Throne of Blood (1957, Akira Kurosawa)
Of Shakespeare’s major tragedies, Macbeth is perhaps the least enjoyable to read. Seeing it performed may well be a different matter, but keeping in mind that criticizing Shakespeare is a fool’s errand and is of course meant in a strictly relative sense, the play feels rushed and even perfunctory in its early stages, perhaps in keeping with the theories that the text that exists is highly butchered. Most troubling are the characterizations: whereas entire books can be and have been written about even minor figures and their relationships in King Lear and Hamlet, Macbeth is really exclusively populated by just two significant characters, one of whom — iconic and poetic though her dialogue may be — is a curiously flat villainous caricature whose various transitions make little sense beyond our inclination to accept them because they’re second nature to literature and theater at this point. Macbeth himself is one of the fuzziest and most ineffectual protagonists in Shakespeare, seemingly meant as little more than a target for mockery, like — not coincidentally? — a Coen brothers character. Finally, this is personal bias, but to a person fond of the comedies and their idiosyncrasies, and Hamlet and its elaborately constructed plot, that Macbeth ends with something so basically ordinary as the siege of a castle seems disappointing. The play amounts to escalation and little else.
That said, Macbeth‘s relative simplicity also allows room for sophisticated interpretations of minimalist and maximalist variety, hence those for instance of Orson Welles (on stage and screen) and Roman Polanski (in cinema), which bring their creators’ specific fixations to a perfect blank slate. Oddly, since it retains none of Shakespeare’s dialogue, the most straightforward adaptation of the work in storytelling terms may in fact be Akira Kurosawa’s celebrated Throne of Blood, which transfers the action to feudal Japan and is cited by Harold Bloom among others as perhaps the greatest film of a Shakespeare play. But while Kurosawa was a master of the cinematic art adapting the indisputable master of English language storytelling, Throne of Blood cannot rise above the shortcomings of its source text, nor can it fully realize its virtues that are so intricately tied with the playwright’s mastery of language. Absent of the poetry in already one of Shakespeare’s less poetic works, we are left only with the pure drama — which carries us through for a while, at least — and with the lyricism of Kurosawa’s camera and mise en scene, which are of course largely enough to make this an indispensable film all the same.
In microcosm, for example, there is no real way of appropriating Macbeth‘s bird and horse omens in an original and not heavy-handed fashion, but in the hands of Kurosawa and his longtime cinematographer Asakazu Nakai they are so lovingly staged (calling ahead conspicuously to two future Hitchcock films) that they become fresh and genuinely entrancing. It’s this kind of effect of rendering the familiar with fiery conviction that’s called for by the task of adapting Shakespeare to the screen. The most breathtaking moments in Throne of Blood involve Kurosawa’s staging of the inevitable violence at the play’s center: the murder (45 minutes into the 110-minute film), though staged chillingly off camera, is played with pointed, sighing despair appropriate to Toshiro Mifune’s interpretation of an often muddled character, here renamed Washizu. Later, Washizu’s death is one of the most outrageous and brutal of Kurosawa’s setpieces, in which his bravado and betrayal are met with a hail of arrows that cripple him slowly, with palpable physical agony reading across Mifune’s expressive face. This protracted bit of action is a smart cover for the play’s inconclusiveness. Best of all, however, is one of the play’s most dependable acting showcases, and the one Kurosawa essentially allows to sit as-is; his staging of the ghost scene, despite the playfulness of Banquo’s non-chair, is the most theatrical in the film but uncommonly effective, with Mifune permitted to build to organic and frightening heights in his performance as he illustrates a grieving insanity that his wife (Isuzu Yamada) is quick to try and suppress.
However, what Throne of Blood cannot fully overcome, and what it is too direct and quick to be capable of masking, is the bareness of the intrigue in the play and its slightly curious structure of systematic, grisly fulfillment of prophecy. As bodies and severed heads pile up in the second half, we feel a certain disjointedness from the languid pacing of the earlier scenes. The entire first half hour is as bizarrely protracted as the early portions of Ran, a much longer Shakespeare adaptation Kurosawa made decades later. The establishment of Washizu and his best friend and fellow Samurai Miki (the film’s Banquo, portrayed with intelligent restraint by Minoru Chiaki) as heroes in battle followed by their lengthy journey through the labyrinthine forest and their stumbling upon an Evil Spirit (changed from the play’s three witches) feel plodding enough before being superseded by a seemingly endless series of shots of the pair wandering lost through the fog that has descended on the outskirts of the castle of Lord Tsuzuki — the film’s King Malcolm. Washizu and Miki then sit in a field, express their exhaustion and repeat everything that has already been stated in the film’s first quarter-hour; it’s a gorgeous shot, the castle looming in deep focus, but while likely attempting to pad out Shakespeare’s atypically breakneck Act I (again, believed by some scholars to have survived in incomplete form), it’s guilty of the same talkiness and overstatement that sometimes mars the far less sprawled-out Rashomon, and it creates a situation in which the film that later becomes so lurid and nightmarish seems to have little actual relation to the careful setting up of place, time and people, which renders it ultimately less successful as a narrative.
