After Akira Kurosawa finished his paranoiac fable of Nuclear power with “I Live in Fear,” he returned to Feudal Japan with his loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Exploring fear on another level, not the fear of the Nuclear Holocaust, but the fear of losing power, “Throne of Blood” (or its original title: “The Spiderweb Castle”) puts it spotlight on Toshirô Mifune as he slowly unravels over the course of 110 minutes.
Similar to his masterful drama “High and Low,” he sets each frame as a tableau, as if Kurosawa wanted to bring the stage to life. His blocking within the image is unparalleled. I don’t think I know another filmmaker who uses each frame so effectively. His staging and form seem so effortless. Despite it being shot in 1.37:1 aspect ratio, one single square employs more visual information than most works of today shooting in the wider variation (2.35:1 or 1.85:1). His sense of visual rhythm and layers within each shot evoke the works of master painters.
And the music by Masaru Sato (who frequently collaborated with Kurosawa) is haunting. The simple wind-flute melodies is a refreshing departure from the overuse of music in today’s cinema. When Martin Scorsese sent “The Age of Innocence” to Akira Kurosawa in 1993, he sent a note back that read:
“I must caution you, I must admonish you on the use of music. Like all Hollywood films, you’re using music too much.”
To Kurosawa, the music accents the narrative, being careful not to overwhelm it. Perhaps his conservatism within the musical score challenges him to allow only pictures and sounds to truly carry the story.
Personally it’s one of my favourite films by Kurosawa because it represents a great midpoint in his career. He made 30 feature films while alive (re-visiting Shakespeare even in his old age with his adaptation of “King Lear” in the epic “Ran”) and this happens to be his 15th. Though it repeats several themes he’d approached before, I feel “Throne of Blood” the most deliberate, the most balanced, and ultimately the most tragic.
Tragedy is tastefully aggrandized thanks to the performance by Toshirô Mifune. Mifune’s clench-fisting, sporadic movements jump off the screen. It’s as if he’s putting on a kinetic dance for the audience. Spoiler: this is especially true in his solo moment during the fatal climax. Watch as he attempts to dodge arrows (they were real arrows). His struggle is like an elaborate dance of death, a final performance for his largest audience yet: his enemies.
His intensity seems so real and yet, so out of this world, so over the top. Watching him is like watching a bomb about to explode. It’s unsettling and yet, you can never look away. His prophetic desire for power is almost outside of himself. When the Macbeth hears of the Forest Spirit’s prophecy about his reign of power, it’s as if he’s suddenly plagued by the witch’s tongue like a disease. It is something infecting his mind. A thought that will manifest malignantly despite all efforts.
Macbeth was reportedly Kurosawa’s “favourite Shakespeare” and was quoted as saying:
“I’ve always thought that the Japanese jidai film is historically uninformed. Also, it never uses modern film-making techniques…The Throne of Blood had the same general feeling behind it.”
The film feels so modern, and yet so authentic in its portrayal of a bygone era. Most films are so steeped in the past that they forget to infuse the life-force of modern technology. As if it’s taboo, that it will diffuse the reality of a historical piece. Kurosawa’s approach, in that sense, is so radical. He uses splashes of horror, drama, comedy and intense action (those precise pans of the men on their horses) to paint a rather personal tragedy.
When asked why make yet another adaption of Macbeth, Kurosawa simply replied:
“I keep saying the same thing over and over again. Why— I ask— is that human beings cannot get along with each other, why can’t they live with each other with more good will?”
Throne of Blood is the voice of an unanswerable question. Like Macbeth, Kurosawa asks the questions his heart doesn’t want to answer and thus, his mind merely echoes in a chamber of doubt, of paranoia…of fear.