Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

#27. Throne of Blood [Macbeth] (1957)

When your humble rogue reviewed Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, he asked if an adaptation of Shakespeare can be meaningfully Shakespearean if the language is changed from English to Japanese, without the sense of the screenplay even trying to translate the poetry and psychological trains of thought in the original texts of the plays.

Throne of Blood poster

Imagine: No “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy.

Imagine: No porter.

In the hands of a master filmmaker like Kurosawa, the story becomes a beautiful hybrid, with enough of Shakespeare’s ideas and grand sweeps of story and psychology that the question of how Shakespearean the movie is seems like a petty concern. One could ask the same question of garbage like Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet that actually does use the original text, and readily conclude that the result is not Shakespearean.

But we are talking this time about Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, or Spiderweb Castle. I mean, a Scottish title for this movie wouldn’t work. Nor do leaders of feudal Japan use thrones, and the title Blood would have been weird.

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The movie really isn’t that complicated.

This movie stars the sublime Toshirô Mifune, who is, quite simply, the shit.

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Throne of Blood features a single taunting Japanese ghost in lieu of the three weird sisters, which simultaneously surprises us with this originality as an adaptation, plus makes the weirdness more vivid since we are not watching for the nuance of how the set pieces with the weird sisters will play out. The ghost, a trickster who appears in the fog in a cage, may or may not be boilerplate Japanese mythology, but his behavior is erratic enough that it persuades me that our Macbeth figure, (1) should not be listening to him and (2) is not being lured to his doom by his own dick. What a relief.

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The setting is, mostly, a fortress by the mazelike Spiderweb Forest, which is likely to be enshrouded by fog. There is a lot of fog in this black and white masterpiece.

Throne of Blood meets my primary requirements for a Macbeth—it’s under 2 hours, and finds some authenticity in the crazy.

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Because Kurosawa isn’t translating the Shakespeare, we get to hear our hero give a rousing speech to his troops before the final battle. But Kurosawa also undercuts the traditional sense of glory of such a speech by never quite having that final battle, and when the forest appears to march to the fortress, a la the ghost’s prognostication, his own troops kill him with fusillade after fusillade of arrows, in an assassination scene to rival Sonny’s murder in The Godfather.

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Toshirô Mifune isn’t going down without a fight, after all.

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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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