Throne of Blood (1957) | The Criterion Collection
Throne of Blood – 1957

Director Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryūzō Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni based on MacBeth by William Shakespeare
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Takashi Shimura, Akira Kubo, Hiroshi Tachikawa, Minoru Chiaki, Takamaru Sasaki, Chieko Naniwa

Akira Kurosawa built some one of the most fascinating set pieces; a castle at the foot of Mount Fuji. It stands as a stark masterpiece, enveloped within the fog and wind. It’s a testament to the grace and beauty of his recreation of one of the most painful of lessons: untamed ambition will take down everyone in its path.

The story is a powerful take on Shakespeare’s MacBeth. Ironically, it is more understandable in re-written Japanese than Bill’s slang-ridden English of old. His incorporation of the journey of young Taketoki (Mifune) from faithful servant of the Emperor to the leader of the kingdom. All of this is achieved at the prophecy of a wicked spirit of The Spider’s Web. It’s fate pushed to truth by desire that is unchecked, and only propelled.

Mifune is at his unquestioned best here. He is both victim and perpetrator of devious acts hatched by the words of his wife Asaji, played hauntingly by Yamada. We know this kind of relationship. One marries someone who has their back, yet serves as an extension of their soul.

Each turn of the prophesy is suggested by Taketoki’s Lady MacBeth. We understand he has no hesitation playing it out, despite his look of disbelief and words of protest. She forces him to do nothing. She merely is a manifestation of his inner desire.

The two leads are fantastic. They propel the film through what feels like a scant 1:49 running time. There is never a dull moment, even though much of the action is intrigue. In particular the plotting and killing of the Emperor with the three guards is a lesson in skillful movie making. The whisping of Asaji’s shoes into the dark and then back out, with the sake with which she plans to drug the watchers. It’s done with a devious solemnity that is hard to shake. Even days after viewing, I still hear her footsteps.

In fact, sound and vision are the two best things going for Kurosawa in Throne of Blood. Assisted by the strength of cinematographer Asakazu Nakai, his use of black and white in an age where many of his contemporaries switched to color reaps its best rewards here. The visuals are all so compelling and strike right at the soul.

The sound of wind, desperation and haunting music of Masaru Soto is never less than heart stirring. The screeching agony of the two leads as they plot, execute and then roil in the unintended consequences of their decisions is sublime.

This film inhabits the soul. It often feels like we’re trapped right there with Taketoki and Asaji, wishing for a way out. We know that neither deserve their fate.

The last act is an acting masterpiece for Mifune. It is truly the best work he’s ever done. If anything, this shows how unfair it was to have ever been compared to John Wayne. The Duke was never capable of this kind of passion, rage and remorse all in one film. Not even in The Searchers. Toshiro’s final scene, with real arrows shot by archers, is brave as anything done by Tom Cruise.

It’s hard to list Kurosawa’s films in terms of greatness. Ranking is almost impossible. At this point in my journey, it’s hard to imagine not watching all of them with eager anticipation for the lessons learned. This work, must rank among his best. I will probably say this a few more times before I have seen his entire catalogue. He is truly one of the greats.

This is a work that must be experienced.

(***** out of *****)

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