About the Film: Throne of BloodBy Luke Evans
The opening shots of Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood show us a mostly barren landscape, devoid of any life or movement, save for the steady rolling of fog. These are images that Kurosawa would come back to throughout the film, and they do much to inform the goals and ideas behind this adaptation. The film moves Shakespeare’s Macbeth from 11th-century clan-led Scotland to 16th-century feudal Japan. Despite retaining the same core story as Shakespeare’s original, Kurosawa makes clear that his intention is not to produce a direct adaptation but rather to examine greed, power, and the cyclical nature of man.
Today, Kurosawa is revered as one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema. His early works became worldwide cultural touchstones, and he is credited with bringing global recognition to Japanese filmmaking, opening the doors for generations of Asian filmmakers after him. In 1957, when he made Throne of Blood, he was approaching the height of his career, which made it only natural that he would write and direct Toho Studios’ adaptation of a Shakespearean classic. Kurosawa did not actually write the film intending to direct it, but once Toho realized how expensive the film would be, they asked Kurosawa to helm it. He had already proved himself a lucrative asset for the studio, and he was nearing the end of his contract with them. The film, though not an immediate hit, would become one of the most celebrated adaptations of Shakespeare’s work.
Kurosawa was an avid Shakespeare reader, and had wanted to adapt Macbeth for some time. He had the idea in 1950 but delayed the project to avoid clashing with Orson Welles’s then-recent 1948 adaptation. He would go on to adapt Shakespeare’s works on two other occasions: The Bad Sleep Well (1960), a loose, modern adaptation of Hamlet, and Ran (1985), a sweeping period adaptation of King Lear. His success in adapting Shakespeare once led Steven Spielberg to describe Kurosawa as “the pictorial Shakespeare of our time.”
Kurosawa was a known perfectionist. He always went into filming with a firm plan, and he did not enjoy compromising on his vision. Often, he would shoot reels and reels of film and only end up using a tenth of it. The setting of Throne of Blood, for instance, was a source of disagreement between Kurosawa and art consultant Kohei Esaki. Esaki wanted a
high and towering castle, while Kurosawa wanted it squat and wide, with low ceilings to represent Washizu’s growing paranoia. As usual, Kurosawa won out, and when the set did not look quite right to him, it was dismantled and redone. Toho Studios did not argue; they had learned the hard way that Kurosawa would inevitably get his way.
Despite his auspicious profile, Kurosawa claimed that he looked at films as an ordinary man: “I simply put my feelings onto film. When I look at Japanese history—or the history of the world for that matter—what I see is how man repeats himself over and over again.” Kurosawa sought to use Throne of Blood as a medium to examine not just the history of Japan, but the history of mankind and the cycle of greed and violence that entraps us. By not only transplanting the story from medieval Scotland to feudal Japan, but also drawing heavily on Buddhist theology and imagery, Kurosawa turns this cycle into a parable that spans generations and cultures.
One significant change Kurosawa made was to the story’s inciting incident—the prophecy asserting that Macbeth (Washizu in this version) will kill and usurp his sovereign. Whereas Shakespeare’s prophecy is delivered by a trio of witches known as the Wyrd Sisters, Kurosawa’s is delivered by a single orator, a bleached old woman who Washizu and Miki identify as a forest spirit. Shakespeare’s trio evoke the forces of fate that compel the plot: there are three of them, referencing the Fates of Greek mythology, and their name (“wyrd”) is frequently used as another word for “fate.” These factors imply that they are not merely predicting the future but deciding it. Kurosawa, however, sidesteps these implications of predetermination by leaving it vague as to whether the old woman has knowledge of the future or is simply speculating. In doing so, he places the blame for the film’s events on Washizu’s shoulders and reinforces the importance of individual choice in furthering the cycle of violence.
Kurosawa also trims away many of the side characters from Shakespeare, minimizing the importance of characters other than Washizu, Asaji (Lady Macbeth), and Miki (Banquo). This downsizing leads to a major change in the film’s climax where, rather than having a final duel with Macduff, Kurosawa’s “hero” faces down an archery squad in front of his own castle. The resulting helplessness may strip Washizu of much of his gravitas, but it drives home the ease with which fortune can turn.
In classic Kurosawa fashion, this scene takes dramatic realism to an extreme. Wanting a more honest reaction from Toshiro Mifune (who plays Washizu), Kurosawa hired trained archers to fire real arrows at his lead actor. While the arrows were modified with thin needles on their tips, and Mifune wore a wooden board beneath his costume to protect himself, the scene nonetheless has become infamous for the (likely genuine) look of terror on Mifune’s face. Considering Kurosawa and Mifune’s long-standing professional relationship, one can only assume there must have been an extraordinary level of trust between them.
Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is widely considered a landmark project by both Shakespeare and film scholars. By leaning into the imagery and history of his own culture, Kurosawa creates a cultural blend that highlights not only the existing themes of Shakespeare’s work, but the larger cycle of violence that Macbeth represents. Like Macbeth before him, Washizu falls victim to his own greed and finds himself at the bottom of the ever-turning wheel of fortune. This cycle turns through medieval Scotland, Shakespearean England, feudal Japan, and continues to spin today.