Review: Throne of Blood

Set in Feudal Japan, Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and best friend Miki (Minoru Chiaki) are captains and warriors who have just waged and won a battle for their Lord. Through thick fog and forest on their way home, they seem to get lost. They eventually stumble upon a cackling spirit who prophesises that Washizu will be bestowed by his Lord the North Castle, and will eventually ascend to being Lord of Cobweb Castle, but that his reign will be short-lived and he will be overthrown by Miki’s own son (who will grow up to be played by Akira Kubo). Indeed, when they do eventually find their way out of the forest, the first part of the prophecy proves true. When an amazed but guilt-ridden Washizu informs his wife (Isuzu Yamada) of the prophecy, the poison-tongued lady manipulates her husband into killing the Lord so that the next part of the prophecy can come to fruition and Washizu to take North Castle. But what of that other part of the prophecy?

My favourite Akira Kurosawa film (followed by the very fine “Sanjuro” and “Yojimbo”), this 1957 film is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and is probably my favourite version of that tale too (Not that it’s anywhere near my favourite Shakespeare play. The Roman Polanski version is particularly awful). It’s a shame that Kurosawa and cinematographer Asakazu Nakai (“The Seven Samurai”, “Ran”) didn’t opt for widescreen here, because this story really does deserve an epic look to go along with the Shakespearean drama. Amazingly, the film still manages to look superb, if somewhat more compact and boxed-in than it should’ve been. The costuming, scenery, lighting are all par excellence. Early on in particular, there’s some great foggy atmosphere/scenery in what is a pretty fantastical, almost horror opening. It’s a great opening section, actually that whilst obviously very “Macbeth”, is also somewhat reminiscent of a Samurai version of Sir Galahad’s quest for the Holy Grail. There’s some truly creepy, inescapable dread here with the heavy armour, thick fog, and a forest that seems confusingly maze-like. It’s some of the best use of fog I’ve seen in cinema, it looks nearly impenetrable. The use of rain, fog, and natural light is excellent throughout.

The film also boasts my favourite Toshiro Mifune performance, he’s truly ferocious and masculine early on, but as madness and crippling guilt start to seep in, the brooding Mifune goes to another level I hadn’t seen from him as an actor. His tormented stare sears through the screen even more so than usual. It’s a wonderfully dark performance from a movie star who also happened to be a strong actor, who usually played more heroic roles than this. He plays the madness and turmoil for all it’s worth, hell you even manage to have a tinge of sympathy for him, and I don’t normally sympathise with Macbeth. Isuzu Yamada is pretty good too as his Lady Macbeth, though I wished young Akira Kubo (star of several 60s-era “Godzilla” films) had more scenes as the predestined heir to the throne who will be Mifune’s demise.

It’s amazing how well ‘The Scottish play’ has translated to Feudal Japan. It’s the perfect fit, seemingly. A haunted, conflicted performance from Toshiro Mifune and some thick atmosphere take this adaptation of The Bard’s ‘Scottish play’ to the next level. Despite the camera’s narrow scope, the film has some really stunning imagery. Must-see for any movie lover, I just think a grand tragedy like this demands a grand visual scale. It does one hell of a grand title, though. The screenplay is by Kurosawa and frequent collaborators Shinobu Hashimoto (“The Bad Sleep Well”, “The Hidden Fortress”), Ryuzo Kikushima (“The Hidden Fortress”, “Sanjuro”), and Hideo Oguni (“The Hidden Fortress”, “Sanjuro”).

Rating: B


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