Throne of Blood (1957) Review: Akira Kurosawa’s Macbeth

A retrospective look on Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood.

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Throne of Blood Movie Review

What is Throne of Blood about?

After a great military victory, lords Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and Miki (Akira Kubo) are lost in the dense Spider’s Web Forest where they meet a mysterious and androgynous old woman (Chieko Naniwa), all in white, who predicts great things for Washizu and great things for Miki’s son. And sure enough, after the two warrior lords have had a bit of a giggle and are back at their castle to receive commendations for their work on the battlefield, the Emperor immediately promotes the pair of them … exactly as the white witch had predicated.  

The perpetually scowling Washizu, encouraged by his ambitious and scheming wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), yearns to make even more of the prophecy come true, even if it means killing the Emperor. And so, boil, boil, toil and trouble, the cauldron of contempt, corruption, and cold-blooded killing bubbles away, clouding their minds of any moral virtue. Greed feeds greed feeds greed.

Throne of Blood (1957) – Movie Trailer

Throne of Blood Review

Kumonosu-jô (Throne of Blood) is Japanese director Akira Kurasawa’s version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and is regarded as one of the finest cinema adaptations of the bard’s work, although curiously the playwright doesn’t receive any on-screen credit, not even as inspiration. Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Kurasawa’s screenplay transposes the infamous Scottish tragedy to medieval Japan. It is a great and powerful story: the man who is lead on by a phantom prophecy and the machinations of his manipulative wife, and with delusions of grandeur spinning his fragile ego, he commits murderous treason, only to have his best friend turn against him, and eventually, his entire army, at the eleventh hour.

A masterful play on greed, megalomania, betrayal, and murder, Throne of Blood packs a dark poetic punch.

One of the film’s most memorable – and chilling – moments is Washizu racing back into the forest to see if he can coax another prophetic gem from the lips of the old ghost woman, one to his favour, of course. As he’s galloping along the trail the phantom figure of the white woman races past in the background ahead of Washizu. It’s a nightmarish moment of beauty.

Shot in high contrast black and white, Kurasawa – who influenced many contemporary directors, and continues to do so – moves his camera like a restless animal. It’s worth noting that Martin Scorsese’s dramatic and dynamic camerawork and editing in his early movies was inspired by Kurasawa’s visual grammar.

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Throne of Blood - Movie Still
Throne of Blood – Movie Still

The production design is elaborate, with impressive sets on location, especially in the forest. The costumes are stunning, including the surrealism of the forest shrubbery as camouflage for the enemy army. But it is the military attire that is most memorable, the body armour and helmets. The woman’s kimonos, while not the most flattering costumes, are still an eyeful. Even in monochrome the appearance of the warriors and the women paints a striking picture.

His men stare back blankly, their faith lost, their loyalty in ruin. They can only respond with their bows.

Throne of Blood’s ultimate scene is most extraordinary, and was, in fact, done with real arrows. Those that hit the wooden planks beside Mifune were not done with special effects, but rather choreographed with expert archers. Mifune would wave his arms to brush away the arrows sticking from the planks, in turn indicating to the archers which direction he was planning on moving. Kurasawa used real arrows in order to get an authentic expression and exclamations of fear from his lead actor. The arrows that hit Washizu’s torso were fake bamboo prop arrows, including the one that passes through his neck, enhanced with fancy quick editing.

In the blur of the action, it all looks horribly, brilliantly real, and the image of the mortally-wounded lord collapsing in front of his mutineers, the misty clouds swirling around him, is worth a thousand words.

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Throne of Blood - Movie Still

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