Shakespeare has been adapted many times into many forms. Akira Kurosawa, one of Japan’s premiere filmakers for decades, tackled the Bard twice, converting Macbeth into Throne of Blood and King Lear into Ran. I’ll talk about King Lear, Ran and probably Fox’s Empire another day, and will focus on 1957’s Throne of Blood today. I’ll give the spoiler alert here: if you don’t want to know the plot of Macbeth, don’t read the rest of this article.
First, a moment about Akira Kurosawa. More of you know of his work than realize it. Remember The Magnificent Seven, Battle for the Stars, Samurai Seven, or A Bugs Life? All remakes of Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai. R2D2, C3PO, and Princess Leah? Based on Tahei, Matashichi, and Yuki from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood’s A Fistful of Dollars? A remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. For a Few Dollars More? A remake of Kurosawa’s Sanjuro. You get the idea: his work has influenced filmmaking in fundamental ways. You can’t compare his influence with that of Shakespeare himself, of course, but it is significant.
What’s also significant is that, rather than being regarded as some kind of odd mashup, Throne of Blood is widely considered to be the single best adaptation of Macbeth to film. Noted critic Harold Bloom has gone ever further to describe it as the single best adaptation of Shakespeare to anything, period. Kurosawa took the conventions of Japanese historical dramas and overlaid a layer of Noh drama to bring this story of ambition and treachery to a different place. There’s a subtle real-life parallel as well, watching the aged Takashi Shimura, long a leading actor, take a clear back-seat position to the rising star Toshiro Mifune.
Titled Kumonosujou (Spiderweb Castle) in Japanese, Throne of Blood resets the story from eleventh-century Scotland to fifteenth-century Japan, a period known as the Sengoku Jidai (“Age of War”). This period marked Japan’s transition from a central imperial rule to one where rule was scattered among dozens of feudal kingdoms. The film opens with a series of messengers bringing news of series of victories against Lord Inui, victories won by Washizu (Macbeth) and Miki (Banquo). Later, as the two lose themselves in Spiderweb Forest on their way to be congratulated by the lord of Spiderweb Castle, they meet a spirit, spinning a web of her own with a thread wheel. She prophesizes that Washizu will become Lord of the North as a reward, and will eventually become lord of Spiderweb Castle. For Miki, she promises that Miki will be promoted to commander of the First Fortress, and his son will rise to be lord of Spiderweb Castle in time. Eventually finding their way to the castle, they immediately receive word of their promotions, fulfilling the first part of the prophecy.
Later, after settling into the life at the North Garrison, Washizu’s wife, Asaji, warns that all could fall apart, for certainly if Miki reveals the prophecy to their lord, the lord will respond by having Washizu killed. Just as they discuss this, they find themselves surrounded by the Great Lord’s men, and the Great Lord himself approaches. The Great Lord announces his plan to secretly headquarter at the North Garrison in order to position himself against his chief rival, placing Miki in temporary command of Spiderweb Castle. Asaji twists all this into a plot against Washizu, and persuades him that this is a trick. She persuades him to take the prophecy into his own hands by killing the Great Lord. They drug the Great Lord’s guards (vassals of Lord Noriyasu), kill the Great Lord, and frame the guards for the murder.
Noriyasu and the Great Lord’s son ride to Spiderweb’s Castle, revealing Washizu’s treason, only to be rebuffed by Miki. Washizu is eventually permitted to enter, under the pretext of bearing the Great Lord’s coffin, and Miki yields to Washizu as his master. In exchange Washizu promises to name Miki’s son as his heir. Upon hearing this plan, Asaji, barren until this time, tells Washizu that she is pregnant.
At the banquet that night, Miki does not arrive. His absence is noted by all, but his death is not known until his ghost, seen only by Washizu, arrives. Asaji maintains the pretense that Miki is simply late, but the drunken Washizu eventually strikes at the ghost, shouting “I will slay you yet again”, revealing his treachery to all. After all have left, a soldier arrives, bearing Miki’s head and the news that Miki’s son has escaped.
From this point on, it’s all downhill. Miki’s son and Noriyasu align themselves with Inui. Washizu’s son is stillborn, rendering Asaji insane, leading her to obsessively attempt to wash the blood from her hands. Washizu sets out in search of the spirit, who tells him that until the very trees of the forest rise against the castle, he will not be defeated in battle. Washizu rallies his men with the story of the prophecy, only to have it work against him when Noriyasu’s men use branchs and even complete trees as cover as they advance on the castle.
This was Kurosawa’s second experiment with Noh drama in his movies, The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail being the first. This is far more satisfying: where The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail felt a little stilted and contrived, here the Noh stylings serve to add a gravity to the whole affair, a reminder that we are watching a play set to film. This is, after all, Macbeth.
The cinematography doesn’t seem groundbreaking today, but one scene in particular is astounding: when Washizu’s men turn on him, those arrows pinning him down are not special effects. The scene was choreographed, but those are real archers shooting genuinely deadly arrows at the leading man.
Throne of Blood is available from Criterion on Blu-Ray and DVD. You even get your choice of subtitle author to select from on the Blu-Ray: I’ve only watched the Hoaglund version, but others enjoy the more austere subtitling style by Richie. If you are a true Shakespeare fan, you’ll love this. If you aren’t a Shakespeare fan and haven’t watched samurai dramas before, this might not be your place to start. I’d give a nudge towards 2014’s remarkable adaptation of Unforgiven for that if it could be found in the US, but, failing that, start with Yojimbo.
Kevin Wayne Williams, author of Everything I Know About Zombies, I Learned in Kindergarten, has vague memories of watching The Seven Magic Samurai on television during his early childhood in the little town of Iruma, northwest of Tokyo, which undoubtedly has lead to his large collection of samurai films. He has been an engineer for much of his life, beginning with GTE in 1980. He rose through the ranks and eventually became an executive in Silicon Valley. In 2004, tired of it all, he fled the country with his wife, Kathy. They opened a hotel on Bonaire, a small Dutch island north of Venezuela. In 2009, for reasons he still doesn’t quite understand, they returned to the United States.
He has since resumed his engineering career, but writes novels to help dull the pain.
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org