Throne of Blood

Okay, I'll call it the Scottish Play next time. 
"Ambition is false fame and will fall, death will reign, man falls in vain."

The creative partnership of director Akira Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune is one of the greatest of 20th century cinema. Together they made a total 16 films, including such classics as Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Yjimbo, and Throne of Blood.

Based on the Scottish play, Throne of Blood was the first of two Shakespeare adaptations Kurosawa produced during his illustrious career, the other being Ran, his 1985 adaptation of King Lear. Of the two, I've always considered Ran to be the superior film. But that's not to say that Throne of Blood isn't a great film in its own right. It is certainly, in this humble critic's opinion, the best screen version of the Scottish play I've ever seen.

Ditching the dialogue, but retaining the play's basic plot, the film relocates the action to feudal Japan, a bleak and desolate land forever drenched in spooky fog. The three witches are replaced with a single, very creepy, forest spirit, who tells Mifune's Captain Washizu that he will become the lord of Cobweb Castle (now that is a name). Prompted by his ambitious and ruthless wife, Asaji, Washizu kills his lord and assumes control of the castle. It's pretty much all down hill from there.

I've never been fond of the Scottish play, even though it is responsible for one of my favourite Blackadder moments. It is just one of those Shakespeare plays I have a hard time getting into. I blame school. They tried to force the play on us and made us watch Roman Polanski's dreary version. That put me off the play for life. And Roman Polanski films. Throne of Blood is the only version of the play I have ever really liked.

What makes the film is Kurosawa's direction (the advance of the forest is a sight to behold) and the central performance by Mifune, who is as magnetic as ever. The atmospheric black and white photography benefits the film greatly, creating a strong film noir vibe. In many ways, Macbeth is the original film noir. Think about it - bloke is seduce by beautiful woman into committing murder for their own benefit, plan backfires and dooms them both. That's pretty much the plot of every film noir ever made. Is there really much difference between a Shakespeare aside and the hard boiled narration of the noir hero?

Notes and Quotes

--Mifune wasn't just acting scared during Washizu's death scene. Those were real arrows that were fired at him. He waved his arms so much to let the arches know which way he was going so they wouldn't hit him.

--The film's title in Japanese is "Kumonosu-ju" which translates into "Castle of the Spider's Web."

--Originally, Kurosawa planned on building a facade castle. This proved to be impractical, prompting the building of full-on castle sections to use in shooting. These were built with the help of United States Marines who were based in the area.

Lady Asaji Washizu: Admirable, my Lord. You, who would soon rule the world, allow a ghost to frighten you.

Three out of four play names we cannot say.

4 comments:

Billie Doux said...

I've never seen this movie. You make me want to watch it, Mark.

Mark Greig said...

Then my work here is done.

mazephoenix said...

I've seen Ran. I clearly need to see this one too.

Josie Kafka said...

You're totally right about the Scottish play being the first noir. (The first tartan noir, I guess.) That's an excellent observation that has completely changed how I think of it.