awakening experience. Seeing it performed live (at the Globe Theater in London) was a gamechanger. There are several excellent Macbeth films. Two recent entries that preserve the original dialogue are Geoffrey Wright’s “Macbeth” (2006, set in the Australian crime world) and Justin Kurzel’s “Macbeth” (2015, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard); they are both great. However, I enjoy the film adaptations that play with the delivery a little bit. William Morrisette’s hilarious “Scotland, PA” (2001) is set in the world of 1970’s fast food. My favorite of the “loose” adaptations is, without a doubt, Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood.”

The beginning of the film is ridiculously engrossing. Generals Washizu (Macbeth) and Miki (Banquo) are samurai warriors serving Lord Suzuki (Duncan), ruler of Spider’s Web Castle. The film opens on their journey home through the dark wood. They encounter a Forest Spirit, spinning a loom and singing a haunting tune.

The spirit sings the famous prophecy to the two warriors, simultaneously engraging and intriguing them. Kurosawa’s prowess is on full display here, as his framing and pacing sets the tone for the rest of the film. I have always been amazed at cinematographer (and frequent Kurosawa collaborator) Asakazu Nakai’s composition. Lovers of contemporary film who live in a wide-screen world sometimes see the old 4:3 aspect ratio as a limitation, but Nakai fully understood how to paint masterpieces on this canvas. It’s been often said that everyone “looks big” in Kurosawa’s films. As far as I can tell, almost all of “Throne of Blood” was shot with 50mm and 75mm lenses — focal lengths that closely mimic the human eye’s natural vision. Shooting this way makes the viewer feel like they are right there in the scene with the characters. Combining this technique with a markedly shallow depth-of-field, background and foreground seem to almost blend together. One problem I have with many modern films is that they always seem to go for depth in every shot. Deep focus and wide-angle lenses produce beautiful images (especially in wide-screen ratios), but sometimes the narrative is better served by taking the opposite approach. Throne of Blood’s story invites us into the rather insular world of its characters, and the cinematography brings us close to them, filling the frame with large faces.

The cast’s performances are pitch-perfect. In general the acting in Kurosawa’s other samurai films, such as “Yojimbo” (1961) and “Seven Samurai” (1954), is more demonstrative, almost cartoonish. However, these are pulpier, more action-oriented tales, and Throne of Blood’s story demands more meticulous and nuanced performances. Toshiro Mifune (as General Washizu) rises to the challenge of a very demanding script, masterfully vascillating from still contemplation to explosive rage and everywhere in between. Mifune is a deservedly legendary actor, and he crafts a characteristically expert portrayal here. However, the highlight for me is Isuzu Yamada’s turn as Lady Asaji, the counterpart to Macbeth’s Lady M.

Like many others, Lady Macbeth is my favorite character in Shakespeare’s saga. The character has become archetypal, the “woman behind the man;” the puppet master. But Asaji, unlike many other iterations of the character, does not fall apart quite like the original in the later scenes. Yamada delivers most of her lines kneeling, never making eye contact, in a voice that is at once demure and unwavering. Her avatar is that of the subjugated, powerless woman, while she is the exact opposite in her core. When she tells Washizu to screw his courage to the sticking place, she does so calmly and matter-of-factly, never shrieking or losing her nerve. With gathered countenance, she pulls on Washizu’s strings as if whispering a poem to a child. Later in the film, she becomes a more active player in her husband’s gambit, poisoning sake and concocting plots independently. While Shakespeare’s Lady M takes more of a back seat after laying the groundwork, Asaji seems to control the events from beginning to end. It’s a brilliant take on the character.

A discussion of Throne of Blood cannot be complete without addressing the final scene. From a technical standpoint, it is one of the greatest achievements in moviemaking, period. Spoiler alert: Washizu dies (this is Shakespeare after all). Scenes of the protagonist’s death are the big payoff in Shakespearean tragedy; Throne of Blood’s is one for the ages. Washizu has usurped his lord and his new empire is crumbling. From his palace’s watchtower, he implores his men to keep fighting for him, but the throng below has realized his treachery. As he scrambles around in a blind rage, the silent army begins to fire on him. Kurosawa filmed this scene with real archers and real arrows. I have no idea how he cleared this scene with his insurance carrier. We will never, ever, see something like this again, now that similar scenes are left to computer graphics. I still cannot fathom the level of coordination that it took to pull it off. I enjoy learning about how Akira Kurosawa made his movies almost as much as I enjoy watching them. So many stories about his productions just don’t seem like they can be true. Another example? In his King Lear adaptation, Ran (1985), Kurosawa created full-color oil paintings for each storyboard panel. His attention to detail and pure command over his tools are, in a word, unbelievable.

Kurosawa and his crew deserve endless praise for their technical achievements in Throne of Blood, but what makes it an all-time great is the fact that all of these techniques have the singular purpose of driving the essence of the Macbeth story deep into the heart of the viewer. Like a great cover of a classic song, it gave me a deeper appreciation of the original by projecting it through a different lens. Watching Throne of Blood, I felt like Washizu. I felt like Macbeth, struggling to make out my life’s path ahead of me. Like them, I could just barely taste a bigger, better life, without any idea of how I’d get to it, even if I believed I would eventually. And now I am older, and realizing that at the end of the day, I’m probably just faking it.

I am still that kid in the schoolyard, trying to get noticed reading literature so far above my head, hoping that my play-acting will transform into something real. I’m still that guy, denying his true nature as a visceral, hedonistic clod, and distastefully striving to be some kind of upper-class artist (Exhibit A: THIS BLOG). Macbeth, and later Throne of Blood, suggested to me that maybe we are all faking it until we make it. We all have ideas of what we want or want to be. But that’s all they are — ideas, and we inevitably attain something different than what we first set out to. We see the end in our minds eye and make every choice in pursuit of that ending. It is chasing a phantom.

Throne of Blood is available to stream on Hulu+.