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Have you ever wondered what Macbeth would look like if William Shakespeare had been a Japanese playwright living in 17th century feudal Japan? Legendary director Akira Kurosawa pondered the exact same question and as a result created Throne of Blood (known as Kumonosu-jō or Spider-Web’s Castle in its original Japanese title). The plot is largely faithful to Shakespeare, but the characters have undergone some changes, so first I’ll list the main characters and their Shakespearean counterparts:
- Washizu/Macbeth: a loyal retainer of the Great Lord who is unexpectedly promoted to commander of the North Garrison after helping subdue a rebellion.
- Miki/Banquo: Washizu’s best friend since childhood. He also meets the Witch in Spider-Web Forest
- Lady Asaji/Lady Macbeth: Washizu’s scheming wife who continually pushes her husband to fulfill his “destiny” as laid out by the Witch.
- The Great Lord/King Duncan: Ruler of a large territory who places great trust in Washizu and Miki.
- The Witch of Spider-Web Forest/The Three Witches: Instead of three witches, Washizu and Miki meet only one, who, after singing a morbid song about how all life is connected to the corruption of death, foretells that Washizu will be promoted and shortly thereafter become Great Lord of Spider-Web’s Castle.
As I said before, the film is largely faithful to Shakespeare’s plot: After defeating a rogue lord in battle, Washizu and his friend Miki are on their way to meet the Great Lord when they come across a strange witch in the forest. The witch foretells that Washizu will shortly be named lord of the North Garrison and become ruler of Spider-Web’s Castle thereafter. Miki asks his fortune, and the witch replies that while his son will one day rule, he (Miki) will not. The friends attempt to laugh off the encounter, but when the first set of predictions come true (both are rewarded as the witch said they would be), they begin to wonder if the second prediction will also come true (because the Great Lord has a son of his own).
Behind the scene with the arrows in Throne of Blood
Washizu (to me) makes the great mistake of telling Lady Asaji about the prophecy and everything that’s happened and from that point on she can’t let it go; Washizu MUST fulfill the rest of the prophecy or he is no man at all. I have to say that Isuzu Yamada’s performance as Lady Asaji is one of the most chilling renditions of the Lady Macbeth character that I have ever seen. Part of the eeriness comes from Kurosawa instructing the actress to never blink on-camera. This gives her a not-quite-human affect and makes it like she’s wearing a mask (which is a reference to traditional Japanese theater, where the actors wore masks to denote their character). Asaji is near-sociopathic when it comes to getting what she wants, especially when she speaks of killing the Great Lord (which, as Washizu points out, would be an act of treason).
Great Lord Washizu sees Miki’s ghost at a feast
Despite Washizu’s doubts, he finally gives in and murders the Great Lord off-camera when the latter comes to stay at the garrison for a night (Asaji having convinced him that all of this is a ploy that will eventually lead to Washizu’s execution). Despite successfully becoming the next Great Lord, Washizu is far from happy. But he at least sees one happy ending for his story: his dear friend Miki will be named his heir, as will Miki’s son, since Washizu has no children to succeed him. But while Washizu is content to reign and then turn the castle over to someone else, Lady Asaji is not. In a twist specificially created by Kurosawa, the devious wife drops a bombshell on her husband:
Asaji: “I am….with child.”
The revelation that Asaji is pregnant (and she truly is, it’s not a lie) changes everything and gives Washizu a true motivation to eliminate Miki and his son from the picture. This is done, though Miki’s son escapes. At a feast later that night, Washizu sees Miki’s ghost sitting at his usual place in the hall, which terrifies the guilty lord who nearly reveals the whole truth to his entire court! I love Mifune’s performance in this scene, he is clearly wrestling with his fear and guilt and a part of him wants to badly to scream his sins in front of the world. But there’s still the child…isn’t there? Well, when the time to give birth arrives, a maid delivers the news: Asaji delivered a stillborn child, one that had been dead in the womb for some time, meaning Washizu ordered his best friend murdered for nothing. The loss of the child and the weight of her guilt combine to drive Asaji mad, and we last see her frantically trying to clean the phantom blood from her hands.
Washizu with the fatal arrow in his neck
Washizu dies just like Macbeth at the conclusion of the story, but it’s the manner of his death that I’d like to talk about. Just like in Shakespeare, Washizu receives a final prophecy from the witch: he will not be overthrown until Spider Web’s Forest marches up to the castle. Since forests can’t walk of their own accord, Washizu assumes this means he’s invincible and he tells his men as much. But then, one night, an army organized by the son of the murdered Great Lord arrives and strange noises are heard in the forest. In the morning, the soldiers keeping watch cry out in panic, for there is Spider-Web’s Forest walking up to the castle!
In actuality, the invading soldiers had chopped down the trees to 1) make it easier to reach the castle and 2) disguise how many soldiers and wagons they had with them. Seeing the prophecy come true, Washizu’s men turn on him and suddenly a few arrows are shot at the terrified lord. When he calls them out that killing the Great Lord is treason, a soldier yells back “And who killed our last lord??” Dozens of arrows pursue Washizu as he runs for his life, but every way is cut off by arrows. He’s pierced dozens of times, but he still struggles to get away until suddenly (in one of the best executed jump-cuts you’ll ever see), an arrow pierces his neck, killing him, and bringing an end to the tragedy of Washizu.
An interesting note about the final scene with the arrows: Toshiro Mifune was really being shot at by live arrows (for the most part, a few are guided by wires which can be seen if you watch for them). His frantic arm movements are actually directing the archers as to which direction they need to shoot in next. This is why Washizu looks so terrified: because Mifune is genuinely terrified!
I would also like to give a quick mention to the wonderful score composed by Masaru Sato (1928-1999), who composed music for Kurosawa’s films for over a decade. He created music that highlights both the good and bad moments in Washizu’s life, and it really adds to the quality of this film.
If you’d like to watch Throne of Blood (which I highly recommend), the Criterion Collection has a restored copy on DVD/Blu Ray. It can also be streamed via FilmStruck. If you’ve seen Throne of Blood, what did you think of it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Have a good day!
My thoughts on: Yojimbo (1961)
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