1957: When Akira Kurosawa's 'Throne of Blood' Was Ahead of Its Time

Throne of Blood 1957 - Still - Isuzu Yamada - H 2016
Toho Pictures/Photofest

In Japan, the filmmaker was accused at the time of being stuck in the past.

As part of a showcase trio of film interpretations of Macbeth to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the Hong Kong International Film Festival is screening Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.

The 1957 production substituted the 16th century Sengoku (Warring States) era of Japan for 11th century Scotland, reworked much of the storyline and made no attempt to translate the original dialogue. Lord Macbeth became samurai General Washizu, played by Kurosawa’s favorite leading man Toshiro Mifune in a memorably intense performance.

The central themes of loyalty, betrayal, tragedy and superstition that define the original play remained intact in what has been latterly hailed as one of the finest celluloid renderings of the Bard’s work. However, much of the praise lavished on Throne of Blood came in recent decades.

In Japan, Kurosawa was accused at the time of being stuck in the past for his heavy use of techniques from Noh, a theatrical tradition that predates Shakespeare by a few centuries. Meanwhile, a 1961 New York Times review dismissed the film as “serio-comic” and “a pictorial extravagance that provides a conclusive howl.”

Titled Kumonosu Jo, literally Castle of the Spider’s Web, in Japan, it was one of a trilogy of Kurosawa films loosely based on Shakespeare plays: The Bad Sleep Well (1965) was a reimagining of Hamlet and also starred Mifune, while 1985’s Ran borrowed heavily from King Lear. As in a number of Kurosawa films, the elements become almost a protagonist in the story of Throne of Blood.

Mifune’s Washizu and General Odagura — played by the prolific Takashi Shimura, who appeared in 21 Kurosawa films — get lost while riding in thick fog back to their castle. The fog then clears to reveals the castle, an allegorical reference to the clarity of vision Washizu acquires after meeting the witch who foretells his destiny.

Where most directors would have simply used artificial smoke for the scene, the famously perfectionist Kurosawa waited for days with his crew high on Mt. Fuji, where the castle set was built, for fog to envelop the slopes and then lift. Kurosawa’s insistence on realism was demonstrated even more dramatically in the climactic scene of Washizu’s betrayal.

The volley of arrows that rain down on the samurai included real shafts shot by expert archers. Mifune’s frantic arm waves at the arrows stuck in the wood around him also signaled to the archers which way he would move next: a safety measure concocted to reduce the probability of him being skewered for real.