blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Throne of Blood (1957, Kurosawa Akira)

Co-producer, co-writer, director, and editor Kurosawa loves himself some Macbeth. Throne of Blood is Macbeth in feudal Japan, with Mifune Toshiro and Yamada Isuzu as the doomed couple. Kurosawa and his co-writers structure the film as a historical war epic, with modern-day bookends, and then fit Mifune and Yamada’s Macbeth into the war epic. But as Mifune and Yamada take over the narrative (Throne’s got a sublime pace), the war epic falls back, and it becomes more focused on Mifune as a military commander.

The screenwriters open up the play, adapting it for a different culture (if similar calendar year), with different behavioral norms, but they keep the arc for Mifune—at least in terms of character development–super close to the play. There are a couple things they don’t integrate from the play, but the film’s never the less for it. Not to mention Kurosawa gets to bring in Japanese supernatural; Macbeth’s Weird Sisters—no offense to “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”—haven’t been a trope since, well, long before motion pictures. And they were an extraordinary event in the original play; you couldn’t just go find yourself a witch.

But in Throne, when Mifune and sidekick Chiaki Minoru come across a forest witch (Naniwa Chieko), they’re not super-surprised. Forest witches aren’t unlikely in Throne’s world. It adds a bunch of texture to Mifune’s descent—including worrying the witch has somehow possessed Yamada–and layers to the relationship with Chiaki. Once Mifune starts fulfilling Naniwa’s prophecy, Chiaki gets a very active role.

Kurosawa does a lot to avoid any stagy vibes—Throne’s bookends start in long shots and gradually move in, showcasing the scale but also the merciless onslaught of time itself (another layer, Throne just as a historical drama). And then, whenever anyone’s in the forest, Kurosawa gets the camera into the literal bushes and looks out at them, making the forest a character. At least for point of view.

But when Mifune gets back home and he and Yamada just sit around and emotionlessly bicker about whether he should take the proverbial horse and kill his boss to fulfill prophecy. These scenes are—almost by definition—stagy. It’s just Mifune and Yamada in an enclosed space, no one else but them. Again, Kurosawa turns it into intense character drama; only we don’t know the stakes. There’s no backstory for Mifune and Yamada in Throne and given her capacity for expression is literally painted over (though the makeup will change, relevantly to the plot), their relationship and its changes throughout are unknowable.

It gives both of them lots of potential for the parts, and both realize it, though Mifune gets more just because of the plot. Because of their opaque relationship, Throne is often a character study–especially given the relatively brief present action.

After the prologue, Throne spends about covering a rebellion via messenger updates to lord Sasaki Takamaru and his court (which includes Shimura Takashi, in what amounts to a cameo). Through the updates, Sasaki and the audience learn samurai Mifune and Chiaki basically save the day single-handedly, defeating the invaders and traitors. When the action cuts to Mifune and Chiaki in the forest, we learn more about their take on the rebellion and the general political situation. Throne is a political drama, but Mifune’s not a political animal, something his introduction establishes. There’s significant foreboding even before they realize they’re lost in the forest and come across the witch.

For a while, since the forest is so militarily important (the main castle is the Forest Castle, after all), it seems Throne will spend a lot of time on it. Especially since, you know, it’s Macbeth. But once Mifune and Chiaki are through, it’s a while before it comes back. On their way out, however, they get lost in the fog and the fog will be around for most of Throne. It actually was already in Throne, in the prologue, with Kurosawa and cinematographer Nakai Asakazu showing off with fading back in time. Throne’s a special effects spectacular. There are some big effects sequences, but then there are some obviously complicated, precisely executed in-camera effects to get some of the shots. It’s beautiful work.

Even being a Macbeth adaptation and working toward potentially familiar plot points, Kurosawa, his co-writers, and Mifune surprise, time and again. So good.

Mifune’s performance is fantastic. Even with the battle action in the third act, it’s all about watching him. With Kurosawa structuring the scene perfectly; Throne’s partially a rumination on the universality of Shakespeare and the potentials of adapting.

Great, disquieting score from Sato Masaru. The technicals are all outstanding.

Yamada and Chiaki are both excellent, with the film hinging on them as well, but Mifune’s the star. Well, Throne all together is the star; truly masterful work from Kurosawa and company.

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