When I made my most recent top ten movies list, I casually described Akira Kurosawa as the greatest filmmaker who ever lived. Which is ultimately something of a silly title – artists can and do use the medium for a variety of different, incommensurable ends. Even within the sphere of classic Japanese cinema of the 1950s and 60s, Kurosawa and someone like Yasujiro Ozu are so different that attempting to rank them is pointless.
But when it comes to movies as a crowd-pleasing, populist medium, I don’t think anyone did it as well, with as much formal perfection and intelligence, and with as much range as Kurosawa. To the extent that he was influenced by Hollywood, he typically improved upon it, such that it was only natural that Hollywood would then turn towards him for inspiration. Only he could have pulled off a movie like Spider’s Web Castle, better known in the west as Throne of Blood.
The premise is well known: it’s Shakespeare’s Macbeth recast in feudal Japan. General Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) is returning from having successfully put down a rebellion against the Lord of Spider’s Web Castle when he encounters a spirit which predicts his promotion in rank and eventual ascension to the throne. After the first part of the prophecy comes true, Washizu is egged on by his wife, Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) into bringing about the rest of its fulfilment by murdering the lord. This sets in motion an escalating wave of violence and paranoia that brings Washizu to power before eventually destroying him.
Much of Throne of Blood’s power comes from its stubborn refusal to settle into being a normal costume drama. Famously, Kurosawa incorporated stylistic elements of Japanese Noh theatre, a subject which I have no real qualifications to speak about, but which has as a principle aspect the expression of emotion through highly stylized movement and dance. Aside from giving the movie a more mythic and, well, theatrical feel, it speaks to the way Shakespeare has been adapted more fundamentally than the mere change in setting: the locus has shifted from dialogue to kineticism and action. Throne of Blood is very much a study in motion, and how motion is cinematically framed, calling attention to this by using forms of movement which seem very un-cinematic.
This is accentuated by the editing, which frequently stretches in weird ways. An early sequence, for instance, in which characters become lost in a fog, feels disconcertingly like the movie has gotten stuck into a loop: we have a whole bunch of shots of the same action repeating itself, with variations in angle and movement, which evokes the disorientation of being lost. It’s part of a general motif throughout, where the narrative seems to slow down or stop so that a particular mood can be held or developed, sometimes to the point of being unbearable.
For all that, the movie never feels difficult or impenetrable; Kurosawa’s command over classical movie language is such that you’re already sucked in before you realize that things are getting weird. The effect of its stylistic extremes actually pushes the movie into a tonal register more akin to a horror movie than a drama – a sense of palpable dread and creeping terror hangs over the whole affair. Certainly some of this comes from the source material’s phantasmagorical leanings, but Throne of Blood pushes things over the edge through its own formal weirdness and grandiose gestures. It has a style that feels as shocking as the contents of Shakespeare’s play.
All this is abetted by Mifune, who was one of the most intense people to ever step in front of a camera, and who pretty much looks consistently on the verge of explosion. He’s equally matched by Yamada’s marriage of gracefulness and calculating inhumanity (and there are, of course, the moments where everything is quiet except for the sound of her gown sweeping along the floor, and it’s just the most sinister sounding thing).
Anyway, it’s an incredibly unique and powerful movie, only really comparable to Kurosawa’s other Shakespeare adaptation, but that’ll be for another day.