Throne of Blood (“Kumonosu-jô”)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Toho Studios/Kurosawa Production Company
#320 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
IMDb users say 8.1/10; I say 9/10
Kurasawa’s stylized Noh-inspired adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth has always seemed to me somehow the most “foreign” of his films. The images are so beautiful that I can come back again and again despite the somewhat distancing acting and pacing.
The story takes place in 14th Century Japan. The great Toshiro Mifune plays Washizu, the Macbeth counterpart, with full-throttle bravado, exaggerating each emotion in what I assume is the best Noh style. Washizu and Miki, the Banquo counterpart, are returning to Spider’s Web Castle after victory in battle when they encounter an evil spirit in the forest. The spirit predicts that Washizu will be named master of the North Garrison that day and later will become Lord of the Castle. She predicts that Miki will now be named commander of the First Fortress and that his son will later be Lord of the Castle. The scene with the spirit is particularly creepy and effective.
Washizu and Miki are astonished when the Lord of the Castle appoints them to the positions predicted by the spirit. Not content to let fate take its course, Washizu’s cold and cruel wife Asaji, brilliantly played by Isuzu Yamamoto, spurs her husband on to murder the current Lord. The couple plots to frame a courtier named Noriyasu (Takashi Shimura) but fool almost no one. The childless Washizu has a final opportunity to claim the Lordship and salvage the situation by naming Miki’s son as his heir but this too is foiled by Asaji’s announcement that she is pregnant.
Wasaji’s doom is sealed when he is convinced to murder his former friend Miki and his son. Mifune’s horrified reaction to the vision of Miki’s ghost is unforgettable. Wasaji’s hired man lets Miki’s son escape and the son and Noriyasu join forces with the castle’s enemies against Wasaji. In the meantime, Asaji’s baby is stillborn and she goes mad from guilt over the murders.
By this time, Wasaji’s own men are losing faith in their commander. Wasaji goes back to the forest to consult the evil spirit. The spirit advises that he cannot be defeated until the trees of the forest advance on Spider Web Castle. Various warrior spirits appear to admonish Wasaji about the toll in blood his rise has cost. Wasaji rallies his worried men by telling them about this latest prediction. But when they see Noriyasu’s troops advancing on the castle under a protective cover of trees, Wasaji’s troops turn on him, killing him in a hail of arrows.
The end of Throne of Blood is one of the most spectacular in film history. The images of the huge trees moving through the fog and Mifune staggering, terrified, as one arrow after another pierces his body are mind-blowing.
The commentary on the Criterion DVD says that this is a film about fate. I see it more as a film about human nature. Nothing about the prediction said that Wasaji had to use bloodshed to ascend to the throne. It was his own ambition and hubris that spelled his doom. Perhaps that is the way evil spirits get the better of us all.
Japanese trailer (with subtitles)