Empire “Masterpiece” #119 / Issue #292 / October, 2013
There’s a school of thought that says Akira Kurosawa was able to cross over to western audiences because he was more palatable than his Japanese contemporaries like Mizoguchi, Shindo, Kobayashi and Teshigahara. Kurosawa’s films were, famously, remade in the west as the likes of A Fistful of Dollars (Yojimbo) and The Magnificent Seven (Seven Samurai), but the traffic went both ways, and perhaps Kurosawa’s work translated so well because the source material was often familiar. He adapted Fjodor Dostoevsky (The Idiot), Maxim Gorky (The Lower Depths), and even Ed McBain (High and Low). And on no fewer than three occasions, his touchstone was William Shakespeare: for Ran (King Lear), The Bad Sleep Well (Hamlet), and the first of them, Throne of Blood, a virtuoso transposition of Macbeth.
Recent criticism has tended to play down Throne of Blood’s essential Macbeth-ness, insisting that there’s much more going on than name and location changing. There’s some truth to this, but also some wilful blindness. Throne of Blood is absolutely, front and centre, Macbeth. From the Cobweb Forest (Burnham Wood) to Cobweb Castle (Dunsinane), to meetings with witches, murders of kings and trusted sidekicks, horrifying hauntings and the obsessive washing of hands, Throne of Blood is, beat for beat, thrillingly Shakespearean: both rip-roaring and tragic in its outlining of a nobleman’s inexorable corruption and decline. In his seventh of sixteen collaborations with Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune is on typically raging form as our Macbeth cipher General Washizu, with support from Isuzu Yamada as Asaji (Lady Macbeth), Minoru Chiaki as General Miki (Banquo), and Kurosawa’s other regular Takashi Shimura as Noriyasu (MacDuff). The Thane of Cawdor becomes the “Master of North Mansion”. He shall be Lord of Cobweb Castle hereafter.
An eerie beginning, in which mists on a blasted heath transform ruins into a standing fortress, takes us back in time and leaves us under no illusion that we’re in the realm of the jidai-geki: the historical genre that Kurosawa had been forced to abandon in favour of modern-day drama (gendai-geki) in the American-occupied post-war Japan where representations of the country’s feudal heritage were forbidden. Times had changed by 1957 however. Kurosawa had already made his international break-out Rashomon and his beyond-classic Seven Samurai, and he even received American assistance during Throne of Blood’s production: bizarrely, the elaborate Cobweb Castle exterior was built with the aid of the US Marine Corps.
That gives some clue as to the scale of the project. Kurosawa wrote the film but hadn’t initially planned to direct it, until he was persuaded by studio Toho, which wanted its biggest name at the helm of an obviously costly production. Once installed, Kurosawa wouldn’t wear a model castle on a hill: he wanted the thing fully built, and while the interior scenes are sometimes stagey (we’ll come to that later), the exteriors are epic, with battle scenes employing hundreds of extras. That said, there’s no feeling of bloat to the film: Ran would later push three hours, but Throne of Blood comes in at a lean hundred minutes. But its run-time is replete with indelible images: the “out damn spot” scene of “will my hand never be clean again?”; Cobweb Forest on the move, wreathed in fog; a luminous witch at a spinning wheel, or floating through background trees (Polanski’s Macbeth was all about the medieval viscera, and Orson Welles’ was all about Orson Welles, but Kurosawa’s is spooky); and the final shots of Mifune, enduring a hail of arrows. Amazingly, many of them were real: Kurosawa achieved the effect simply by hiring really good archers. We might surmise that Mifune’s apparent terror isn’t all performance.
But yes, there is more to Kurosawa’s Macbeth than Macbeth. Throne of Blood’s genius is in its mapping of Shakespeare’s plot and themes so exactly onto a Japanese culture and milieu. Even more specifically, Kurosawa’s great achievement here is the seemingly effortless shift from the Elizabethan stage to the Noh theatre. Roughly setting the film during the century of Japanese civil war that began in the 1460s, Kurosawa evokes the idiosyncratic aesthetic performance style that evolved during that time. A theatre of mime, expressive dance, sparse music and masks, it couldn’t be much further from Stratford-On-Avon, yet Macbeth’s characters already fit the Noh archetypes of the ghost, the warrior, the woman etc. with little or no adjustment.
Outside may be swift camera moves, horse-mounted action and heavy weather (a very Shakespearean objective correlative for the thunderous emotions of the characters; “Even the birds cry ominously,” says Miki, vaguely echoing Lady Macbeth’s “It was the owl that shrieked…”) but inside, it’s a different story. The scene of Tsuzuki / Duncan’s murder, for example, is played out in front of a largely still camera: the killing happening offscreen while Asaji throws tense shapes awaiting Washizu’s return. Washizu’s execution of Banquo’s assassin is a similarly static affair, although the emotional blankness that some find in the film under the Noh influence is hardly in evidence: Washizu’s horror at the assassin’s slow death is abundantly clear. He may be “building a mountain of corpses to the sky”, but he isn’t at peace with it any more than Macbeth was.
The music too, is Noh-influenced (by way of that constant nails-on-a-blackboard flute), and if the style doesn’t extend to actually masking the actors, the heavy make-up on Mifune and Yamada certainly makes the point. Yamada in particular, while obviously not the ghost character, could easily be mistaken for an example of the chalk-faced onryo ghouls that haunt Japanese literature and film to this day.
Shakespeare or Noh however, Throne of Blood is indisputably a classic: a perfect synthesis of cultures, rather than a clash (those are saved for the crunchy fight sequences); a Japanese Scottish Play. The witch may tell Washizu that “the stage is set” for him, but it’s within the context of a cinematic powerhouse that still punches above its weight. It might not be your English teacher’s Macbeth, but it’s still the best film version ever made.