Throne of Blood (1957)
To remake an artistic work well requires a shift in statement of theme and a further exploration of the original author’s wanderings. Leave it to Akira Kurosawa to remake not only multiple plays by Shakespeare, but also a novel written by Dostoevsky, arguably the most innovative psychological writer since Shakespeare. Kurosawa also remade a genre Western (practically shot for shot).
Somewhere in between Dostoevsky’s novel and a genre Western lies Macbeth, which is arguably one of the greatest works in all of literature, which, as noted previously, makes it damn near impossible to remake well. Nonetheless, it is the jump-off point for one of Kurosawa’s greatest films, which is therefore a great remake of a greatest work. Enter Throne of Blood.
Taketoki Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) is a samurai warrior driven to multiple murders in a desperate grab for power. Kurosawa set this film in a time of constant warfare among rival samurai clans. The film begins and ends on the same shot of fog over black volcanic soil (the film was shot high on Mt. Fuji). A chorus-like narration prefaces the arc of the film with a poetic intro. In this opening shot, the land closer to the foreground is lower than the land in the background and the two sections are divided by fog. The visible portions can be interpreted as different levels or stations. The fog may represent the uncertainty in between (but only if you play along).
While riding through a forest on their to a fortress, Washizu and his comrade Miki (Minoru Chiaki) come across a white-faced woman-spirit who, while spinning a wheeled textile machine, prophesies that Washizu will rise in station not once but twice in the near future. The spirit mocks Washizu, saying that it cannot understand humans because they hide their true natures, an allusion to both the nature of ambition and the actor’s own makeup: the makeup and hairstyles of both the spirit and Lady Macbeth are directly influenced by traditional Noh theater, their white makeup echoing the emotive masks of the Noh.
In the first act of the film, the word labyrinth is used to describe both a forest and a fortress. The notion of being lost, or caught in a kind of limbo, is recurring idea in this film. While labyrinths are designed to keep people out of certain places, their flaw is that they provide those who know them well with many places to hide. The same can be said for forests and fortresses.
When the emperor arrives at Washizu’s fortress on the pretense of attacking a rival, Washizu’s wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) suggests that by having him lead the attack and Miki guard the fortress, his superior is setting him up to be killed.
“Without ambition,” she says, “A man is not a man,” her words eventually compelling him to kill the emperor and seize the throne.
Mifune and Yamada’s interactions are particularly memorable in this film. Yamada’s blank expression underscores Asaji’s emotional coldness. Mifune, on the other hand, is unusually animated in their conversations.
Once the deed is done, Asaji shouts out, “Murder!” and Washizu kills one of the slain emperor’s bodyguards, which not only reinforces his tough-guy persona but also sates his snowballing bloodlust. Meanwhile, all sorts of omens begin to portent. Crows start cawing and a master’s horse can’t be tamed. In a particularly comic touch, Washizu is visited by an absurd number of crows and pigeons before he is eventually shot down for his crimes.
Ambition is a particularly devilish feeling, especially in the way that it hides behind people’s faces. Unlike happiness or sadness, it doesn’t have a facial expression closely associated with it. Paranoia and desperation are far easier to express, which is what Mifune seems to have aimed for in his performance. He wears the same heavy grimace for much of the film, communicating mostly with darting eye movements and trembling lip, his eyebrows and facial hair doing most of the work. When he does let loose, the effect is quite powerful, as in his scenes with Yamada and the dinner with his court. One cannot watch this movie without having Mifune’s grimace etched into one’s memory.
Part of translating a piece of drama to cinema is conceiving how to best transfer thematic ideas into imagery. The stark, foggy landscape and the densely wooded forest are perhaps the most obvious creations, but the true genius technique in this film is Kurosawa’s use of shadow.
One might first notice it on Mifune’s face while he’s turning his head from one side to the other, which he does quite a lot in this film to great effect. By using shadow as a kind of graphic multiplier for actors onscreen, Kurosawa is able to take Washizu’s paranoia and give it a kind of visual corollary. Washizu’s often finds himself backed into corners, and light sources from multiple sides leave him with not one but two shadows. They seem to visually crowd him into the corner. In the dinner scene when he sees Miki’s ghost and seemingly goes mad in front of his court’s eyes, the shadows of those present are quite noticeable on the wooden walls of the dining room. Visually, it suggests a more crowded space.
After evergreens start slowly creeping towards the castle (which, by some strange coincidence, happened to be the only signal that Washizu would be in for trouble), his troops turn on him. The viewer is then graced with a wonderful Tony Montana-esque sign-off, except arrows are flying instead of bullets.
After Washizu’s been hit multiple times (arrows dangling from his chest) he then takes one sideways through the neck, somehow managing to stay alive for a while, not even falling down at first. At this point the viewer can either do one of two things: a) begin ruminating on the plausibility of surviving multiple arrow wounds, including one through the neck (sideways!) or, b) simply say to one’s self in honest admiration: “That is one tough samurai.” — Felipe Cabrera