Throne of Blood (1957)

Class: Staff
Author: Anthony Romero
Score: (4.5/5)
June 20th, 2003 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

Before Akira Kurosawa adapted William Shakespeare's King Lear into one of Japan's most renowned productions, Kurosawa first attempted to create his own version of the famous playwright's Macbeth. So how does the adaptation fare? As expected, Kurosawa does incredibly well with what he originally described as merely an "experiment," crafting another brilliant movie to his ever growing resume of greats. In fact, the movie really excels across all levels, creating a magnificent story and characters from the age old classic, while supporting that material with great performances and good production values.

In terms of the plot, the movie is faithful to the original Macbeth story to a degree, as Kurosawa alters the setting to feudal Japan while changing some plot devices and characters, although the general result tends to be the same. The movie starts out with generals Taketori Washizu and Yoshiaki Miki engaged in a fierce battle, for which the outcome is uncertain and starting to look bleak. Miraculously, Washizu and Miki are victorious and are summoned by their Lord due to their feat. Unfortunately, the pair gets lost on their way to the castle in the deep reaches of the “Spider's Web” forest. By fate, the two encounter a spirit in the guise of an old woman, who predicts that Washizu will one day take command of the castle while Miki's son will be the successor to the throne. With the prophecy in mind, the pair makes their way through the forest and finally reaches the castle of their Lord. Upon arrival, the two are quickly promoted, causing them to wonder if perhaps the Spirit's prophecy was true. Washizu's wife, Asaji, believes that her husband is in fact destined for such a position, as she encourages him to take the throne and secure it for their own, yet unborn, child… even if it means killing the Lord, Miki and his son.

The story is noticeably “darker in tone” then Kurosawa's movies at this time, seeming to have more in contrast with his later day pictures such as Kagemusha (1980) where happy endings were pretty unlikely. Lending itself to this bleaker feeling is Toshiro Mifune, who plays a loathsome character whose fall into madness is slowly categorized through out the film. This role is a change of pace for Mifune, who tends to play the hero in his roles. Kurosawa handles this character with a lot of finesse in the movie though, slowly developing his eventual corruption. This part of the story is often hailed too as being an improvement over Shakespeare's original work, as this process is made more gradual by adding in elements like the fact that his Lord had actually killed his predecessor to take the throne, in a sense making that betrayal seem less vile. Asaji's pregnancy, causing a conflict with the prophecy that Miki's son will be the successor to the throne, also does well to create turmoil and motivation to the multilayered character. The ending result is no less despicable than the original Macbeth, of course, but this better developing of the character definitely gives the audience more insight and places more emotion behind his fall from grace.

This also leads to Washizu's wife Asaji, played hauntingly by Isuzu Yamada who is arguably Japan's finest actress. While her counterpart in Macbeth was much more reserved, Asaji is calculating and very ambitious, as she is eager to bask in the glory held in the spirit's vision. Her character is vile to the core here, plotting the eventual murder of those in her husband's way; in a lot of ways, Asaji is the perfect politician, as she gracefully manipulates her husband to achieve their own perceived gain. Yamada in the part is simply brilliant as well, as she is chilling when she needs to be and superficial when scenes require her to be courteous to those she might not care for.

As expected, the movie is also helped along by some extraordinary production values, as the sets are often stunning while Asakazu Nakai's cinematography is never short of amazing. Unfortunately, the movie does also has two lesser points in this regard. The first is with Kurosawa's editing, as the pacing feels slow in parts, such as the opening scene with the Great Lord that seems to drag a little. The other is newcomer Masaru Sato and his soundtrack for the movie. Now to be fair, this was Sato's first full fledged score for one of Kurosawa's films after the tragic death of his mentor, Fumio Hayasaka, two years prior. To his credit, there aren't any unpleasant cues here, yet the score is still undoubtedly forgettable as Sato is still coming into his own and seems kind of out of place to score this mostly dark film. Thankfully, the composer would do a much better job the following year on the director's The Hidden Fortress (1958), whose more heroic theme is much better suited to Sato's work as well.

Overall, Throne of Blood is another brilliant production from Japan's greatest director. For many, this type of film could be considered a career high, yet for Kurosawa it's just one of his many excellent movies.