General Washizu (Toshiro Mifune), who has just committed regicide at the bidding of his evil wife, Lady Asaji (Isuzu Yamada)
Over the past few weeks, we’ve examined how disreputable women have been portrayed in American cinema ( 1944’s Murder, My Sweet) and Irish cinema (1998’s Waking Ned Devine). In this article, we’re going to take a look at how a great master of Japanese film did a unique take on Shakespeare’s evil villainess, Lady Macbeth.
Akira Kurasawa (1910-1998) was one of the most influential film makers of all time. Although many American moviegoers are not acquainted with this director’s work, they are probably familiar with the following American remakes based on Kurasawa films:
1960’s The Magnificent Seven (about gunslingers who rescue a Mexican village from bandits) is a remake of 1954’s The Seven Samurai. The Magnificent Seven was remade a second time in 2016.
1964’s For a Fistful of Dollars (a gunslinger takes advantage of two feuding families in the old West) is based on 1961’s Yojimbo, about a samurai who does the same to a Japanese village.
1964’s The Outrage (various witnesses tell conflicting stories regarding a rape-murder) is based on 1950’s Rashomon.
1977’s Star Wars (about a group of misfits who rescue an intergalactic princess and save the galaxy from evil forces) was strongly influenced by 1958’s The Hidden Fortress, about another group of misfits who rescue a Japanese princess.
Conversely, Kurasawa was inspired by the classics of Gorki, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare and made films based on their works. His greatest interpretation of the latter is 1957’s Throne of Blood (AKA Spider Web Castle), based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Throne of Blood, which is set in 16th century feudal Japan, essentially follows the plot of the earlier play: General Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) is told by a sinister forest spirit (Chieko Naniwa) that he is destined to replace the current reigning lord of Spider Web Castle. Spurred on by his ambitious wife (Isuzu Yamada), Washizu murders Lord Tsuzuki (Takamaru Sasaki) and his own best friend, General Miki (Minoru Chiaki). As a result of his actions General Washizu does in fact become lord of the castle. But just like Macbeth, Washizu dies as violently as he has lived.
Instead of falling back on Shakespeare’s written language, Kurasawa tells the story cinematically through exciting battle sequences and exquisite black and white cinematography. In addition, Kurasawa uses elements of Japanese Noh theatre in order to dramatize interactions among main characters.
Noh is an ancient art form using pantomime, exaggerated gesture, and masks in order to communicate emotion and characterization. In Throne of Blood, Kurasawa directs his actors to maintain fixed expressions corresponding to Noh masks. Below, we see Lord Washizu, his wife, his friend Miki, the forest spirit, and their corresponding masks:
In the case of Washizu’s wife, the technique is used to chilling effect. Shakespeare’s Lady MacBeth is often played as a bit of a nag as she incites her husband to action. In contrast, Lady Asaji quietly and insidiously makes suggestions to her husband while remaining almost completely still in face and body. Thus, Asaji acts more like an inner voice to Washizu than a separate character. The scene below is typical of the physical relationship between the two characters: Asiji is seated while Washizu restlessly paces back and forth in response to his wife’s comments.
The use of ancient Japanese theatrical techniques in a film may sound a bit esoteric, but in fact it is most helpful to viewers who do not know the Japanese language. Even without subtitles, one can understand a great deal by watching the movement and pantomime in this film. It also helps to be familiar with the Shakespeare play.
I would strongly encourage you to watch this unsettling, weird and wonderful movie. It’s Shakespeare like you’ve never seen before. In my opinion, it’s as great in its own way as the original.
You can download Throne of Blood through Amazon.com by clicking onto the following link:
You can buy a Blu-Ray DVD of Throne of Blood by clicking onto the following link:
Pluses: Great performances by Toshiro Mifune and Isuzu Yamada. Several elements of Macbeth, including the witch scene, Banquo’s ghost scene, and the moving forests of Dunsinane are wonderfully rendered. Exciting battle sequences. Climactic death scene.
Minus: None that I can think of. If you are a serious student of film, this is a must-see!
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Takashi Shimura, Akira Kubo, Hiroshi Tachikawa, Minoru Chiaki, Takamaru Sasaki, Chieko Naniwa
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Unrated (not for little kids. The final death scene is gruesome.)
In Black and White.
Subtitled in English (originally in Japanese)
Length: 110 minutes
“Throne of Blood.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 1 March 2017. Web. 23 March 2017.
“Noh.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 9 March 2017. Web. 23 March 2017.
Crucianelli, Guy. “The Chilling Effect of Noh Theater on Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.” 26 March 2014. Web. http://www.popmatter.com/review/180176-criterion-collection-throne-of-blood/