Throne of Blood (1957) — Akira Kurosawa’s Macbeth

“You humans! Never will I comprehend you. You are afraid of your desires – you try to hide them.”

Sitting Duck’s rating: “What’s this, a yari I see before me?”

Sitting Duck’s review: If you were to ambush a typical American and demand that person name a Japanese live-action film director under threat of physical violence, chances are the response would be “Akira Kurosawa.” This isn’t a big surprise. The templates for Rashomon and The Seven Samurai have been imitated countless times, while The Hidden Fortress served as an early inspiration for Star Wars.

Yet despite occasional rumblings about covering one his films, none of the Mutants have gotten around to tackling a Kurosawa. That ends today. But instead of one of the obvious choices like those mentioned above, I thought I’d go with my own personal favorite, Throne of Blood.

Our story begins with the samurai commanders Washizu Taketoki and Miki Yoshiaki (Toshiro Mifune and Minoru Chiaki respectively) having just thwarted an uprising. They’re riding back to Spider Web Castle to report in to their sovereign High Lord Tsuzuki Kuniharu (Takamaru Sasaki) when they get turned around traveling through the neighboring Spider Web Forest. Eventually, they encounter a spirit (Chieko Naniwa) who tells them of the more prestigious commands they’ll be awarded for their battlefield exploits. What’s more, she proclaims that Washizu is destined to become the next High Lord of Spider Web Castle.

Eventually, they regain their bearings, and the unreality of the event has them wondering if it actually happened. These doubts are dispelled the next evening when Tsuzuki awards them the exact same postings predicted by the spirit.

Though Washizu is satisfied with his new command, his wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) is fixated on the prophecy of him becoming the new High Lord. She voices concerns that Miki could rat him out to Tsuzuki and that he needs to be proactive. Washizu rejects this, claiming that he and Miki have been friends since they were children and insists that he has the full confidence of Tsuzuki. Even so, Asaji harangues him over what she regards as his naivete and that he must do unto others before they do unto him.

An opportunity arises when Tsuzuki arrives with a battalion of soldiers, with plans to use Washizu’s castle as a staging point for a campaign against a rebellious clan. Since another vassal is providing guards for Tsuzuki, Asaji concocts a plan where the guards will be provided with drugged drinks. While they’re out, Washizu will slay Tsuzuki and plant the murder weapon on the guard and publicly kill the “murderer” before he has a chance to protest his innocence. Though Washizu does ascend to the position of the new High Lord, he becomes haunted (both figuratively and literally) by the consequences of his actions.

As this point, you’re probably saying to yourself, “Hey, this is just a knockoff of Macbeth!” And you would be correct. But there are more significant differences than the principals wielding katanas instead of claymores. The key issue is tone. Macbeth follows a classic faerie tale structure, where the rightful king is assassinated by a scheming subordinate who usurps the throne, only to eventually be slain by the true heir. Throne of Blood takes a more cynical view.

Far from being a scrupulous and honorable man, Tsuzuki had gained his position through treachery and deceit. Of course, he claimed that the prior High Lord’s raging paranoia had forced him into such action. Sure, whatever helps you sleep at night. Washizu’s demise is similarly ignoble, as (if you’ll pardon the modern vernacular) he gets fragged by his soldiers once events have spiraled out of control. And it’s indicated that this dreary cycle will continue.

Then there’s the weak point of Macbeth, where the Witches make their second prophecy. You know the one, where he’s told that no one born of a woman will be able to harm him and that he will be safe until Great Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane Hill. These get resolved in a fashion so idiotic, J.R.R. Tolkien (who hated Macbeth) reputedly felt the need to insert what he considered superior versions in The Lord of the Rings. Kurosawa takes a different approach. The first half is completely disposed of, because the whole untimely ripped thing is moronic sophistry with no viable workaround. While the marching forest bit is retained as is, at least the scene in question looks reasonably impressive. Certainly much better than what you could get in a stage production.

But the greatest advantage Throne of Blood has in adapting Macbeth is that it’s performed in Japanese. Allow me to elucidate. There’s a bizarre insistence that Shakespeare’s plays must be performed in old timey English. This has the double disadvantage of being different enough from modern English that it might as well be a foreign language while similar enough that viewers erroneously believe they know what’s being said. The end result is that the average shmoe finds Shakespeare to be inaccessible. Now there are some who insist that using modern English would result in the loss of certain bits of nuance. This is duplicitous misdirection. By such logic, only people with the patience and inclination to learn Epic Greek would be allowed to read the Odyssey. Yet there are many translations of that and many other literary works of olden times available to the general public. Presumably they also lose some nuance in the transition. Why should Shakespeare be exempt?

But by having the dialogue in an actual foreign language, it’s necessary to translate back to English. As going from Japanese to English is hard enough without having to fit in some “prithees,” the use of modern dialect is preferable. And since there are enough deviations in the narrative, they can’t take the lazy route and slap on the original play’s script, as happened with a certain other foreign language Shakespeare production (hint: Horatio was a magnificent bastard). In this roundabout way, Macbeth becomes accessible to regular folks.

Didja notice?

  • Asaji really out-Lady Macbeths Lady Macbeth. Doesn’t really do Kurosawa any favors with his reputation for unflattering portrayals of female characters.
  • No wonder Washizu and Miki are having so much trouble getting out of the forest. They keep going back and forth over the same patch of ground.
  • Though specific dates are never mentioned, the film appears to take place during the early part of the Sengoku period (1467-1615), when Japan was in a more or less constant state of civil war.
  • Kurosawa had originally wanted to film this after completing Rashomon in 1950. However, upon learning that Orson Welles had released his own adaptation of Macbeth in 1948, he chose to hold off.
  • In the final scene where Washizu’s men turn on him, real arrows are shot at Toshiro Mifune so that he would have a properly terrified reaction.

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