This year marks the 50th anniversary of Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 epic, Throne of Blood, and to celebrate, the Clinton Street Theater is showing the freshly restored 35mm print through this week. The film centers on samurai lord Washizu, and his twisted rise to dominance over Spider’s Web Castle.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 epic, Throne of Blood, and to celebrate, the Clinton Street Theater is showing the freshly restored 35mm print through this week.
The film centers on samurai lord Washizu, and his twisted rise to dominance over Spider’s Web Castle. After being promoted for his combat skill and bravery, his suspicious wife convinces him to murder his lord in order to secure dominance over the castle for himself. Haunted by a vision of an evil spirit in the forest, which foretold all these events, Washizu is driven mad and eventually consumed by the tangled morass of lies and suspicion that he wove around himself. The prophecy becomes self-fulfilling as the son of Washizu’s loyal friend Miki (whom he murdered) returns for revenge on the deranged samurai. His wife, too, loses her grip completely and becomes obsessed with the blood of the murdered lord that stains her hands, which she is unable to wash out.
If this all sounds vaguely familiar to you, it’s because Throne of Blood was Kurosawa’s transposition of Macbeth into a feudal Japanese setting. While for many people that brings back unpleasant high school memories, this film isn’t just the same old boring play with different costumes. For one, the barren, mountainous setting evokes palpable menace from the first shot to the last. Thick fog swirls around the doomed castle and, coupled with the gritty alpine environment, lends an otherworldly feel to the proceedings.
Into this realm are set characters that bring their roles to life in an engaging way, even for people who are left with an unpleasant taste in their mouths at the mention of Macbeth. Toshiro Mifune, a staple in Kurosawa’s films throughout the years, is brash and courageous, yet gullible and blustering as the doomed Washizu. He is goaded into treacherous action by his wife, who looks and speaks much more disturbingly than most any character in recent memory.
The film itself is a visual masterwork, with every shot building to the gripping finale, in which Washizu is filled with dozens of arrows by his own men. I heard that they shot real arrows at Mifune to capture the look of true fear-and judging by his facial expression, this could be the case.
All this adds up to a pretty engaging film with just the goods-there aren’t a lot of long asides and soliloquies and that sort of thing.
But there have been more Macbeth adaptations than you can shake a stick at.
So why should you care about a 50-year-old adaptation of a 450 year old play? Aside from the strength of the movie in its own right, a taste of Kurosawa can give you an interesting window into film in this country since the 1950s. Aside from essentially creating the samurai genre in the collective mind, his sparse and gritty style in his myriad samurai epics can be seen influencing the greatest of the spaghetti westerns of the 1960s.
In fact, the two types of films occupy similar niches in the popular consciousness of their respective countries. Proof is the first of Sergio Leone’s Clint Eastwood westerns, For a Few Dollars More, whose story was a direct lift from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. Although technically an Italian movie, it was in the States that it would have its greatest impact, catapulting Clint Eastwood to stardom and casting shadows over every western to come. Without Kurosawa, these films might not have turned out the same way. Today, directors like Quentin Tarantino have Kurosawa to thank in large part for providing the archetypal characters, situations and cinematic styles that they pay homage to and lovingly rip off in their films. And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Kurosawa has been flattered quite a lot. But the film we’re talking about here can stand on its own two feet. It doesn’t have to be appreciated as a history lesson. It’s a thoughtful and visually enticing reworking of an old-as-dirt story, with plenty of both style and substance for the casual viewer or moviephile.