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Review: Throne of Blood (1957)

Image Courtesy of CineShots

As everyone knows, the perfect way to spend self-isolation is to work through and revisit the catalogue of films from director Akira Kurosawa.

A creator who has released an endless list of spectacular pieces, such as Seven Samurai (1954) or Yojimbo (1961), which have made an indelible mark on a host of genres- particularly the spaghetti Westerns of the 60s. However, the most overlooked of these seminal samurai stories is Throne of Blood, a 1957 adaptation of Macbeth.

Director of the new video game Ghosts of Tsushima (2020) recently stated that the ‘game is totally inspired by the work’ of Akira Kurosawa, or in Nate Fox’s words, ‘the master’. Even featuring it’s own black and white ‘Kurosawa mode’. Throne of Blood (1957) or ‘Kumunosu-jo’ meaning Spider’s Web Castle will certainly have been a reference point for the games creators. Several elements of the film were shot around Mount Fuji, and Fuji forest’s- a platform for the film’s undeniable beauty. The foggy landscape and windswept terrain are staples of Kurosawa’s style and pair perfectly with the intensity of the film’s source material.

As an adaptation, this film strays far from it’s source material. Kurosawa uses the Macbeth story as rough guide. In fact, Kurosawa tends to lend more influence from the traditions of Japanese Noh theatre, as referenced by the likes of Spielberg and Lucas in the documentary Mifune: The Last Samurai (2015). Despite drifting from the play, this hasn’t impacted the films overwhelmingly engrossing nature. The intricacy of the framing, captured by Asakazu Nakai, is on the same masterful level as any other of Kurosawa’s samurai epics. The old 4:3 aspect ratio is often regarded by contempories as limited. However, this is taken full advantage of as the film encloses you with it’s claustrophobic nature; enhanced by the mesmerising monochromatic aesthetic.

Toshiro Mifune inverts the popular stereotype of the clean-cut samurai regularly in his collaborations with Kurosawa, and this is no different. In an adaptation which falls short in the one dimensionality of the characters, Mifune stands out as an anomaly. The film excels in the meticulous writing of the Macbeth character- Washizu. The film’s greatest weakness is that no other characters were given the chance to breathe. The fascinating dynamic between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth isn’t brought to screen. Isuzu Yamada is certainly underused- and the potential for this complicated relationship feels like a lost opportunity. The way in which Lady Macbeth insults the manhood of her husband in the play would have been fascinating when converted to a Japanese setting- a complex culture steeped in gender differences and the disordered roles of women.

Perhaps, Kurosawa’s decision to deviate from the source should be admired. Despite losing some fascinating elements, the variance in this adaptation allows a classic story to be viewed through a new lens, providing alternative interpretations. Notably Kurosawa’s decision to conclude the film with the final arrow sequence. One of the most dramatic and exciting moments in Japanese cinema. Another stand out sequence is the moving of Birnam wood. As the fog drifts across the half of the screen all that can be seen is the slow movement of the trees, looming nearer and nearer. The contrast between the deathly stillness, and crescendos of violent action are key to the film’s impact.

Twenty eight years later, Kurosawa adapted another Shakespeare play, King Lear, which, with a much longer runtime, benefited from richer character arcs and more complex character studies. Even so, the beauty of Throne of Blood, and the explosive charisma of Mifune is certainly something to be admired. While as an adaptation this film leaves a lot to be desired, the powerful aesthetic and the tale of a power-hungry samurai remains as exciting and impactful nearly 60 years since its release.