Above all, William Shakespeare’s calling card is his poetry, his unmistakable delicacy with words. Both his sonnets and plays exhibit a verbal dexterity simply not found elsewhere. Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa’s searing adaptation of Macbeth, fluidly weaves Shakespeare’s fluid lyricism with a distinct Japanese flavor. Of the countless deft touches that permeate in waves throughout Throne of Blood, none are more effective than Kurosawa’s decision to portray Lady Macbeth (here called Lady Asaji) as a quiet assassin. Whereas Lady Macbeth is wildly vicious throughout Shakespeare’s play, Lady Asaji is a sharp contrast—her calculated, almost peaceful manner of communicating her dark wishes chills the soul to its core. She resorts to emotion only as a last resort, such as when an intoxicated Washizu begins seeing visions of Miki, whom he had ordered killed just a short time before.
As Washizu drunkenly reprimands Miki’s ghost amidst a room of confused onlookers, we see Asaji’s immaculate persona begin to waver for the first time. Unable to remain quiet with her dark schemes in jeopardy of being ruined by too much sake, she quickly rises and hastens around the room, feverishly trying to explain Washizu’s actions to their guests. Asaji’s outburst is so out of character that it initially startles us, but eventually enhances our vile impression of the demonic woman. By painting Asaji with both soft devilry and desperation, Kurosawa exposes her internal rotting better than Shakespeare himself.
The intricacies involved with Macbeth’s downfall are plentiful, but Kurosawa doesn’t shy away from them. Instead, he fluidly portrays Washizu’s descent from respected leader to dark lord. It’s a gradual collapse that’s convincing every step of the way. At 105 minutes, Throne of Blood is one of Kurosawa’s shorter films but it’s also his most rewarding. The character development is unusual in that it often requires analyzing surrounding characters to understand anybody’s motives and goals. Of course, Toshirô Mifune’s performance as Washizu makes this easy; he’s an emotionally-charged whirlwind. Shrugging aside all caution, Mifune roars, shudders, contemplates, and lurks his way to his best performance of all. With and without words, he communicates his innermost struggles and torments.
Throne of Blood‘s photography is sumptuous. Mist consumes and blankets the land with uneasiness, while extreme close-ups capture sweaty droplets clinging desperately to a warriors’ nose, not ready to die just yet. High-angle shots portray the ghostly trees of Spider-Web Forest gracefully swaying in the evening breeze, commanding the entire screen. We’re later treated to an eerie parallel during the film’s savage conclusion, when arrows rain on a defiant Washizu atop his castle. As they embed themselves in the walls, they slowly assume the shape of the forest itself and hem the doomed man in, just as the towering woods enveloped him during his initial run-in with the witch.
Kurosawa’s lengthy filmography boasts plenty of grand achievments, but Throne of Blood is his finest hour. While staying faithful to the spirit of Shakespeare’s work, it achieves a dark individuality that most adaptations can only dream of. At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I think Throne of Blood frequently surpasses its maker—for instance, it eliminate any staginess from Washizu’s first encounter with the witch. With Criterion’s sparkling new DVD transfer, there’s no excuse to miss this one. Brush up on your Shakespeare and cinematic knowledge in one delicious stroke.