Akira Kurosawa Series – Throne of Blood (1957)

“Behold, within this place

Now desolated, stood

Once a mighty fortress

Lived a proud warrior

Murdered my ambition

His spirit walking still

Vain pride, then as now, will

Lead ambition to the kill”

Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 film Throne of Blood – his interpretation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, set in feudal Japan – opens and closes with this ominous, operatic dirge. The camera fades in and out of barren landscapes cloaked in dense fog, as the tragic poem is chanted aloud by a choir on the soundtrack. This poem displays the broader strokes of this sprawling tale in a succinct handful of written and spoken lines. Yet, when you look more closely at the micronarratives and character transformations in Throne of Blood, you will see that there are even deeper troves of storytelling beneath the surface

    With its Shakespearean roots, Kurosawa’s film is a political thriller, but also a critique on storytelling and language. In its purest form, it is a story about fear – fear of the unknown, fear of powers beyond our understanding, and fear of loss. There is a heavy mystical element to the narrative, with prophecies from spirits and witches that set off motions of events that affect the physical world in radical fashions. The seed of an idea has the power to shift everything in an individual’s life, as well as the lives of those around that individual. (As a fan of Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception, I was struck to find that the inspiration for his “mind-heist thriller” stretches back to Shakespeare, many centuries earlier). Lust for power and control – all based on a hypothetical “what if” – is a slippery slope of temptation that can lead to treacherous lies and bloody betrayals. The title Throne of Blood may lead one to expect a massive siege and battle, but this film illustrates quite the contrary: Sometimes, kingdoms fall with a knife in the back, or poison in the wine, or a traitorous whisper. Blood is spilled, yes – but it does not flow freely and chaotically. The bloodshed is calculated, efficient, and economical. The conflicts in Throne of Blood take place on a much more intellectual and psychological level, rather than a physical level.

Chieko Naniwa as the prophet, Old Ghost Woman.

  “This is a wicked world. To save yourself you often must first kill,” says Lady Asaji Washizu (Isuzu Yamada) to her husband, Taketori Washizu (Toshirô Mifune). Murmurs of coaxing and seduction such as this one populate the screenplay of Throne of Blood, written by Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryûzô Kikoshima, and Kurosawa. Even while great armies with tremendous ranks of soldiers march across the land, ready for war, it is the words of deceit and deception behind closed doors that sow this pandemonium. Taketori Washizu could be labeled the protagonist of the narrative in the same sense that – to provide more contemporary context – Thanos could be called the protagonist in Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War (2018). Throne of Blood is about Taketori’s mission to claim the throne, no matter the cost – just as Thanos was hell-bent on gathering the Infinity Stones in order to obliterate half of all life in the universe. These are definitely not the type of lovable protagonists that we would love to see succeed in their missions, but exploring their respective stories through their eyes lends to the most narrative intrigue.  The descent into madness that we see with Taketori also reminded me of another iconic character in pop culture history – one who technically arrived onto the scene 20 years later in 1977, but was not given a complete backstory until 2005 – yes, we are talking about Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader from Star Wars, which once again loops us back to the Akira Kurosawa/George Lucas connection. Taketori is manipulated by premonitions of the future, dread of losing his loved one, and a misguided approach to controlling his destiny. That sounds an awful lot like the arc of Anakin Skywalker in Lucas’ prequel trilogy of Star Wars flicks. The legacies of Shakespeare, Kurosawa, and Lucas are forever intertwined.

Toshirô Mifune as Taketori Washizu.

The technical vision of Kurosawa as a director remains as prodigious as ever in Throne of Blood. The production design and costume design are courtesy of Yoshirô Muraki, with ornate detail to such a degree that can only be properly conveyed by the enthusiasm found in the notes I jotted in my notebook while watching the film: “THAT DETAIL ON THE SAMURAI ARMOR.” Indeed, I made it a point to write in all caps. Director of Photography Asakazu Nakai is behind the camera once again, having previously worked with Kurosawa on Stray Dog (1949), Ikiru (1952), and Seven Samurai (1954), all of which I have examined in the lead up to Throne of Blood. Certain sequences in this film – specifically those featuring the spirit/witch/prophet who is so foundational to the turbulence of the narrative – are bathed in a pale, supernatural light that serve as potent, memorable images in this black-and-white picture. Even though filming in black-and-white limits the DP to two colors, the degrees of the lighting levels have a wide range that foster a clever creativity in the cinematographer. There are more than a few frames from the film that have etched their memory into my consciousness.

Cinematography by Asakazu Nakai.

And yet, it is the character drama, human fallibility, and philosophical musings in Throne of Blood that have managed to leave the most prominent impressions as I continue to sit with this film. There is a tragic poetry to every aspect of Kurosawa’s film – and, as it goes, it opens and closes with a tragic poem. Just as this written reflection does.

“Behold, within this place

Now desolated, stood

Once a mighty fortress

Lived a proud warrior

Murdered my ambition

His spirit walking still

Vain pride, then as now, will

Lead ambition to the kill”

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