Throne of Blood (1957)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Throne of Blood
Kumonosu jo
Starring Toshiro Mifune (Taketori), Isuzu Yamada (Lady Asaji), Takashi Shimura (Odagura), Minoru Chiaki (Yoshiaki Miki), Chieko Naniwa (Ghost)
Screenplay by Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni
Cinematography by Asakazu Nakai
Music by Masaru Sato

Toho Company, 105 minutes
B&W, 1.37:1 Academy ratio
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: Criterion

Kurosawa's samurai-era adaptation of Macbeth, Throne of Blood, is hailed not only as one of the director's finest works but also as one of the best cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare ever produced – some even say it's the best. With that reputation going for it, I should absolutely love this movie. But I have to stand up against the film criticism establishment and say that Throne of Blood is my least favorite Kurosawa jidai-geki. It just doesn't do much for me.

I know that Kurosawa was going for a noh theater-style presentation with the actors instructed to give stylized performances and use their faces like rigid noh masks. But my feeling is that it doesn't work. Rather than being too experimental, I think Throne of Blood fails for not being experimental enough. Kurosawa's other Shakespeare-inspired films, Ran and (unofficially) The Bad Sleep Well, created their own identities by deviating liberally from the original plays. Throne of Blood seems too much like Shakespeare-by-numbers. Taketori (the Macbeth figure played by Toshiro Mifune) is a good guy. Lady Asaji (the Lady Macbeth figure played by Isuzu Yamada) is evil. Listening to Lady Asaji turns Taketori corrupt with ambition. They do bad things to get power. They go crazy and pay for their crimes. The end. I get no sense of emotional involvement in the procedings.

The movie is beautifully staged and filmed, but that's not enough to make me care. I wish Kurosawa had applied his immense creativity to shake up the source material more. I realize he changes up some of the finer plot points, like rearranging some of the political motivations among the characters, but the big picture is still Macbeth cut from the whole cloth. Kurosawa even sticks slavishly to the "Great Birnam Wood comes to high Dunsinane Hill" business with the walking trees. It's supposed to be an epic spectacle moment, but I just ask myself, is that all he could come up with?

I think my main problem with Throne of Blood may be that I love Ran so much. Ran was my first Kurosawa movie, and I will always treasure it as a cinematic creation unlike anything ever to come before or since. When I subsequently experienced Throne of Blood, I suppose it threatened the uniqueness of Ran by showing me a precedent for Kurosawa doing a Shakespearean epic. And for me, Throne of Blood suffers brutally under the comparison. Everything that was daring, fresh and innovative in Ran seems to be missing here. Most glaringly, Lady Kaede in Ran is a hundredfold better "Lady Macbeth" character than the uninspired Lady Asaji. I guess you could say Kurosawa retroactively spoiled Throne of Blood for me by making a superior film three decades later.

The Jidai-Geki Knights
Cinema