Akira Kurosawa. The English playwright and poet's works have inspired countless stage, film, and TV adaptations while many of the Japanese director's films are held in the highest regard, as well as being one of the most talented directors ever. So a Kurosawa interpretation of a Shakespeare source seems like a no-brainer, right? Pretty much, as was the case with 1957's Throne of Blood.
The source material is maybe Shakespeare's most well-respected work, Macbeth, which has been a breeding ground for great stage and film actors for hundreds of years because there's two roles ideal for some showing off, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. A story set in the English countryside in the 1500s doesn't seem like a natural setting for a Japanese movie though, does it? Kurosawa moves the well-known story to feudal Japan without missing a beat. Like so many of the director's movies, 'Throne' has a style all to itself, and even in the slower moments is a beautiful movie to watch.
Going to visit Lord Tsuziki, the commander of the armies, after a great victory, generals Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and Miki (Minoru Chiaki) are visited by a spirit in the woods surrounding the lord's castle. The spirit makes odd foretellings of what is to come in both men's lives, including predictions of great power and command. The two old friends laugh it off and continue on, only to have the lord give them the exact promotion the spirit told them they would get. Shaken by the news, Washizu tells his wife, Lady Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), only to have her convince him they should kill the lord and live up to the foreboding prediction.
It takes some convincing and some prime manipulation on Asaji's part, but a nervous Washizu goes along with the plan. The murder is blamed on the lord's drunken bodyguards, and Washizu ascends to the most powerful position in the land. Two men have escaped though with the knowledge of what actually happened, the prince and a strong general (Takashi Shimura, a Kurosawa regular). Now the only thing standing in the way of complete power is his friend, Miki. Asaji tries to convince Washizu that he too must die, but a rattled Washizu is not so convinced and begins to unravel mentally and emotionally. All the while, powers are working against him to overthrow him.
Where Scorsese has De Niro and Pacino and Ford had Wayne, Kurosawa had Toshiro Mifune. The director-star combo combined to make 16 movies together, many of them considered classics. Mifune needed a stage as big as the screen for his ability as an actor. A very physical actor, it's a pleasure just watching him move around, whether it be within a scene of dialogue or in a fight sequence. He's perfectly suited for the Washizu/Macbeth role because he always seems to be one good push away from completely losing his mind. His role in The Seven Samurai remains my favorite of his parts, but this is a worthy competitor in Mifune's filmography.
As for the directing, Kurosawa -- as were many non-U.S. directors -- was ahead of the curve. Hollywood movies were still rather theatrical in the 1950s, but Kurosawa had a filming and storytelling style that was based in reality. More often than not, his shots were stationary in dialogue scenes, and even scenes with movement the camera was very subtle in its depictions. Some shots do drag on in those instances, but the style -- right there on the ground with the characters -- works wonders. A funeral procession goes on and on entering a castle from a burned out plain. No fancy camerawork here showing crying faces, just a medium long shot of many downtrodden soldiers following their lord.
The sets are really something else here, including the main one for the first fortress where Washizu takes command eventually. The outdoor sets were filmed on Mt. Fuji with the volcanic setting providing an almost-apocalyptic feel to the story. The ending especially creates a sense of the end of the world as if this castle was its own world and it is being torn apart. Filming at a studio for the interior scenes, there's a sparseness to the sets which calls attention to the actors and their lines. There is nothing to distract the viewer, just bare rooms with little in the way of furniture or design. It seems a simple concept, but it works perfectly.
Good directors always have to have a bit of crazy in them, and Kurosawa is no exception, saving his craziness for the end. SPOILERS STOP READING SPOILERS Washizu eventually has his army turn on him in a final twist of the spirit's prediction with his archers trying to pick him off and eventually succeeding. Instead of using stunt doubles or stunt arrows, Kurosawa actually has choreographed archers shooting at/near Mifune. It is a remarkable sequence (check it out HERE, just watch it on mute) because a couple inches here and there, Mifune would have been a real pincushion. It is a great ending to a great movie with Mifune showing again why he was Kurosawa's favorite actor. Definitely look for this Japanese version of Macbeth.
Throne of Blood <----trailer (1957): ***/****