Over summer many of us will be going to the cinema to watch the latest Hollywood blockbusters. So as an alternative this August the Nouse team is having a look at some of the gems of world cinema, which are often unfairly ignored in favour of their American counterparts.
An old idiom states: ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ Throughout history, such a simple message has sat at the forefront of innumerable works of fiction. However, said message has never been more eloquently expressed than it is in William Shakespeare’s beloved play Macbeth. Although it surely needs no introduction, Shakespeare’s Macbeth tells the story of the titular Scottish general, who – in pursuing power through the act of regicide – descends into madness, before being himself dethroned. It is a classic tragedy in the most traditional sense, depicting the fall of a noble man, who dared to defy his own fate. So enduring is the tale of Macbeth that it has been adapted to the screen ad nauseam, with the first adaptation seeing release in 1908, over one hundred years ago. Yet, it is not the innumerable word-for-word retellings which have captivated audiences for decades. Rather, perhaps the most enduring depiction of Macbeth on-screen is that of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s reimagining Throne of Blood (1957).
The story of Throne of Blood is almost identical to that of Shakespeare’s play. However, Kurosawa takes the events and characters of Macbeth out of medieval Scotland, and chooses instead to stage them in feudal Japan. Thus, Macbeth is transformed into the Samurai general Washizu, King Duncan becomes Lord Tsuzaki, and Cawdor turns into Spider’s Web Castle (or Cobweb Castle as some translations dictate). Despite this massive change in setting, the events of the plot are more or less untouched. However, it is no longer three witches that prophesise the protagonist’s rise and fall, but rather a forest-dwelling spectre, who takes the form of an old woman. Perhaps the biggest change is that of the film’s ending. Although Washizu is dethroned, there is no Macduff who saves the day. Rather, Washizu’s end comes at the hands – or rather, arrows – of his own men, who turn upon the mad king in his darkest hour.
The entire film is predicated upon Kurosawa-regular Toshiro Mifune’s performance as Washizu. Inspired by Japanese Noh theatre, Mifune’s performance is injected with constant movement and powerful gesture. Throughout the film, Mifune is constantly darting across the screen, seemingly unable to attain a state of peace. In an early scene, Washizu and Miki (Throne of Blood’s Banquo) share a laugh and rest after an arduous journey back to Spider’s Web Castle, which proves to be one of Washizu’s only moments of solace throughout the film. Alongside his movements, Mifune’s expressions convey a great deal without a word being spoken. With his piercing Bela Lugosie-like eyes, and a brow which is cocked into a permanent scowl, Mifune’s face expertly conveys Washizu’s anger, his fleeting sanity, and finally, as arrows pierce his body, his fear. Not to be outdone is actress Isuzu Yamada as the tale’s Lady Macbeth. Although she rarely meets eyes with her husband, Asaji is constantly in control of the scene. The scene wherein Asaji manipulates and inevitably persuades her husband to slay Lord Tsuzaki and seize the throne is one of the film’s highlights.
Kurosawa’s direction is equally commendable. One of Kurosawa’s greatest talents was his ability to infuse scenes with movement, thus giving his film’s a constant sense of forward motion. Even the slowest of scenes are constructed in this way. For instance, the aforementioned scene of temptation is incredibly sedate, with Asaji remaining perfectly still, while Washizu glides across the floor in deliberate movements. Yet, in the background, we see a horse rider prancing back and forth through the courtyard of Washizu’s domain, thus ensuring that the audience’s attention is retained. It is hardly necessary, owing to the fact that Mifune and Yamada are so compelling, but such attention to detail is admirable nonetheless.
Kurosawa is similarly effortless in his depiction of the theme of nature, which underpins Shakespeare’s play. To the Bard, Macbeth’s act of regicide is so heinous that the entire natural world is thrown out of balance as a result. Only when a rightful monarch is restored to power – and with it, the Great Chain of Being reinstated – does nature return to order. In Throne of Blood, Kurosawa subtly hints at this imbalance through the behaviour of animals, as well as the changing weather. One scene sees Miki’s horse – aware of the fate which will soon befall its master – refuse to be saddled. Another witnesses a flock of birds tear through Spider’s Web Castle, a bad omen as Washizu’s subordinates note. Similarly, the entire film is drenched in fog, suggesting at Washizu’s uncertain outcome, as well as depicting the state of the protagonist’s clouded mind. The film’s climax sees the forest surrounding Spider’s Web come to life, with trees seemingly drifting through the fog of their own volition. It is an eerie visual; one which no viewer is likely to forget.
It would be a tragedy not to mention the sheer scale of production on show in Throne of Blood. The number of extras – all of whom don fairly accurate Samurai armour – is quite amazing; although Kurosawa would go on to outdo himself in this regard with the release of Ran (1985), an adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Throne of Blood’s infamous climax sees dozens of real arrows fired at Mifune, whose movements in the scene were carefully choreographed in order to avoid his becoming a human pincushion. It is a testament to the respect Mifune surely held for Kurosawa that he would willingly take part in such a sequence. The results are surely worth it though, with the image of a genuinely-terrified Mifune being bombarded by arrows mere centimetres away proving to be one of the most enduring in the history of Japanese cinema.
By reworking Macbeth into a new context, Kurosawa breathes life into a classic tale. Moreover, in replacing key aspects of the Bard’s play with elements of folklore from his native Japan, Kurosawa brought Shakespeare’s tale of political ambition to a new audience, whilst never losing sight of the themes which made the story so engaging to begin with. Seeing its release in 1957, Throne of Blood opened to a nation which was still recovering from the pains of a devastating war. More than this, it opened to a nation who had laboured for years under the rule of a military dictatorship. Therefore, in retelling the story of the collapse of a tyrant, Kurosawa could not have struck at a more fitting moment.