Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Throne of Blood

Written as part of the series hosted by Nathaniel R. of The Film Experience, a great website where I contribute occasionally, and which you should read regularly.

Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood both is and isn't an adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, but it is probably the best non-English language screen adaptation of the play. It is also quite possibly the best adaptation of any Shakespeare play to film. How much of this is because on some level it actually isn't an adaptation of Macbeth, who can say. But it works far better than most, streamlining the play to a film-appropriate length and providing indelible imagery impossible to recreate on a stage. Using conventions of traditional Japanese Noh theater, Kurosawa created something that stands completely apart from Shakespeare while also remaining true to the essence of the Bard's tale.

It begins with fog (the film's main set was famously built on the volcanic slopes of Mt. Fuji), and a deep-voiced chorus singing a mournful dirge of warning as we survey the ruins of Spiderweb Castle. Shortly thereafter, we are following two triumphant warriors through the Spider's Web Forest in the fog of night, and it's some of the most beautiful black & white cinematography I've ever seen. Especially when they come upon the evil spirit that makes the fateful prophecy that both makes and dooms Macbeth and Banquo, here named Washizu and Miki. The whites of the spirit and his dwelling are so impossibly white they practically glow.

This is where we get to the issue of theatricality on film, and how Throne of Blood both is and isn't an adaptation of Macbeth. In nearly every way that Shakespeare's play is English, Kurosawa's film is Japanese. The costumes, makeup, lighting, and staging are all straight out of the Noh theatre tradition, which is very careful and precise - basically the opposite of the Scottish Play, the Bard's most visceral and exciting piece. So yes, it means, the evil spirit doesn't get anything as catchy as "Double, double, toil and trouble/Fire burn and cauldron bubble," but show me one other vision of Macbeth that presents so perfectly its own culture's associations with magic and prophecy in the context of this story. It's singular, and marvelous.

Toshiro Mifune, Krosawa's muse, is incredible as Washizu. His wildly expressive face is put to perfect use in nearly every film the two made together, but with this role it gets a full workout, and Mifune is more than up to the task. What's interesting about Washizu is that we get a version of Macbeth that we see very rarely (although the reading can be supported by the text): one that is motivated by fear as much as anything else. As Washizu's Lady tells him, "[i]n this degenerate age, one must kill so as not to be killed." His fear of death, of betrayal, of losing, motivates him more than any lust for power, and Mifune brilliantly shows this in body language and the smallest of facial expressions - look at the moment when he must "screw [his] courage to the sticking place":

Memorable as Mifune is, though, it's his film's Lady that leaves the most lasting impression. It's here that the Noh influence pays off the most, as Isuzu Yamada's performance is almost eerily still as she tells her husband what he must do if he wants the prophecy of his rule to come true, and of his fall not to come to pass. Her face a practically unmoving mask, her body stiff and almost statue-like, she's a presence that is at once deeply unnerving and almost eerily calm. It's a perfect performance that could only come to life in the Noh tradition.

But what's really incredible about this Lady is that it doesn't take long for her to break - as soon as her husband leaves the room to do the deed, her composure practically goes flying out the window - her eyes widen, she runs scared as if she has seen a ghost. What Shakespeare does with language, Kurosawa and Noh do with movement.

But this is, on some level, Macbeth, and Lady M is one of the all-time great villains. And though any of the shots I've used here (especially that Mifune close-up) could have been my Best Shot, Kurosawa's stunning EEEEEEEVIL portrait of Yamada takes the cake:


On film, that's ten seconds of darkness before she reappears with the jug of spiked sake to drug the guards. Ten full seconds of dread and fear and suspense, before she reappears like a ghost from a horror movie. And here again, Kurosawa takes a very Japanese approach, pulling straight from his culture's longstanding history of ghost women to create a classic horror image. Macbeth has always had an element of horror to it, but leave it to the Japanese to make a film version that - at least in moments - truly embraces it.


  1. this is great. This shot really was spooky and wonderful in the ways that allowing people to be swallowed up in celluloid darkness nearly always is. But then she remerges which makes her both living and dead in some way... at least that's the feeling it gives.

    loved this movie. it was the first time i'd seen it somehow.

    1. Thanks. I worried that the shot was too much of a cliché when I chose it, but as stunningly composed as the entire film is, it was the shot that most made me feel something deep in the pit of my gut. I didn't even think about the "living and dead" connotation, but it's absolutely true and part of what makes this Lady so scary. She's easily the most frightening Lady M I've ever seen.