Of all of Akira Kurosawa’s jidaigeki films, Throne of Blood (1957) holds a unique place in his film canon. While it is certainly not the most famous, Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954) are constantly vying against each other for that honor, Kurosawa’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is something that is exceedingly rare in cinema, both when the film came out and even now. It is a Shakespeare adaptation that actually works as a film.
But to say that the film works is something of an ambiguous claim. Indeed, the film is unique in that it is less of a direct adaptation of the famed play, and more of an adaptation of the themes and characters that the play presents. Toshirô Mifune’s Washizu is the titular character of the play, and it is a fortress known as Spider’s Web Castle that he seeks to rule, not Scotland. The film is set during Japan’s feudal period, and the main characters are all samurai warriors engaged in a bloody border conflict. It is because of these elements, not in spite of, that the film succeeds. The film, being made and set in Japan, does not even sound like a typical Shakespeare play partially because all of the dialogue is in Japanese. However, those who have watched other Kurosawa films will note that the dialogue of Throne of Blood is much more theatre-inspired than many of the director’s other works.
This is the first hint that something is truly different about Throne of Blood. While most of the characters in Kurosawa films, including his jidaigeki films, speak like you might hear an everyday person actually speak, the characters of Throne of Blood speak like they are in a play. The dialogue is far from a direct translation of Macbeth, but it is clearly drawn from the theatre. The dialogue is not the only way that the film’s characters convey what needs to be said. Kurosawa is able to tell the viewer much about each of the characters by simply giving his actors masks. These are not literal masks as one might picture, but rather the principle actors’ faces are meant to resemble the masks typical of the Japanese Noh theatre. Washizu holds his face in an almost permanent scowl, reminiscent of the warrior mask. His wife, Lady Asaji, bears makeup that transforms her face into a living embodiment of the mask meant to resemble a middle-aged woman, called the fukai or shakumi mask. Her mask later changes as she suffers more and more tragedy and slowly goes insane. Washizu, on the other hand, is a warrior to his bloody end.
Through these means Kurosawa has succeeded in making the film his own. Once all the pieces have come together, Throne of Blood can only said to be an adaptation of Macbeth in the loosest sense of the word. The character archetypes are there, as are the relative circumstances that motivate their actions, but in the end the film is different enough from its source material that it cannot, and perhaps should not, be fairly called an adaptation. So the question arises: how should Throne of Blood be viewed? Should it be viewed as a Shakespeare adaptation even if doing so would betray much of what makes the film unique? Should it be viewed simply as a Kurosawa film even though this would ultimately not allow the full scope of all the of elements present in the film to be properly appreciated. The proper answer is likely neither of these. The most appropriate way to view and judge the film is simply as a film. This is not to say that all of the influences present in Throne of Blood should be discounted, quite the opposite in fact, but rather they should be appreciated as pieces of a whole, each equal in their own way. Kurosawa has indeed incorporated Shakespeare, but he has also incorporated Noh theatre, Japanese history, and a variety of other features that have made this film much more than a simple adaptation of an English play. Throne of Blood is its own film in the end, and it would be neglectful to judge it any other way.