It’s very possible that two of the best interpretations of Shakespeare on film come from the late Akira Kurosawa. His 1985 Ran is one of the few successful adaptations of King Lear, and his 1957 Throne of Blood, the samurai Macbeth stands up well against the best traditional films of the play (most notably Orson Welles’ great 1948 version and Roman Polanski’s sadly overlooked 1971 version). A remarkable, atmospheric film full of arresting images, Throne of Blood shifts the action from Scotland to feudal Japan without betraying any of Shakespeare’s corrosive discourse on the evils of ambition.
The film stars the great Toshiro Mifune as the warriors Washizu (Macbeth) and Captain Miki (Banquo), are returning from quelling a rebellion against their master, the Lord of the Forest. Lost in the labyrinthine forest, the come across an evil spirit of the forest in the form of a ghostly, white-haired old woman who lives in a mist-shrouded glade surrounded by piles of human skeletons. She gives them the prophecy that Washizu will be given his own castle as reward for his bravery, and that Miki will replace Washizu as fort commander. When they return from their journey, they are indeed rewarded as the prophecy said, but Washizu’s ambitious wife Asaji has other plans. She tells him he shouldn’t be happy until he kills the lord and replaces him as Lord of the Forest Castle.
When the Lord visits Washizu at his castle, he asks him to lead an attack against the rebel army while Miki watches over the Forest Castle. Asaji convinces her husband that this is a plot to kill him and put Miki in charge. During the night, Asaji drugs the Lord’s guards and Washizu kills him, becoming the Lord of the Forest Castle. He soon makes Miki’s son his heir out of gratitude, but when Asaji becomes pregnant, she convinces him to kill both Miki and his son. An assassin is hired and Miki killed – whose ghost shows up at Washizu’s banquet – but the son escapes death. Asaji goes insane and gives birth to a stillborn child, and Washizu returns to the forest to seek the advice of the spirit. The woman tells him he will lose no battle unless the forest itself moves against him.
Convinced he’s nearly immortal, the prospect of Miki’s son and the attacking rebel army doesn’t bother him, and he tells his army of the prophecy. But soon, the army arrives at the castle’s gates, having cut down trees and branches from the forest to use as camouflage. When Washizu’s men see the forest literally moving towards the castle, they kill Washizu in an incredible rain of arrows.
This is a streamlined, powerful Macbeth that makes good use of Kurosawa’s own mythologies. The images are breathtaking. The opening scenes of the castle, bathed in a dense fog and sitting on a black, hilly landscape that looks like the volcanic slopes of Mount Fuji, establishes a dreamlike, mythic tone to the film that also recalls the play’s original environs. The scenes of the prophecy are similarly eerie, almost surreal in feeling, and the concluding scenes, where Mifune becomes a human pin cushion of arrows, have the rare combination of violence and poetry of imagery that is almost completely absent in today’s filmmaking.
The acting is fascinating here: as Washizu, Mifune gives a towering performance – he has the true look of madness in his eyes – and Isuzu Yamada as Aasji is his opposite, a quiet , intense and absolutely chilling Lady Macbeth. Some of the scenes have a theatricality to them, but they seem as much informed by traditional Japanese Noh theater as they do Shakespeare, and the mix is never less than compelling.