Throne of Blood
Throne of Blood
After securing a major victory on the battlefield, Taketoti Washizu and one of his commanders, Yoshiaki Miki, find themselves lost in the maze-like Spider's Web forest. They come across a spirit-like seer who tells them of their future: both have been promoted because of their victory that day; Washizu will someday be the Great Lord of the Spider's Web castle while Miki's son will someday rule as Great Lord as well. When they arrive at the castle, they learn that the first part of the prophecy is correct. Washizu has no desire to become Great Lord but his ambitious wife urges him to reconsider. When the current Great Lord makes a surprise visit to his garrison outpost, Washizu is again promoted to commander of his vanguard but his wife reminds him of the danger that comes with the position. As pressure mounts, Wahizu takes action leading to its inevitable conclusion.
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Best Shakespeare on Film
As most people know, this is Shakespeare's Macbeth rendered by Kurosawa into Noh format for cinema. Not for nothing is Akira Kurosawa regarded as Japan's greatest director, for this is the best cinematic version of any Shakespeare play (and also one of Kurosawa's best films). Kurosawa had the advantage of working in a different language (Japanese), so he didn't have to agonize over the usual dilemma - whether to use Shakespeare's rotund oratory and blank verse (which is glorious, but goes badly on screen). Kurosawa essentially translates Shakespeare's poetry into visual images, while keeping dialogue to a minimum. He also had the good fortune of accessing two great cultures - European literature and Japanese visual art (he was originally a painter before entering cinema as a set-designer). There are many painterly images reminiscent of Ukiyo-e (e.g. Washizu full of arrows).
The Noh style of acting (like Kabuki, but more refined) seems stilted and exaggerated for the first few minutes; then you realize that is ideally suited to a story like this - more natural acting would seem out of place, as other Macbeth-movies go to prove.
The Japanese title of this film translates as "Cobweb Castle" (or Spider City) and this really should have been the title in English. The film is full of the notion of spiders spinning webs (and plots) in secret. It is worth noting that the witch (or "monster") is first seen with a ghostly spinning-wheel. This symbolizes the thread of fate, but also reflects the cobweb theme.
The story is sometimes slow-moving, but you have to realize that this is a story of insidious slow rot (hence the references to spiders and cobwebs). The decay is punctured by occasional bursts of violent action, as befits the story. The black-and-white picture adds to the creepiness, and the atmosphere is so thick that the movie works more effectively than "Ran" (Kurosawa's more polished Shakespeare-adaptation).
Macbeth is the great-granddaddy of the entire horror genre, and Kurosawa is a worthy descendant.
A Kurosawa Classic
A great deal has been made of the fact that THRONE OF BLOOD (also known as SPIDER'S WEB CASTLE) is drawn from one of Shakespeare's most celebrated plays. This is both a blessing and a curse, for while it gives western audiences a point of reference, it also invites all sorts of comparisons that viewers familiar with the Shakespeare play feel honor-bound to make--and that can get in the way of seeing the film as it is rather than what we expect it to be. And that would be a great pity, because what it is in and of itself is quite fine indeed.
The cast is a very strong ensemble, with frequent Kurosawa star Torshiro Mifune leading the film with a remarkably fine performance as the ambitious warrior Taketori Washizu. To my mind, however, the most memorable performance is offered by Isuzu Yamada as Lady Washizu--who plays the role with a demonic stillness that cracks into physical action only when she is completely sure of herself or in utter desperation. It is one of the most disturbing characterizations I have ever encountered.
As usual in any Kurosawa film, the imagery involved is extremely powerful, and the moody tone of the film quickly draws viewers in--and once ensnared there is no escape; the film holds your attention with considerable ease throughout. Even so, I would not recommend THRONE OF BLOOD to western audiences who have never seen a Kurosawa film, for it is so completely Japanese in aesthetic that some may find it hard to grasp. It is best seen after you are already familiar with both Kurosawa's work and Japanese cinema in general.
The film is available via Criterion DVD, which is quite good, with a nicely restored transfer and bonus features that include the original trailer, a choice of subtitle translations (I prefer the Hoagland translation), and a somewhat awkward but ultimately rewarding commentary track by Michael Jeck. If you're a Kurosawa fan and you've never seen THRONE OF BLOOD, this is your opportunity; if you're looking to replace an existing video with a DVD, this one is likely as good as it gets. Strongly recommended.
Gary F. Taylor aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer
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As much as I praise Mifune, it may well be Yamada who stands out in Kurosawa's version of Macbeth. Her Lady Macbeth is one of the most terrifying things I have ever seen, a forerunner to Sadako. Dressed in Noh make-up, slow moving like the world's most effective predator, unblinking, she is, without a doubt, the true lady Macbeth. She turns Mifune towards murder, and, although she is seen going mad at the end, we do not see her die. The tragedy of the tale is heightened by the fact that we are told at the start what will happen. Every shot Kurosawa composes is memorable. The arrow through the neck, the thread spinning witch in the forest, Mifune turning his back on his master, all are haunting and unforgettable. This film cannot be praised enough, and although it is not a horror movie, it puts all modern horror movies to shame with its deadly atmosphere. Great Quotes: Asaji. Every samurai longs to be the master of a castle'. 10 out of ten.