VOD film review: Throne of Blood
Ivan Radford | On 25, Apr 2021
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Isuzu Yamada
Where to watch Throne of Blood online in the UK: BFI Player (subscription) / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent)
“This is a wicked world. To save yourself you often first must kill.” Those are the words of Lady Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) in Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa’s riveting, masterful take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It’s not a line of dialogue that you’ll recognise from the original play, but it’s one that, rhyme and meter aside, fits in with the sentiment of the Bard’s tragedy of ambition. That faithfulness, in terms of spirit not the letter, is what makes Throne of Blood such an astonishingly successful adaptation of a familiar tale, despite the fact that it retains none of the original words whatsoever.
If Shakespeare was a genius at painting images with words, Kurosawa was a master at painting ideas through images. His Ran, based on King Lear, is stuffed with dizzying spectacle, but Throne of Blood is a masterclass in visual storytelling. From the opening, we’re lost in the woods alongside Lord Washizu (Toshiro Mifune), who is travelling with his loyal friend Miki (Minoru Chiaki) but find themselves waylaid by an all-consuming fog. In that mist of uncertainty, and labyrinth of trees, they find a witch (the three from Shakespeare’s play rolled into one), who tells the prophecy that will eventually drive Washizu to his doomed fate.
Her spinning wheel chimes with the name of the fortress the title refers to – Spider’s Web Castle – and sows into the fabric of the film the notion of cyclical existence, not only of life and death but also of greed and suffering. Also fused into the events are the traditions of Noh theatre, from the way Lady Asaji moves to the mask-like make-up, which expressively taps into the nature of each character.
The cast are wonderful, from Isuzu Yamada’s calculating wife who carries an intense air to Mifune’s brooding male warrior. Together, they’re electric, and Kurosawa neatly captures the way that Asaji’s encouragement insidiously seeps into Washizu’s mindset – while the camera looks at his changing face, her voice comes off-screen almost like an inner monologue.
Throughout, Kurosawa effectively juxtaposes stillness and movement, echoed by the lighting of the interiors with their dark corners ready to engulf the people within. That climaxes with the rush of the finale after a slow-paced build-up, which sees the forest come to Spider’s Web Castle. As the soldiers advance upon Washizu’s stronghold using foliage as disguise, the wood of the introduction once again surrounds Mifune’s warlord, who gets a jaw-dropping send-off that would go on to inspire the fate of Boromir in The Lord of the Rings. The result is a seminal piece of Japanese cinema and one of the most distinctive adaptations of the Bard’s work to date.
Throne of Blood is available now on BFI Player, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription.