Throne of Blood [1957] Review: Akira Kurosawa is one of the most important & prolific filmmakers. A master of his medium. His powerful & poetic visual compositions still influence and inspire several veterans and contemporary filmmakers alike. His body of work, unquestionably, manifests his immense penchant for literature and painting. The love for literary-art reflects in his layered screen-writing, and his adoration for painting reflects in the aesthetics & striking-visuals of his films. 

Much of Kurosawa’s work has been influenced by Fyodor Dostoevsky, notably one of his favourite authors. Kurosawa’s first direct adaptation came in 1951 when he adapted Dostoevsky’s work, The Idiot even though motifs from the Russian author’s work is evident throughout Kurosawa’s oeuvre. 

Nevertheless, Mr. Kurosawa was not restricted to the Russian literature for his inspiration and adaptation. Like many literary aficionados, he was fond of William Shakespeare’s iconic and bleaker morality plays. He first adapted Bard’s work in 1957 when he transposed “Macbeth”, one of Bard’s great tragedies, to “Throne of Blood.” Kurosawa captures the structure of ‘the Scottish play’ and reconstructs the narrative, set in feudal-era Japan, in the nightmarish visual exploration of the warrior traditions.

Throne of Blood Review

Long term friend and frequent collaborator-actor – Toshiro Mifune reprise the titular role of Macbeth (as Washizu Taketoki). Essentially, he owns the film. He imbibes the moral dilemma and tempestuous nature of Macbeth and makes it his own with a thunderous and idiosyncratic performance. His performance reaches the pinnacle towards the end when he gets comeuppance for his disloyalty, betrayal and overreaching ambition with a shower of arrows. Some narrowly miss him, others, well, do not. The dread in his protruding eyes while surrounded with the ‘forest’ of arrows is shuddering. 

Akira Kubo gets to play Banquo, the dearest friend of Macbeth. The person who, along with his son, brings the undoing of Washizu Taketoki. Their first scene together riding through the foggy, rain-soaked pine forests in the Spider’s web, before meeting with the spirit, (a conscious deviation from the character of the witch) is Kafkaesque expression. 

The visual composition of any Kurosawa film is astonishing. The vivid and layered imagery can be discerned even by a casual audience. “Throne of Blood” is no different. The purposive choice of the black-and-white direction of photography coupled with high contrast and Masaru Sato’s rousing & sinistral score adds a layer of trepidation to the scene. Their frightful confusion deepens as we see them circling back to the same spot over several times.  

The sequence in the “Spider’s Web” forest turns into a metaphorical paradigm of their running scepticism and bewilderment throughout the rest of the film over the old spirit’s prophecy. 

Washizu’s insurmountable ambition and burning-desire, reinforced by the prophecy, consumes him. What triggers a domino-effect for worse is when the first prophecy comes true. His wife tricks him into realising the second prophecy. He kills Lord Tsuzuki with the help of his wife to eventually become the Lord of Spider’s Web Castle. This is followed by guilt-ridden anxiety that gradually drowns him in the riot of madness. 

Shakespeare has universal appeal, and his universality comes from the spectrum of profound emotions that drive the characters’ arc. It feels tangible and real. Unfortunately, in Kurosawa’s ‘Throne of Blood, this very element is lacking. The film feels cold. It keeps the viewer emotionally far removed from Washizu’s rise to the power and retributive fall from grace. It keeps us outside the world it depicts. There’s no tangible element connecting to the world. Kurosawa wants us to observe the folly of human behaviour rather than to identify or empathize with the characters.

Macbeth is both the hero and the villain of his rise and fall. His struggle with fate, temptation, and fear is critical to his character development. The two critical episodes define the play, and they become indispensable to Macbeth’s fate. First, Lady Macbeth manipulates him in beliving the prophecy and compelling him to act on it. Second, his gradual descent into the madness after being plagued with an onslaught of fears that dismantles his psyche.

It is very critical for any adaptation to fully realise these events to make it work. And that’s where this film fails spectacularly. The characters are poorly developed, their emotions manifest in didactic, expository long discussions that incorporate elements of the Noh theatre, which encourages actors to heighten (or exaggerate) the features of their movements, particularly their facial gestures. This is an artistic choice Kurosawa made. However, this choice doesn’t work for the subject which basically relies upon on the spectrum of nuanced emotions, introspective in nature. 

The first crucial scene involves Washizu and his wife, Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), hatching a plot to murder the King. Washizu is initially reluctant to consider Asaji’s argument that the King wants him dead. However, when the armed lord’s men approach the castle, his fear grapples him. His dilemma intensifies reflected in his anxiously scamper in the hall. Asaji takes advantage of this growing dilemma and manipulates him in believing that the King is after his life. His instinct for survival supersedes his loyalty, and he gives in to Asaji’s ploy to murder the King.

The scene is masterfully shot, the spatial arrangement is exemplary, but it lacks the boiling tension. The characters feel emotionally cold to such shocking development. We find ourselves indifferent to the coup d’état, and that comes from lack of affecting investment in the characters. The film goes from one episode to another, and we seem following it dispassionately. Instead of pursuing such rich characters’ arc, and explore Asaji’s apathy and empathize with Washizu, we are only served with heavy expositions.

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Regarding the motives of Washizu’s actions and his relationship with other people, we learn almost nothing. We are never drawn into his dilemma, we never buy his fear for survival, and we never empathize with his delusions. “Throne of Blood” depicts the depth of Kurosawa’s mastery in its visual, spatial and technical elements, but feels shallow due to its distant storytelling that never allows us to identify and feel for its character.

Throne of Blood on The Criterion

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