#293 Throne of Blood

(1957, Akira Kurosawa)
蜘蛛巣城 Kumonosu-jō

“You, who would soon rule the world, allow a ghost to frighten you”

My experience with Shakespeare is not the best. Due to a British education system that seems determined to suck the life out of every form of literature by drily overanalysing every line of a play, my experience of Shakespeare has been spending an entire year reading Macbeth very slowly and subsequently wanting to never read Macbeth again.

So perhaps reframing Shakespeare could help. Perhaps if an influential Japanese director could have made a movie transposing Macbeth to feudal Japan and making it a dark movie about samurai, I could feel a little better about it. Oh hey, look, it’s Throne Of Blood! That’ll do nicely.

While returning from a battle against their lord’s enemies, samurai generals Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and Miki (Minoru Chiaki) encounter a spirit in the forest who tells of a prophecy for the two men. Washizu is to become master of North Castle, and will soon become lord for the whole castle complex too. Upon returning to their lord, the first part of the prophecy comes true, leading Washizu’s wife, Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), to convince him to kill the lord and bring about the second part. As you can imagine, it doesn’t end well.

The first thing that’s notable about Throne Of Blood is that it knows its source material, to the point where the entire movie feels very theatrical. Most of the sets are fairly sparse and the acting is all very close-knit. Every line also carries a weight, as if every line is important and needs to be heard.

Of course, this means that initial impressions are that Throne Of Blood appears to be very silly. Much of the opening scene of the movie involves a lot of angry shouting men having what should really be a bog-standard conversation. The acting is also generally very animated, possibly a holdover from the source material’s theatrical background, but while animated gestures and loud projected voices work fine when you’re trying to be understood by a vast room full of people, they work less well when there’s a camera pretty close to you.

This leads to Throne Of Blood feeling incredibly over the top almost constantly. Washizu is a ridiculously angry man who appears to have a permanent scowl on his face while other characters flap about and yell like there’s no tomorrow, and I just kept wanting them to chill out a little bit. There’s also immense gravitas given to things that don’t really have gravitas, such as people eating or the presence of a horse (yes, really). And the inevitable death that closes out a Shakespeare tragedy is drawn out to about five minutes as a character is hit with arrows that seem to appear from everywhere. It’s kind of ridiculous.

And yet, Throne Of Blood does manage to make Shakespeare interesting. When you strip away the tricky language issues (ironically, since this is in Japanese) and someone isn’t stopping you from paying attention after every line of dialogue to ask you about its deeper meaning, it’s apparent that Macbeth is actually a pretty clever and pretty spooky little story that’s highly entertaining. This means that so too is Throne Of Blood.

In fact, the silliness is almost charming, as if Kurosawa is having a blast with the source material to see how crazy and theatrical he can make it, adding a little Japanese quirkiness to it. And when the play dictates that the movie needs to be spooky, the movie is spooky. Asaji is a terrifying character, possibly moreso than her Shakespearian counterpart, Lady Macbeth. She was almost ghostly, and seemed so devoid of any kind of empathy. In short, she makes some horror movie serial killers look like adorable puppies. Not just that, but Washizu’s slow descent into madness and the prophet at the beginning are all unnerving and fantastically done.

So, Throne Of Blood is a little silly, and not exactly perfect, but it manages to make Shakespeare accessible and keeps everything held together nicely despite the cultural and historical shifts required to make it work from a Japanese perspective. And it’s entertaining, and let’s be honest, that’s what we’re here for.

Starring Toshiro Mifune, Isuzu Yamada & Takashi Shimura
Written by William Shakespeare (play – “Macbeth”) and Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa & Hideo Oguni
Produced by Sojiro Motoki & Akira Kurosawa
Music by Masaru Sato
Cinematography by Asakazu Nakai
Edited by Akira Kurosawa

Favourite Scene: The scene with the ghost appearing at dinner was perfectly executed in every way.
Scene That Bugged Me: The ending scene was a little too ridiculous for my liking.

Watch it if: You like your Shakespeare plays to be more Japanese
Avoid it if: You’re an English teacher who needs to overanalyse every line

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Posted on July 7, 2014, in 1950s, Action, Drama, Fantasy, Historical, Japan and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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