You’re left to conclude that Kurosawa failed to connect these dots not because he couldn’t fully make sense of the play’s characters or underlying themes, because we have ample evidence that that wasn’t a problem for him, but because his intimate examination of Macbeth showed that there was very little beyond the superficial to find and express. Most of the individual scenes feel like a greatest-hits procession of the recognizable moments of the play, but there is no way to make them breathe as something with a sense of reality or, crucially, timelessness. The early scenes are related in painstaking detail, while later events are rushed through via wipe dissolves. Thus the events and the characters are approached as something to illustrate, not as a springboard for an incisive or revealing adaptation, apart from in the aesthetic sense. That said, Kurosawa’s engagement is different enough from the other major auteurist variations on the play that he’s able to present serious questions about the source’s central themes that aren’t necessarily present in other films; the emphasis he places on the forest’s lonely prophet (the “Spirit of the Spider’s Web Forest” played by Chieko Naniwa) as a more mysterious, truly eerie figure than the typical sneering witches who are out to troll the future monarch provides for a more ambiguous divide between cause and effect: is Washizu destroyed by pure ambition, by the ambition of others, by the interference of the supernatural, or by his own determination to fulfill a blind belief in prophecy? “Without ambition,” his wife opines at one point, “man is not a man”; one is tempted to read this as the real core of the concerns and fixations of the director’s that are stroked by this story, especially since his rebuke of it isn’t far from the eventual “long life eating porridge” thesis of Yojimbo, and this conflict is emphasized chiefly because we’re seeing the one adaptation of the play in which the “witches” are a more fascinating presence than Lady Macbeth.
Here Lady Macbeth is Washizu’s wife Asaji, certainly a distinctive performance that does not conquer the inherent incompleteness of the play’s character, long a focus of feminist critique of Shakespeare, nor Kurosawa’s worsening of those problems. Sexism is not foreign to Kurosawa’s work (particularly witness Yojimbo), nor is it terribly insidious or pervasive in either his art or — typically — Shakespeare’s. Nevertheless it’s difficult to argue with the perception of Lady Macbeth or Asaji as a one-dimensional force of evil designed almost exclusively to henpeck her husband into inflicting all manner of power-mad violence to live up to the predictions of what amounts to a hallucination. Yamada’s Mrs. Danvers-like stillness is a delight to watch, but to the viewer who is aware of Kurosawa’s later revision of King Lear‘s Edmund to “Lady Keane” (Mieko Harada) in Ran, it’s greatly disappointing that Asaji only appears in the moments of narrative convenience: we see her egging on the murder, we see her trying to calm him down to save face at the banquet, and we see her desperately trying to rid herself of nonexistent blood; the cycling between these modes as well as into her ultimate decline is absent, even more than in the source, and this despite the added plot device of a pregnancy and stillbirth. Kurosawa slightly worsens this situation by placing considerable emphasis on the remarkably tense introduction of Asaji about thirty minutes into the film; she sits still and gazing straight ahead with a storm in her eyes — one naturally expects her already unstable state of mind to become more important to the rest of the story than it ultimately is, but it’s largely cast aside in favor of playing the drama on a larger stage.
As to the other performances, except for Mifune and Chiaki, they tend to be pitched at a full hundred from the first and thus have nowhere to go; Kurosawa’s heavy concentration on facial expressions and the subtle tic doesn’t work when the acting is this broad. Conversely, this is one of Mifune’s most tentative and uncertain performances, which somewhat fits the character. As characterized not just by Kurosawa but by Shakespeare, Macbeth is sort of a clueless oaf who’s led by his worst instincts; the film rather ingeniously stages his grandiose speech after receiving the “moving forest” prophecy (Throne excludes the “born of a woman” proviso) as a bit of boorish comedy that has chest-out Mifune parading around a balcony like Charles Laughton or, sigh, Donald Trump. And Chiaki’s Miki, eyes clearly beloved by the director, is a splendid concoction whose obvious sincerity manages to render the larger-than-life monstrosity of the central couple feel more artificial yet. The concern we feel when Asaji wonders if Miki knows “what lies” in Washizu’s heart is the most significant bit of human compassion the film requests of us.
If Throne of Blood is guilty of streamlining an already streamlined play, it’s worth stating that it’s also an opportunity for Kurosawa to let his impulses take over, and this is as pure a cinematic expression of his deepest interests as any. The proof of this is in the future: in 1985 he would adapt the much more intricate and fruitful King Lear as the visually overwhelming three-hour epic Ran. It’s a flawed film that sometimes feels just as protracted and inhuman as this one, but it’s also the work of a filmmaker whose confidence is absolute and who is able to do even more with the raw materials provided by the play than he was in the ’50s; even if Ran isn’t exactly your ideal variety of entertainment, if you’ve seen it then watching Throne of Blood you find yourself longing for that later film, which goes farther with all of the ideas sketched out here. The similarities are numerous, offset by dreamlike color photography and the expanded length, but even the opening battles and conferences are cut from the same pattern despite the major differences in the two plays. Kurosawa is still fixated upon the cycles of murder and power that are already immobile before his tales open, still drawn to and repelled by the bloodstains of the “traitors,” and still eventually finding himself drawing the same devastating conclusion, as articulated explicitly in Throne of Blood: “This is a wicked world.”