Throne of Blood (1957 Japan)

Also known as Castle Of The Spider’s Web in Japan. Akira Kurosawa was accused by Japanese critics of being stuck in the past for his heavy use of techniques from Noh, a theatrical tradition that predates Shakespeare by a few centuries. A New York Times review also put the boot in, dissing Mr K’s masterpiece as “serio-comic.” Much of the time, when Shakespeare plays are transferred to different settings, what results is only a shadow of the original, because too many directors have only a limited grasp of what Shakespeare is about…

…But that is not at all the case here – Kurosawa shows a great appreciation for the themes and potential of the Macbeth story, and adds plenty of masterful touches of his own, creating a distinctive, memorable atmosphere and characters that come to life in their own right in addition to serving as worthy parallels to the Macbeth characters. There are many fine details that enhance both the medieval Japanese setting and also the important themes of the story itself.  A word of warning to those who have already seen Seven Samurai or Yojimbo: Throne Of Blood has the energy and visual flair, but it’s expressed very differently. A suffocating formality and simmering rage replaces the vitality and dynamism of those other films.

The basic plot remains the same. Legendary actor Toshiro Mifune stars as the Japanese equivalent to Macbeth: a war hero-turned-ruler who, upon being urged on by his vindictive and cynical wife (Isuzu Yamada) and being told a strange prophecy about his future, plots to murder his own master and anybody who stands in his way. Once the murder is committed, peace does not follow, but rather a long chain of bloody killings until the position Mifune holds is exactly what the title personifies. Right from the beginning, when we hear Masaru Sato’s chilling opening score, we know this is going to be a dark experience full of chilling intensity. Mifune maintains the impression of a madman throughout the course of the film and gives us the impression of a wild animal hungry for human flesh and blood. I was also very fond of the crazy bitch performance by Isuzu Yamada as Lady Macbeth’s equivalent.

Although her performance is mainly a one-note ordeal, it still works out well and there was something about her that reminded me not of a snake-like one would expect, but a rat. I do not know if Kurosawa did this intentionally, but when she walks, the lower garments of her robe rubs against the floor with a kind of squeal-like wisp. And like a rat, she spreads her disease: the thirst for blood. It should be noted that the pacing of Throne Of Blood can feel weird to a Western audience. The traditions of Noh, as well as Japanese cinema in general, mean that the film has its own rhythmn that takes some getting used to. But the amazing sets and cinematography, the rain and fog, the moving forest, the arrow through the neck, the appearing and disappearing spirits — this one gives you so many reasons to watch it again.

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