The fourth film in my Akira Kurosawa Laptop Film Festival was his liberal take of Macbeth, The Throne of Blood, from 1957. It was his first of three such creative cross-cultural adaptations of Shakespeare (1960’s The Bad Sleep Well was Hamlet via corporate Japan, and 1985’s Ran, his Warlord Lear), which at the time of its release in the US–that’d be 1961–was not, shall we say, fully appreciated.
Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called it an “amusing… horse-opera.” “And the sound-track is interestingly filled with all sorts of harsh and eerie noises,” he goes on. “You should be strangely stimulated and have some fun at this film.”
Other American cineastes were equally dismissive.
And today the film is widely regarded as a masterpiece. Go figure.
I think it’s actually hard for today’s cineastes to understand why it was not regarded as a masterpiece in the first place (to be fair, there was a voice in the wilderness way back in 1961–Time Magazine called it “quite the most brilliant and original attempt ever made to put Shakespeare in pictures”), but there were intense cultural and historical factors at play. (There was a fascinating article about all of this in a recent issue of Literature/Film Quarterly.)
Thankfully, as the Time review noted, “Kurosawa’s Shakespeare … involves more Kurosawa than Shakespeare.” I concur, not because I have anything against Shakespeare (quite the contrary–although I should say here that I don’t believe that “Shakespeare” was Shakespeare at all–I am, and will always be, a fervent Oxfordian, I’m afraid), it’s because a reverence for the letter and the word of the original in this case would have smothered its spirit.
So many Shakespeare adaptations are either zombified versions of the originals, or desperately hip, self-consciously slangified new takes on the language. The former often err on the side of reverence and lose out on the fun, and the latter end up feeling more dated by the time they’re out on DVD than the originals, seemingly defeating their purpose altogether.
Kurosawa makes no attempt to do anything at all with the language of Shakespeare. The Throne of Blood is not a chatty film–although the chattiest scenes, where Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), the wife of Kurosawa’s Macbeth, Washizu (Toshirō Mifune), convinces him to slay his rivals, are mesmerizing, and fiercely incisive. And they’re mercifully short. Kurosawa knows when less is more.
And he’s clearly of the a-picture’s-worth-a-thousand-words school here (he’s not always–Ikiru, while a lovely, often moving film, got way too talky for my taste toward the end)–and his fearlessness with his visuals is never more glorious to behold. He breaks it down for us to where the Shakespeare’s telepathic. He takes the transcendent bits right out and feeds them to your brain through your eyeballs.
The scenes in the fog are masterful. In a film about destiny and time, fog’s a good metaphor.
Here, the two tribal chiefs (played by Toshirō Mifune and Minoru Chiaki) have just had their destiny laid out before them in plain language by a spirit in the wood. They gallop off to meet it, but immediately get lost in the fog. It’s a simple but powerful device that works beautifully here. Because we know Washizu can’t escape his fate, watching him gallop back and forth through the fog is comic and poignant at once. He has no idea where he’s going, but he will get there regardless which way he goes.
Kurosawa is the master of this language, of these simple, sharp, bold-stroked renderings of the complex and contradictory in us and in life. His uncanny ability to find the visual to communicate it is as impressive in its way as Shakespeare’s unrivaled ability to pun–packing multiple, contradictory meanings and emotions into a word or phrase that is employed with pin-point precision in the service of the plot.
Of course, the star is once again Toshirō Mifune, and he is given what has got to be one of the top ten death scenes in all of film history here. And like so much of Kurosawa, for me at least, the scene where Washizu’s destiny is fulfilled is overflowing with contradictory emotions engendered by the possibilities of the medium itself.
In the famous scene, Toshirō is shot so full of arrows that, in Crowther’s words, “he looks like a porcupine.”
And the reviewer is right that it is “a pictorial extravagance that provides a conclusive howl.” It is a marvelous, audacious move. The money shot. I mean, Kurosawa didn’t hire a ham like Toshirō Mifune for nothin’. He was saving it up for this scene.
Is it a howl? Absolutely. And a pitch-perfect one at that. Comic and tragic, we watch with a mixture of admiration and pity, awe and incredulity, I-told-you-so glee and heartbreak that the old witch was right. The kernel of the humanity in Washizu is still there in the frantic clown suffering the arrows of his own outrageous fortune.
And like the ending of all tragedies it is both final punishment and reward.