Throne of Blood: a fine film let down by truncated plot and mostly sketchy characters

Akira Kurosawa, “Throne of Blood” (1957)

Often referred to as an adaptation of the Shakespearean play, “Macbeth”, this historical drama by Kurosawa is a fine film that is actually sourced from many different inspirations and influences, of which the play is a significant inspiration, and which also combines some features of Japanese Noh drama and the American Western film. “Throne of Blood” often hailed as a masterpiece but, truth be told, I found it less compelling than Kurosawa’s later “Ran” which also partly references Shakespeare (“King Lear” to be specific). Certainly if filming in colour, a bigger budget and a greater knowledge of Japanese military history and mediaeval fighting techniques had been accessible to Kurosawa in 1957, then “Throne of Blood”, technically at least, would have been a much greater film than it is. As it is, the film has to depend much more on plot and character than “Ran” does, and in this, it’s a much lesser film than “Ran” (and even then, the characters in “Ran” can be rather one-dimensional with the exception perhaps of Lord Hidetora’s fool). Part of the reason is that the plot of “Macbeth” is much whittled down in “Throne …” with a watered-down Macduff character to oppose the Macbeth character, Lord Washizu (Toshiro Mifune), and as a result a source of tension and interest is removed; another reason is that with his epic samurai films, Kurosawa intended to say something about the nature of war and killing in our age, and used a specific historical period in Japan – the period from about 1450 to some time in the early 1600’s (known in Japan as the Sengoku period, or Warring States period) when the Tokugawa shoguns took over the country and ushered in an unprecedented age of peace and prosperity- as a way of enabling people to view modern warfare and killing objectively, and this lesson takes precedence over character depiction to the extent that the characters appear clunky and one-dimensional.

The film opens with two warrior friends, Washizu and Miki (Minoru Chiaki), lost in a forest after successfully crushing a rebellion against warlord Kuniharu Tsuzuki (Takamaru Sasaki), who holds Spider Web Castle. After fruitlessly riding through dense fog and dark trees, the two men come upon a witch (Chieko Naniwa) who, chillingly, spins thread on her spindle in the manner of the Three Fates of ancient Greek mythology. The woman prophesies that Washizu and Miki will be promoted for their efforts and that Washizu and Miki’s son will become lords of Spider Web Castle. Naturally the two men are doubtful but the prophecy that they will achieve military promotions comes true and this leads Washizu to become uneasy, restless and not a little ambitious. His clever wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) realises the inner turmoil he’s going through and starts egging him on to realise his ambitions. Soon enough, Lord Tsuzuki comes to stay at the garrison where Washizu and Asaji have just moved in with their household and this affords both husband and wife an opportunity to kill him. They cover up their treason by blaming the murder on Tsuzuki’s guards. With Tsuzuki out of the way, Washizu becomes Lord of Spider Web Castle but the other part of the prophecy about Miki’s son begins to trouble him and Asaji, and they soon start acting in strange ways and doing things that alert others to suspect that they (Washizu and Asaji) are Tsuzuki’s real murderers. Eventually Asaji goes mad and Washizu rushes headlong into a war that will be his doom.

Mifune gives a great performance as Washizu, though much of the time his face is distorted into fixed expressions of rage, and even in the extended sequence where he is being hounded by arrows in a narrow corridor, he still looks often as angry as he does terrified. Yamada, made up in Noh make-up and costuming, is as emotionless and artificial as Mifune is as openly emotional, neurotic and panicky to the point where he starts to flail about with his sword and … oops! … someone’s cut in half and looking very dead. The two complement each other perfectly: Asaji knows how Washizu’s mind works and she guesses correctly that he wants Miki out of his way so she arranges for this to happen. She doesn’t need to say a lot to goad Washizu into killing Tsuzuki as she knows only social convention and the samurai code of honour are preventing him from fulfilling his ambition. The pity though is that these two characters are the only fully rounded characters in the film: all the others, Miki in particular, are so slightly delineated as to be moving wallpaper needed to prop up the plot. Miki may be a ruthless warrior but you wouldn’t know it from the way he is portrayed in the film. The code of honour that compels Washizu to treat Miki as his equal and which is part of the reason that Washizu has qualms about killing Miki seems superfluous. Miki’s son (Akira Kubo), who one might expect to be at least hell-bent on avenging Dad’s death, merely attaches himself to a rival warlord Noriyasu (Takashi Shimura), the would-be Macduff character who never gets to meet Washizu and avenge Miki’s death on the son’s behalf as the code of honour would require. Neither Noriyasu nor Miki’s son is more than window-dressing for the plot. Incidentally Shimura and Mifune had appeared together in a previous Kurosawa film “Seven Samurai” so it’s rather strange that Kurosawa decided not to pit their characters against each other in a climactic do-or-die fight that would allow Washizu to die nobly and gasp out some last words about how the gods play around with humans like toys, and Noriyasu in return spout something about maintaining samurai honour and restoring the natural order of the world to appease the gods.

It would have been really worthwhile too if at some point during Washizu’s extended death scene, mighty and terrifying though it is, the samurai realised he has been manipulated by the witch through his blind faith in her “prophecy” and that he has thrown away his own life and the lives of people he cared for dearly as a result. All his achievements will be dwarfed by his treason and other crimes. There is nothing to suggest that Washizu and Asaji come to learn anything about themselves through their failings and misdeeds. I can’t remember from my own readings of Shakespeare’s plays whether he dealt with the idea of free will versus predestination. I have a feeling that he did, and that one play in which he might have done this is “Macbeth” so it should have been possible for “Throne of Blood” to combine both the notion of people trapped in a world where all their actions have been pre-determined by fickle gods or evil spirits and one character coming to realise that he has been exploited in this way and maybe should have resisted the witch’s words.

Though there are some great scenes – an early prolonged scene in which Washizu and Miki race around in circles in the fog demonstrates perfectly how enmeshed in the workings of fate they are and how their arrogance will undo them – the film does feel very cramped in its outdoor settings and use of black-and-white film. Even so, black-and-white film is used effectively to create creepy atmospheres and moods, especially in the forest scenes, and the weather becomes a significant character in the film, reflecting characters’ inner moods and thoughts, and portending what is to happen in the plot. “Throne of Blood” really does cry out to be filmed in colour, even if the range of colours that suit the film is in the dark blues, greys, blacks and blood-red, and with more panoramic filming techniques and appropriate film stock so you get a real sense of Japanese history and what the unsettled Warring States period might have been like.