(Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1957) 106 minutes


Director: Akira Kurosawa
Producers: Akira Kurosawa, Sôjirô Motoki
Screenplay: Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto,
  Ryûzô Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa,
  based on Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Cinematography: Asakazu Nakai
Music: Masaru Satô
Toshirô Mifune (Taketoki Washizu)
Isuzu Yamada (Lady Asaji Washizu)
Takashi Shimura (Noriyasu Odagura)
Akira Kubo (Yoshiteru Miki)
Hiroshi Tachikawa (Kunimaru Tsuzuki)
Minoru Chiaki (Yoshiaki Miki)
Takamaru Sasaki (Kuniharu Tsuzuki )

Reviews and notes

1957 Venice
1998 Thessaloniki
2016 Hong Kong

The tensest and most charged of Shakespeare films, Throne of Blood, is also the foggiest. For a while, at the start of this 1957 adaptation of Macbeth, by Akira Kurosawa, you wonder whether, and how, the action will ever break free of the mist. The sense of release, once the film does snap awake, is unforgettable: riders racing through glades, heralds yelling news of desperate conflicts. None of the play’s dialogue survives; or, rather, it is distilled into a stream of images both foul and fair. The divided warrior is Washizu (Toshiro Mifune), who is tempted to seek his destiny by a single, thread-spinning spectre (rather than by the usual trio of witches) and urged along by his formidable spouse (Isuzu Yamada), who is herself no more than a glimmering ghost as she emerges from the gloom with a drug to dope the guards. No stage production could match Kurosawa’s Birnam Wood, and, in his final framing of the hero — a human hedgehog, stuck with arrows — he conjures a tragedy not laden with grandeur but pierced, like a dream, by the absurd.
- Anthony Lane, New Yorker.

Legacy hasn't softened William Shakespeare's Macbeth, a tragedy with a streak of despairing class hopelessness that appears to apply to any culture of any era. There's certainly no reason why contemporary Americans shouldn't be able to relate to the story of a Scottish general who's driven toward embarking on a manipulative killing spree by a thirst for power that nearly topples his entire kingdom. Macbeth is powerful for many reasons, but its most disturbing and ageless conceit is the notion of the protagonist as feeling as if he's a member of the oppressed even as he climbs the ladder of the empowered. As has often been observed, Macbeth is both the hero and villain of the play, and the poetic division of sympathies that Shakespeare encourages in his audience is emotionally unmooring.

Updating the story to fit a feudal Japanese backdrop familiar to many of the director's films, Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood obviously doesn't offer English-speaking audiences the verbal poetry for which Shakespeare is renowned, as the characters speak in a “slightly formal” Japanese that's meant to evoke a collected notion of the past in a fashion that would still be relevant for modern viewers. In this film, Macbeth is reimagined as Washizu (Toshirô Mifune), a samurai commander who answers to Lord Tsuzuki (Takamaru Sasaki), a variation of the King Duncan character. Miki (Minoru Chiaki) is essentially Banquo, a fellow warrior comrade of Washizu's. And, of course, there's Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), the Lady Macbeth character who spurs Washizu to answer his opening promotion to Master of the North Castle with an elaborate campaign of murders and manipulations designed to capture and maintain Tsuzuki's lordship.

In place of the verbal poetry is Kurosawa's intensely expressive and fluid methods of compression. Rather than blanching self-consciously at the challenges of making a true movie from one of the most iconic of theatrical works, Kurosawa actively weds those challenges with Macbeth's themes. Compression isn't felt simply as a means of moving the story along; it's registered as a sense of mounting inevitability. Until the last act, Throne of Blood is largely a master action filmmaker's poem of inaction: People die, conspiracies are enacted, and leaders tumble, but our attention is primarily directed toward Washizu as he paces throughout a variety of royal rooms, planning and fuming and trying to make sense of what he feels is a perverted destiny squeezing him gradually dry.

Throne of Blood is possibly Kurosawa's definitive expression of the estrangement one experiences from their own life as it spins wildly out of control, and he goes about invoking this existential damnation with a ruthless precision. Long dialogue scenes are staged incorporating elements of the Noh theater, which traditionally combines a bare set with actors who're encouraged to heighten the restrictions of their movements, particularly their facial gestures. Kurosawa contrasts these moments, which abound in his traditionally bold diagonal compositions, with striking exterior action sequences that convey the surging, exhilarating power of pure movement, which testifies to the powers of the Shakespearean fates that are, perhaps, encouraging Washizu's most monstrous qualities to reach their fullest expression. Kurosawa uses the distinctions of the mediums of theater and film to comment on the distinctions of fates as forged by man (the interior scenes) and by prophecy (the exterior).

In this fashion, Throne of Blood shares a commonality with Orson Welles's Falstaff and Jean-Luc Godard's formally wild adaptation of King Lear: All solve the riddle of filming Shakespeare by making movies about the riddle of filming Shakespeare. These films express the poignant impossibility of merging with a past artist's work, and arrive at conclusions that are both despairing and exhilarating: The filmmakers' inability to truly “capture” Shakespeare speaks indirectly of mortality, of death ending all, including work of ancient performance art as it originally existed. But the new art these directors created as compensation speaks of an ongoing dialogue with past artists as well of a rebirth and evolution.
- Chuck Bowen, Slant, 7 January 2014.

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