Throne of Blood (Shakespeare & Kurosawa 1)
- Starring: Thoshiro Mufine, Isuzu Yamada, Takashi Shimura
I first came to know Akira Kurosawa’s work when I was a teenager and a burgeoning movie snob. It was 2004, I was 17 years old, and I had just discovered IMDb’s now defunct message boards. Desperate to watch anything and everything, I perused the IMDb Top 250 regularly and would lurk on the message boards of movies I was interested in.
High among the Top 250 was a 1954 Japanese film called Seven Samurai. I got my hands on it through Netflix when it was just a DVD by mail service, watched it and loved it. I loved it for reasons I didn’t quite understand at the time. It was new to me and, to be honest, I was probably just pleased with myself that I could keep my attention on all three and a half hours of an old Japanese period film from the 1950s.
I now count Seven Samurai as my favorite movie of all-time for reasons that will be made clear later in this series. At the time, however, it awoke something in me. It opened my mind to international films and the histories and cultures of places unlike where I live and what I know. So I went on an odyssey to watch as many Kurosawa films as I could. I hit all the big titles I could and blind bought as many of his films once available from the Criterion Collection. I was particularly ecstatic when they announced their Eclipse series collections of The First Films of Akira Kurosawa and Postwar Kurosawa and snatched them up immediately.
But despite collecting as many Kurosawa movies as were available to me, I still haven’t consumed all of his work. I have my favorites that I will often go back to time and time again. But my hunger for completing his filmography has waned slightly over the years.
Now, in 2022, I’m going to rectify that. I am going to watch all of Kurosawa’s work and share my thoughts both in essay and podcast form throughout the year. I have grouped Kurosawa’s titles into certain categories and patterned the flow of this retrospective in the style of a film festival program.
I have chosen Kurosawa’s two direct Shakespeare adaptations as my opening and closing films for this series. My essay on Ran (1985) will come at the end of the series but, for now, I am kicking things off with an essay about my second favorite Kurosawa film, 1957’s Throne of Blood. Enjoy.
Toshiro Mifune’s versatility is what likely made him the legendary actor he is regarded as today. Whether he’s playing the comic relief with a tragic past as in Seven Samurai, a youthful detective with a guilty conscience in Stray Dog, or the stoic ronin playing two gangs against each other in Yojimbo, Mifune’s stature and iconography is without question. His performance as Washizu, the ill-fated Macbeth in Kurosawa’s feudal Japan adaptation of the Scottish play, Throne of Blood, is one of the greatest performances of his career.
The way Mifune channels the power of his onscreen presence into a character as rich, blood thirsty, and downright fearful as Washizu is masterful. His uncertainty in the face of prophecy and the manipulation and cajoling from his Lady Macbeth (Lady Asaji Washizu played to haunting perfection by Isuzu Yamada) stands as one of the more complex and multi-tiered performances in all of Kurosawa and Mifune’s collaborations.
Of Kurosawa’s period work, Throne of Blood stands out as a brilliant meld of Shakespearean tragedy through a slight horror sheen. The haunting way Kurosawa shows us the spirit in the forest, lit with a white glow courtesy of Asakazu Nakai’s brilliant cinematography, is one of several stunning visuals in the film. The operatic double speak of the spirit solidifies the film’s horror tone and otherworldly supernaturality that comes back in a pivotal scene involving Washizu’s friend Miki.
The mysticism that surrounds the story is also evident in Kurosawa’s trademark use of weather effects. The foggy mist that rolls off of Mt. Fuji in the opening sequence hints at the spiritual elements that drive the characters to insanity. While Kurosawa’s deft influence from the Noh theater creates a distinct tone as a ghostly chorus sings of the spirit of Washizu, it all works seamlessly to create a more unique and distinctive feudal story than in Kurosawa’s other period work.
Throne of Blood also foregoes Shakespearean dialogue in favor of traditional Japanese language. This, in effect, helps accentuate the tone and atmosphere that Kurosawa cultivates. Having performers gesticulate and emote with mask-like expressions inspired by Noh theater creates a more surreal atmosphere for the film. This illusion of surrealism with an off-kilter spiritual presence driving it would have likely not suited the Bard’s language as well as the film’s traditional Japanese dialogue.
By the time Throne of Blood reaches its violent and intense conclusion, Mifune creates a surprising amount of sympathy in the deranged and ego-driven Washizu. There’s a sense of foreboding that runs throughout the film that gives Washizu a tragic lilt and burrows into the subconscious of the viewer. We watch as Washizu does horrific things in pursuit of power, yet when his comeuppance is nigh, we don’t cheer the fall of an evildoer. We recognize the complexity of the character and his motivations and even find ourselves lamenting the tragedy therein. It’s what Shakespeare did perfectly, and Kurosawa honored that with Throne of Blood.
Throne of Blood is currently available to stream on HBOMax and Criterion Channel.
Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.