Throne of Blood

On DVD.

I missed the showing of Throne of Blood, the movie I most wanted to see at Film Forum’s ongoing Kurosawa festival, which ticked me off royally until Sean pointed out that it wasn’t as though I had lost my one and only opportunity to see it. It is, after all, available on DVD and has been for years. Oh yeah. So I rented Throne from Netflix and watched it at home. Happy ending!

Throne of Blood interested me most because it’s a reworking of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, and I love watching different people tell the same story. It could be any story—a fairy tale, a classic novel, a mythologized historical event—but Shakespeare’s plays are particularly rich for nuanced repetition. People from different generations and cultures and philosophies have returned to the plays again and again, creating countless Hamlets and Richards, countless Juliets and Portias, and the contrasts among them never stop intriguing me. (Kurosawa also adapted King Lear into the samurai epic Ran, which I hope to catch during its two-week Film Forum run in February.)

Kurosawa’s Macbeth is more fatalistic than most, and his protagonist, by extension, is marginally more sympathetic. That’s compelling on its own, but what really makes the movie work is how gloriously cinematic it is, with one perfectly orchestrated, evocative sequence after another—all the more impressive when you consider that the movie’s narrative roots are in seventeenth-century Elizabethan theater and its visual roots in fourteenth-century Japanese Noh theater. Yet there’s nothing stagy about the dynamic middle-distance shots of frantic horseback riding or the eerily fluid special effects of the witch’s entrance and exit or the agonizingly still, taut framing of Lady Asaji (Lady Macbeth) as she waits for her husband to return from his regicidal mission. Throne of Blood works as a retelling of Macbeth because it works first and foremost as a movie.

Granted, the stylized acting of Toshirô Mifune and Isuzu Yamada, as doomed Washizu and his manipulative wife Asaji, takes some getting used to. Once you settle into it, though, the performances are mesmerizing. Take that scene with Asaji as she waits for her husband to act on her wishes. She remains perfectly composed, her legs elegantly folded, her hands resting in her lap, her face a mask of propriety but for her eyes—edgy, eager, savagery not quite hidden beneath refinement—until finally, she leaps to her feet in a frenzy of nervous activity. It’s a riveting, breathless sequence. With Kurosawa as her ally, Yamada draws us into Asaji’s brooding expectation; her performance—and Mifune’s too—comprises both pointillistic detail (the subtle eye movements, the poised angle of her head) and dramatically broad brush strokes (that rapid slithering walk, her predatory leer). By the end of the movie, the character is indelible. The sound alone of her silk shoes on wood becomes nearly as foreboding as the hiss of Chigurh’s deadly cattle gun in No Country for Old Men.

The movie’s climax is a triumph of storytelling and filmmaking united. In a fascinating twist on Shakespeare, Washizu/Macbeth meets his end not in one-on-one combat with a man bent on revenge but rather with his own army turning on him, a collective judgment Kurosawa dramatizes with a deadly, protracted flurry of arrows. The scene has great thematic weight (I quite like the idea of the Macbeth character being punished not for his sins against an individual but rather for his sins against a people) as well as unforgettable visual flair, with the arrows caging Washizu and lodging in his armor before finally striking him dead. But for that final arrow through the throat, the arrows aren’t special effects. Poor Mifune, the actor, had to have the faith of William Tell’s son to endure being shot at by a whole team of archers, which makes the scene shockingly, bracingly visceral.

In fact, it’s so horrifying, carrying such an air of entrapment, that I felt more sympathy for the character than I usually do. Making the Macbeth character a pawn of fate isn’t my favorite interpretation of the play (philosophically, I object), but if you’re going to interpret it that way, Kurosawa had the right idea: this is how you do it.