Throne of Blood (1957)

aka Kumonosu jô

2008 #33
Akira Kurosawa | 105 mins | DVD | PG or 12

Throne of BloodKurosawa moves Macbeth from Scotland to 16th Century Japan in this retelling of Shakespeare’s infamous Scottish Play. I’ve heard this described as a loose adaptation — perhaps those reviewers have never read the play. Kurosawa sticks very closely to the structure of Shakespeare’s version of the story (though based on real events, Shakespeare changed key details), often choosing to adapt it scene-for-scene. It works well in the new setting, with some of the themes — honour, respect, betrayal — perhaps becoming more understandable when placed in samurai culture. Kurosawa changes other elements too — character names are understandably localised, there’s only one witch, there’s no version of the famous “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” monologue, and so on. It’s not all omissions however, as Kurosawa adds imagery and symbolism of his own. Again this helps to place the story in its new context, but also covers the loss of Shakespeare’s original language (a major sticking point for some critics).

Beyond the Shakespearean similarities (or lack of), there’s much to see in Throne of Blood — literally, thanks to the atmospheric cinematography. Most of the exteriors are doused in fog, and while this is sometimes over-done (an extended sequence of Washizu and Miki riding in and out of it goes on too long) it also makes for some amazing moments, such as when the trees of Cobweb Forest drift menacingly forward. The interior of the forest is suitably oppressive and scary too, the perfect location for encountering a witch. Kurosawa was inspired by Japanese Noh theatre in his construction of the film, so there are a lot of longer shots that allow the characters to be blocked as if on stage. It’s not overly theatrical, thankfully, and works suitably.

Cinematic techniques are not entirely abandoned however. The most memorable is the banquet scene, in which Washizu sees Miki’s ghost: we see Miki’s empty seat, the camera tracks forward to a shocked Washizu, then back to reveal the ghost of Miki sat at his place, before tracking and panning around the room to follow Mifune’s brilliant performance. It’s an infinitely more effective reveal than any amount of jiggery pokery with dissolves or CGI could provide. Similarly, Washizu’s iconic death scene — in which hundreds of arrows puncture him and the surrounding walls — is impressively achieved (using real arrows), including one seamless shot when an arrow pierces his neck.

Macbeth is my favourite Shakespeare play — it’s a great story, with great themes, imagery and language. Throne of Blood obviously loses some of this, but it doesn’t matter in the slightest — Kurosawa has constructed an excellent and well-conceived retelling with a few of his own flourishes.

5 out of 5

A note on the classification: the UK DVD from the BFI is rated PG, classified in 1991. A few months after the DVD’s release in 2001, the film was re-submitted to the BBFC and received a 12. Quite way the rating was raised isn’t explained, and copies of the DVD still bear a PG on the cover.

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