Throne of Blood (Japan, 1957)

July 23, 2022
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Throne of Blood Poster

Throughout his legendary career, Akira Kurosawa showed an affinity for the works of William Shakespeare. Three of his films in particular – The Bad Sleep Well, Throne of Blood, and Ran – owe a debt to The Bard even though not a line of Shakespeare can be found in any of them. The Bad Sleep Well is a loose retelling of Hamlet moved to contemporary (1960) Japan and Ran is a mostly-faithful re-interpretation of King Lear set in the 16th century. Kurosawa’s first Shakespeare-inspired movie, however, was 1957’s Throne of Blood, which appropriated the basic plot of Macbeth and translated it from 11th century Scotland to feudal Japan. And, excepting a reworking of the ending (no climactic duel between the Macbeth and Macduff analogs), the storyline is familiar, right down to Lady Macbeth’s handwashing issues. Some critics have argued that, although not a single line has been retained from the source material, Throne of Blood represents one of the best (if not the best) screen versions of the story. Roman Polanski has acknowledged that his 1971 film owed a debt to Kurosawa and Michael Fassbender (who played the title character in a 2015 adaptation) stated that Throne of Blood is his “favorite Macbeth.”

Following captions that explain the background, the movie fades in on two friends and warriors, Taketoti Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and Yoshiaki Miki (Minoru Chiaki), making their way through the ghostly Spider’s Web forest to bring word of a great victory to Lord Tsuzuki (Takamaru Sasaki). They become lost and encounter a malevolent spirit who offers prophesies about their future – that Washizu will become the lord of the Spider’s Web Castle and Miki’s son will succeed him. When Washizu tells his wife, Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), of the prophesy, she urges him to pursue it, although he is reluctant. However, an opportunity to act presents itself When Lord Tsuzki comes to stay at his fortress.  

Aided by Asaji, who gives Tsuzki’s guards drugged sake, Washizu kills the Great Lord and frames a guard for his assassination. Washizu becomes Lord of the Spider’s Web Castle, although Tsuzuki’s son, Kunimaru (Hiroshi Tachikawa), and his advisor, Noriyasu (Takashi Shimura), Suspect Washizu to be a traitor. Initially, Washizu names Miki’s son (Akira Kubo) as his heir but, when Asaji becomes pregnant, he decides that he must kill both his old friend and his son.

Lacking the poetry of Shakespeare’s dialogue to fall back on, Kurosawa fills the void with evocative visuals. The movie, shot in black-and-white, is impeccably composed with a surfeit of atmosphere. Many scenes feature fog; Kurosawa, ever the perfectionist, opted not to use manufactured mist but instead opted to delay production until he could use the real thing. The film’s opening scenes are creepy and the final battle captures the chaos of the situation where Washizu faces not only an attacking army but an insurrection from his own troops. Authentic castle sections were built on the slopes of Mount Fuji (with the help of the United States marines stationed there at the time) because the planned facades weren’t as effective as he had hoped they would be. And, during the climax when arrows are being shot at Washizu, there’s nothing fake about the projectiles…or actor Toshiro Mifune’s panicked expression.

As with Macbeth, two themes emerge in Throne of Blood. The first is the thorny question of predestination and free will – to what extent does the prophesy guarantee its success through its revelation to Washizu? (If he didn’t know about it, Washizu likely never would have considered assassinating the Great Lord. But by informing the warrior of his “future,” the spirit sets his feet on the road to his doom.) Then there’s the issue of the main character’s tragic flaw: ambition. Fed by his wife’s thirst for status and his own insecurity about his position in the leadership hierarchy, Washizu is transformed from a good man and respected warrior into a power-mad dictator willing to do anything, including murder his closest ally, to retain his position on the throne. One reason Kurosawa wanted to make a version of Macbeth is because he perceived this as a recurrent aspect of human history, repeating itself endlessly over the years. He rightly suspected that, although the movie was made in 1957, it would never lose relevance. (He had initially planned to make something based on the play in the late 1940s but delayed it to avoid conflicting with Orson Welles’ 1948 Macbeth.)

To the extent that Kurosawa had favorite “regulars,” both of his best-known actors have important roles. By the time Throne of Blood was made, Toshiro Mifune had already starred for the director in Rashomon and Seven Samurai, with The Hidden Fortress just around the corner. Mifune brings his trademark intensity to the role, crafting a high-voltage performance that gives Washizu a uniqueness that separates him from other screen Macbeths. Takashi Shimura, who actually appeared in more Kurosawa films than Mifune, plays Throne of Blood’s iteration of Macduff. As with Mifune, the Ikiru lead came to this movie after Rashomon and Seven Samurai and prior to The Hidden Fortress. (He also appeared in both Godzilla and Godzilla King of the Monsters.) His low-key seriousness helps to balance out Mifune’s bombastic tendencies. The third important performer is Isuzu Yamada, who plays Lady Washizu. This was the second of three appearances she made in a Kurosawa film (the others being The Lower Depths and Yojimbo; she was also in Ozu’s Tokyo Twilight). Yamada captures both aspects of the character – her cold, conniving scheming and her mental breakdown – with equal aptitude.

Throne of Blood was a success in Japan at the time of its release, making more money at the box office than any other movie that year. Its overseas reception was less sure, with some British and American critics uncertain about whether the concept of a Shakespeare remake without the Bard’s words worked. The passage of time, however, has assured the movie’s place on “Greatest” lists of 20th century films.

Throne of Blood (Japan, 1957)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence)
Genre: Thriller/Drama
Subtitles: In Japanese with subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1