Throne of Blood

There's good reason to be wary of Shakespeare adaptations that remove The Bard's language from the mix. To be sure, Shakespeare's skills as a storyteller were considerable, but in many instances the manner in which the characters speak to each other is more compelling than what they are actually speaking about. Removing Shakespeare's unmistakable dialogue from one of Shakespeare's plots is occasionally an understandable move from a practical standpoint (particularly when you're changing the setting of the tale), but a risky one: you've just thrown away your biggest asset. It's a testament to Akira Kurosawa's skills as a filmmaker that his Macbeth adaptation Throne of Blood – which doesn't use a single line from Shakespeare's play – is not just a successful Shakespeare adaptation, but one of the finest ever made.

Employing a fascinating blend of Noh theatre and the western cinematic techniques he had previously showcased in Seven Samurai, Kurosawa crafts a rich, rewarding Japanese riff on The Scottish Play. Our Macbeth figure here is General Washizu (Toshiro Mifune, Yojimbo), who has just fought a victorious battle alongside his friend General Miki (Minoru Chiaki, The Hidden Fortress) on behalf of the powerful Lord Tsuzuki (Takamaru Sasaki, The Sword of Doom). On their way home, Washizu and Miki encounter a strange spirit (Chieko Naniwa, Sansho the Bailiff) in the forest. The spirit gives them a prophecy: Washizu will soon become the Lord of the Northern Garrison, while Miki will become Commander of the First Fortress (both positions are considerable promotions). It's an exciting prospect for both men, but the prophecy continues: Washizu will eventually become Lord of Spiderweb Castle, replacing Lord Tsuzuki. Then, the spirit declares that Miki's son will also become Lord of the Castle someday.

These revelations are troubling, because they cannot possibly come true without death: Lord Tsuzuki must die for Washizu to become Lord of the castle, and Washizu must die for Miki's son to become Lord. Sure enough, when the two generals return to the castle, Lord Tsuzuki promotes them both, fulfilling the first part of the spirit's prophecy.

At this point, we reach one of the most significant differences between Throne of Blood and Shakespeare's play: Macbeth saw his first promotion as a stepping stone to greater power, and immediately began contemplating the possibility of murdering King Duncan to secure the throne. Washizu is horrified by the thought of murder, and has no particular desire to achieve greater power. He is basically a good man, and he would prefer to simply ignore the second half of the spirit's prophecy and content himself with his prestigious new position as Lord of the Northern Garrison.

Enter Lady Asaji Washizu (Isuzu Yamada, The Lower Depths), our protagonist's wife and the film's Lady Macbeth equivalent. She refuses to let Washizu simply sit on his laurels and live out a peaceful existence, filling his head with paranoia and conspiracies. Eventually, she drives him to murder, not because of his lust for power, but because his wife has made him feel that he has no choice. This is clearly a major divergence from the Shakespeare play, where Macbeth and Lady Macbeth shared roughly equal blame for the crimes that were committed, and some have accused Throne of Blood of misogyny as a result. I disagree: the fact that Washizu is (initially) unwilling to embrace the future the spirit foretold adds greater power to the tale's examination of the conflict between fate and free will. Does Washizu turn into a bloodthirsty tyrant because fate willed it, or because his wife convinced him that there was no other choice? You can make compelling arguments on both sides, but the prophecies will find a way to come true.

There's a deliberate disconnect between the respective styles of performance offered by Mifune and Yamada, and the result is riveting. Mifune delivers the sort of performance we've seen from him on countless occasions: big, explosive and wildly physical. He marches back and force across the room, waving his arms and bellowing his lines with thunderous theatricality. As always, he's a riveting, commanding presence. Rather than having Yamada attempt to top him, Kurosawa draws from Noh tradition and has the actress sit perfectly still in most of her scenes, never blinking an eye as she delivers her lines with icy pitilessness. It's a deeply unsettling approach, and the sheer stillness of the performance allows her to draw our attention away from Mifune in a way that a more conventional performance might not have. It also gives enormous power to the character's final scene, in which all of the “rules” of the performance are shattered by overwhelming emotion.

A fair percentage of Shakespeare films (particularly those made prior to Throne of Blood) have a tendency to look more like glorified plays than actual movies: stage productions enhanced with bigger sets and larger hordes of extras. Throne of Blood is consistently a remarkably cinematic affair, complete with an abundance of sweeping outdoor cinematography and large-scale setpieces. Kurosawa shrouds large portions of the film in heavy fog, bringing an appropriate atmosphere of mystery to the proceedings (Throne of Blood is the official English title, but the Japanese title translates as Cobweb Castle, which more accurately captures the tone the film is going for). The film's climax is one of the most astonishing sequences in film history; a violent and genuinely dangerous sequence that has been aped by countless movies but rarely matched. Again, Kurosawa tosses aside one of the source material's greatest assets – that sensational ending – and delivers something entirely different and arguably even more effective.

Macbeth is a busy, complex story, but Kurosawa's adaptation essentially strips the tale down to its core and reimagines it in a striking new context. It's rare that a Shakespeare adaptation feels this spare... it condenses, alters and compresses the text in smart, thoughtful ways, giving the movie an intimate tone to match its epic scale. While it veers too far from the text to be accepted as the definitive film interpretation of the play, a strong argument can be made for the idea that it's the best film the source material has ever produced (which is saying something when you consider that Orson Welles and Roman Polanski are the primary challengers). Throne of Blood is one of the most significant achievements of Kurosawa's career, standing proud alongside the great director's great King Lear adaptation Ran as a bold, rich interpretation of a Shakespeare classic.

Throne of Blood

Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 109 minutes
Release Year: 1957