Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

07 Oct 2011

(1957 Movie) Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-jo) directed by: Akira Kurosawa

(Reaction) Macbeth Goes East by: Jose Angelo Singson

Over the years there have been many renderings of Shakespeare's works into film however, in my opinion many of these adaptations are really little more than glorified high school plays. Top-billed actors, lavish costumes and set designs, but when you peel away at all the glitz it is still the same literary material and tackled little differently from the days when it was first performed for the Elizabethan masses.

There are some notable exceptions though, and I speak for myself here, there's Baz Luhrmann's Romeo+Juliet and Gil Junger's 10 Things I Hate About you an adaptation of Taming the Shrew. These films to me have been some of the most original and creative spins on the classics that I've had the pleasure of watching.

One adaptation however clearly stands out in terms of originality as well serving as a testimony of the cross-cultural appeal of Shakespeare's works. The film is Throne of Blood or Kumonosu-jo in the original Japanese which means "Spider Web Castle" and it is undoubtedly one of the well-loved reimagining of Macbeth ever done.

It is wonderful to see how well Macbeth had been transitioned into the samurai/Japanese setting without losing much of its original character. Kurosawa-sensei was very interested with the cycle of violence that he saw in the play and from the historical events it was based from. He said that in depicting an era when the strong preyed on the weak, Macbeth had a focus in common with all of his films.

The parallel Kurosawa explored for his adaptation of the play was the Sengoku Jidai poetically translated as The Age of the Country at War, a near hellish age marked by constant wars between rival feudal clans and the lack of a centralized leadership. It was during this period of time where politicking, power brokering, treachery or all sorts and make coupled with an equal amount of murder that Kurosawa utilizes in Throne of Blood. Feudal lords took what they wanted through violence, killed trusted associates for the slightest doubts, and they in turn were killed by their surviving vassals. Washizu (Mifune Toshiro) may be performing in a play whose framework is Macbeth but he fully embodies the spirit of that dark chapter in their own history: the godless days of the Sengoku Jidai.

The film begins with Taketoki Washizu (Macbeth, played by Mifune Toshiro) and Yoshiaki Miki (Banquo, played by Chiaki Minoru) returning to Kuniharu Tsuzuki's (King Duncan) castle after defeating their lord's enemies in battle, rather than with the Three Witches deciding a meeting with the titular Macbeth. As they ride through the forest surrounding the castle, they meet a ghost (yurei), who predicts that today Washizu will be named master of the North Castle and Miki will command Fort One. The ghost then portends that Washizu will eventually become Lord of Forest Castle and finally she tells Miki that his son will also become lord of the castle. Upon their return to Tsuzuki's estate, he promotes them, exactly as the ghost had predicted. Washizu discusses this with Asaji (Lady Macbeth) his wife, who then manipulates him into expediting the second part of the prophecy by murdering Tsuzuki when he visits. His wife poisons the lord's guards and the vicious plan is carried out in earnest and Washizu is promoted Master of the North Castle.

The first few scenes reveal just how smooth the translation of Macbeth was visually. From a medieval European setting to a medieval Japanese setting; rather than a damp, gloomy moor the first scene features a gloomy, and no less damp, pine forest covered with thick lattices of cobwebs; hence its moniker Cobweb Forest. The usage of the ghost or yurei is another original touch that does not dilute the film's integrity. Although there was only one female spirit and its appearance uniquely Japanese it does not lose the initial horrific impact on the audience, due also to the near seamless editing techniques of the director. One minute we see two warriors boasting about their battle prowess, neither one wanting to be outdone then suddenly a fearful specter in the web-draped woods; beautiful.

Another element that makes this adaptation truly exceptional is its careful attention and faithful application of Japanese traditions. Most memorable is Isuzu Yamada's (Asaji) rendition of Lady Macbeth. Traditionally Lady Macbeth is portrayed as a bold, ambitious woman; passionate about making things happen and virtually pulsing with life, she not the least bit afraid to act as a catalyst of destiny. In Throne of Blood though, she is played out as creepily unemotional. It is also worth noting as a cultural note that even appearance-wise she is an almost complete contrast of traditional interpretations of Lady Macbeth. In contrast to the realism that Shakespearean actors would often employ, Asaji's movements, appearance and delivery of her lines are evocative of Noh performers who make use of monotonous speech and halted movements in their performances. However this does not make her portrayal any less effective. Her corpse-like appearance coupled with her deadpan delivery of her lines makes her every bit as compelling as the standard Lady Macbeth representation: a woman flushed with emotion virtually commanding her husband to slay his lord.

Mifune Toshiro once more shows his acting mettle in this film. In contrast to his humorous role as the bumbling Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai Mifune now brings an almost insane intensity in his performance of Washizu, both during his early days as a valiant warrior and humble vassal and as the paranoid lord of Cobweb Palace.

All throughout the film Kurosawa-sensei's intelligent changes maintain the integrity of the drama's tragic influence. This is clearly seen in Washizu's last stand against the combined armies of his former allies. Troubled by his troops moving outside his room he leaves to investigate. He is then met by a panicked soldier reporting that the trees of Spider's Web forest "have risen to attack us!" just as it was prophesied by the three ghosts of fallen samurai warriors in lieu of the three witches. Although the film was released in black and white, Washizu visibly pales with the realization that he is doomed.

Personally, I prefer Washizu's death scene, over Macbeth's any day. Rather than having a sword-duel/faceoff his own archers turn upon him, turning him into a walking pincushion. Interestingly this was actually done with real arrows launched by expert archers, something Mifune had decided to have done in order to generate facial expressions of the most genuine fear. Even the arrows that were peppering the wooden walls were not faked by special effects but were shot by the same team of expert bowmen. During filming, it was said that Mifune waved his arms, supposedly because his character was trying to brush away the arrows embedded in the planks; symbolic of his intense desire to remain in power. His frenzied brushing was also allegedly done to indicate to the archers the direction in which Mifune wanted to move so as not to get shot in the vitals accidentally.

Throne of Blood, visually and in its very spirit, transcends Shakespeare's vision. Kurosawa-sensei has taken Macbeth and has made it into something truly his own imbuing it with a sensibility unique to the film and yet does not stray very far from the roots it was taken from. This is what really puts it in a class of its own. It has accomplished what few adaptations can truly say they've become: equal in breadth scope and depth of profundity of its forebear.


Impressive in every regard; really and truly, meant without hyperbole. Throne of Blood is a pillar in temple of exceptional film adaptations of William Shakespeare. If there is any film adaptation of William Shakespeare that you must watch it is this.

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