Throne of Blood
At the Brattle through Saturday
Though "based on" Macbeth, Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood retains only the psychology and basic plot. Gone is the poetry (at least for someone following the subtitles, which frequently achieve complete unintelligibility) and the primitive Scottish setting (replaced by medieval Japan, with its ritual, mounted warriors, and fog-shrouded plains). Throne of Blood--the only other title that the distributors came up with was the equally unhappy Castle of the Spider's Web--may well be closer to a redramatization of Holinshed than an adaptation of Shakespeare. But it is, however classified, a stunningly effective work of art.
Made in 1957, this samurai Macbeth offers new insights into character and motivation as well as preserving the wild atmosphere of the original. When Macbeth returns from murdering the King, Lady Macbeth must pry his clenched fingers off the bloody spear--and it is with such moments that Kurosawa shows the eloquence of simple action. The classic scenes and images neither fall flat nor stick out as irrelevant set-pieces. The haggish forest spirit who replaces the Weird Sisters is as eery as they, with her boomy, slowed-down voice. Macduff's advancing army, seen through Fuji's mists, really does seem like a forest on the march.
But the film's major virtues are Kurosawa's, not Shakespeare's. Even with a normal-size screen, the camera, rarely moving in for a close-up or even a medium shot, tracks and frames the characters for a succession of strikingly beautiful compositions. And Kurosawa's time dilation--Macbeth and Banquo galloping endlessly in and out of the fog, or Duncan's pallbearers marching heavily up to the gates of his castle--shows the power that Hollywood in catering to the shortest common attention span, has sacrificed.
Throughout the film (his 17th), Kurosawa took liberties with the Shakespearen plot--Macduff hardly matters, and his wife and children don't exist at all--but it is at the climax that he deviates most widely and most successfully. The minutes during which Macbeth is killed are literally the most terrible I can recall on the screen. Japanese directors seem peculiarly able to treat extremes of violence, neither leering nor covering up the gore. In Throne of Blood, as in Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain or Kobayashi's Harakiri, the violence leaves one shaken and, in something close to the Aristotelian sense, purged.