Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time, only for the page to flip over again, and start anew. In other words: happy new year, everyone!
Our film club kicks off this year with Akira Kurosawa’s Macbeth adaptation Throne of Blood. Hence also the Shakespeare bastardisation above. I do apologise.
The last two films that we watched, Ikiru (Kurosawa) and Biutiful (Iñárritu), featured protagonists whose fates were largely sealed. Those protagonists tried to make something out of their situation, one more successfully than the other. Kurosawa’s 1957 film Throne of Blood operates under a fairly similar premise. But while Ikiru was an inspirational tale, Throne of Blood could well be described as its cautionary counterpart. Strive to be more like Watanabe, less like Washizu.
If it’s even possible at all, that is.
Based on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Throne of Blood transports the Scottish play into medieval Japan. Kurosawa’s film keeps the original storyline fairly intact but takes liberties in language, presentation and perhaps also core message. With its aggressively cinematic form, the film replaces Shakespeare’s poetry with something like its visual counterpart. With its dynamism, it is far removed from the often stale stage-to-screen adaptations that plague the history of Shakespeare adaptations. And yet, the film also embraces theatre, just not that of Shakespeare’s tradition, but instead the heritage of Japanese Noh.
Kurosawa had wanted to make his Macbeth adaptation as early as the mid-40s, but had decided to put the idea on hold when Orson Welles released his version in 1948. A decade later, he returned to the project.
Pre-production of the film started in early 1956, a few months after Kurosawa’s previous film I Live in Fear had been released. Shooting began on June 29 and ran, apparently fairly undisturbed, until the end of the year. A quick post-production typical of Kurosawa followed and the film was released on January 15, 1957 with the title 蜘蛛巣城 / Kumonosu-jō, or “Spider Web Castle”. The general reception to it was mixed, or at least a little quiet for a Kurosawa film at the time. In Japan, Throne of Blood was neither a box-office hit nor a critical darling. It “only” managed a shared fourth place in Kinema Junpo’s annual list of best Japanese films. (Galbraith, 230-239)
The critical reception abroad was more immediate, however. Throne of Blood was quickly recognised as an important cinematic statement and cemented Kurosawa’s place as a auteur filmmaker for many. Because of its Shakespeare connection, and the fact that it has generally been considered one of the most successful film adaptations of the bard’s works, Throne of Blood has continued to attract a fair amount of interest also from writers outside of the typical Kurosawa circle. It is one of Kurosawa’S most thoroughly dissected films.
In purely technical terms, Throne of Blood may well be Kurosawa’s most perfect film, the one where just about everything works like clockwork, seamlessly together. Its influences go beyond Shakespeare and Noh theatre, and the film is recognised as particularly indebted to the cinema of Kenji Mizoguchi, with the distant, alienating camera and the film’s use of chorus as a narrative device often mentioned as particularly Mizoguchian. As for its themes, at the forefront we have ritual, fate and predestination, as well as the film’s message of a man struggling to free himself from his fate. It is a theme both universal as well as understandably contemporary for post-war Japan.
There is much more to be said about the film than the most commonly discussed aspects that I have outlined here. We too have naturally discussed Throne of Blood before, on numerous occasions, with some of the topics available here.
Information about the film’s home video availability can be found in the Kurosawa DVDs and Kurosawa Blu-rays sections, which admittedly need some updating (albeit the Throne of Blood information should be up-to-date). In many countries, Throne of Blood is also available through streaming services: check your local Google Play, iTunes and Amazon Prime services.
In February, we are going to pair Throne of Blood with Ralph Fiennes’s directorial debut, the 2011 Shakespeare adaptation Coriolanus. It should also be readily available for you: check out your local Google Play store, iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, and other places. It is of course also available in physical form: check out Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.