A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection
Throne of Blood (1957)
Co-written and directed by Akira Kurosawa
There is probably no other writer in the history of the English language whose works have been adapted for the silver screen as frequently, and in as many varied manifestations, as William Shakespeare. These have included more traditional, straight adaptations by actor/directors like Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, and Kenneth Branagh, as well as contemporary stylized renditions like Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Ralph Fiennes's Coriolanus (2011), all of which have retained (at least, for the most part) Shakespeare's original words. However, some of the most interesting adaptations have come in the form of re-tellings of Shakespeare's narratives, set in a different time and location. Perhaps the most famous example of this type of film is the classic musical West Side Story (1961), which transposes the Bard's tragic tale of star-crossed young lovers, Romeo and Juliet, to modern-day New York City, where a turf war between rival gangs provides a potent backdrop for Shakespeare's story of doomed romance.
The protagonist of Throne of Blood is Taketoki Washizu (Toshiro Mifune), a garrison commander serving a local lord who rules out of the fog-swept Spider's Web Castle. After a victorious battle against the lord's enemies, Washizu and fellow garrison commander Miki (Minoru Chiaki) are making their way to the castle when they get lost in the adjacent maze-like forest. They come upon a spirit in the form of an old woman, who foretells that both men will receive promotions, and that Washizu will one day rule Spider's Web Castle. The spirit also foretells that Miki's son will someday become lord of the castle. Upon arriving at the castle, the two men are rewarded with promotions, just as the spirit prophesied.
Once in place at his new post, Washizu tries to tell himself that he is content with his new position, but his scheming wife, Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), convinces him to fulfill the second part of the prophecy by murdering the lord and taking his place in the castle. Despite warnings from the slain lord's son and a rival commander named Noriyasu (Takashi Shimura), Miki remains loyal to Washizu, and is rewarded with a promise from the childless Washizu to name Miki's son as his heir. However, Asaji's scheming once again undermines Washizu's plans, as she reveals that she is pregnant, and then later goes behind Washizu's back to have Miki murdered. Plagued by hallucinatory visions of his victims' ghosts, and distraught over the impending battle with the forces of his growing cadre of enemies, Washizu rides off into the forest, hoping to confront the spirit about the truth of her prophecy. In a powerful and eerie scene, the spirit proclaims that Washizu will not be defeated until the trees of the forest rise to attack him. Bolstered by his faith in the unlikeliness of such an occurrence, Washizu returns to the castle and reveals the prophecy to his men, and they settle in as the enemy forces move into the forest. The next morning, an astonishing turn of events leads the story toward its inevitable but nonetheless staggering conclusion.
Throne of Blood contains some of Kurosawa's most memorable and startling imagery. The film is full of ghostly visions, as characters emerge from and disappear into the dense fog around the castle, which itself is often swallowed up by the eerie mists. In one particularly striking shot, as Asaji prepares to poison the lord's guards in preparation for Washizu's first murderous act, she disappears into the blackness of an adjoining room as though the darkness has swallowed her up. When she reappears moments later carrying the cask of poisoned sake, it is as if she materializes out of nothingness like an apparition. And, of course, there is the iconic climactic scene, in which Washizu faces the consequences of his violent struggle for power (viewers who have watched the film, and may wonder how this remarkable scene was made, can watch this video).
There are numerous elements that make Throne of Blood stand out as more than just a simple Shakespeare adaptation, and many of these can be attributed to Kurosawa's integration of various aspects of traditional Japanese Noh theater. The Noh influence is most apparent in the film's highly expressive performances, especially that of lead actor Toshiro Mifune, whose intense scowl, lively eyes, and dynamic physicality convey Washizu's constant desperation and agitation even in scenes with no dialogue. The sharp downward angle of his mustache hair, in combination with his severe glower, even makes his face resemble a Noh mask. The Noh influence can also be seen in the film's score, which makes extensive use of the flute. The music, the film's vivid images of swirling mists, and its pervading supernatural elements, all cohere perfectly to make Throne of Blood one of Kurosawa's most atmospheric films.
A longtime student of western literature, Kurosawa would later re-tell another of Shakespeare's narratives, King Lear, in creating his last great masterpiece, the 1985 film Ran. He also adapted two of the great works of Russian literature, Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot and Maxim Gorky's play The Lower Depths, both of which he set in Japan. Like Throne of Blood, which can be seen as Kurosawa's reflection on humanity's unceasing penchant for ruthless ambition and destruction, as exhibited during World War II, both The Idiot (1951) and The Lower Depths (1957) use the narratives and themes of the original literary works as jumping-off points for Kurosawa's examination of Japanese society and history.