Shakespeare adaptations are a dime a dozen in film history. Most of them remain faithful to Shakespeare’s text as well as his stories while presenting their own visions of his plays. Some stick close to the bare-bones presentations of the original performances, focusing almost entirely on the performances of the actors (Olivier’s Hamlet), some turn his work into lavish period epics (Branagh’s Hamlet), some even have them take place in a contemporary setting while staying faithful to the text (Romeo + Juliet).
However, I always appreciated films that were inspired by the Bard’s work without utilizing his text word-by-word and took chances with the content while staying true to the overall mood and context of the stories. That might be why my favorite version of Romeo & Juliet is still West Side Story and the veritable Emperor of Cinema, Akira Kurosawa, offers my favorite adaptations of King Lear and Macbeth.
With his 1985 masterpiece Ran, Kurosawa offered a colorful, grand, downright operatic historical epic that was heavily inspired by King Lear. Almost three decades before Ran, when it came time to adapt his favorite play Macbeth, Kurosawa drew from the Noh theater for inspiration. An ancient Japanese style of theater, Noh focuses more on mood and tone than story and exposition.
Noh plays usually depict historical tragedies, perfect for Macbeth, as the actors perform wearing masks with exaggerated expressions while a minimalistic score plays in the background. Since the actors cannot emote with their faces, they have to rely on body language to express the painful or confusing situations the characters go through, ending up with a jarring and haunting look, which is the point to begin with.
Kurosawa used some elements of Noh theater in his work previous to Throne of Blood, but his version of The Scottish Play is the first time he heavily relied on this style in order to fully capture the main character’s inevitable doom and descent into hell via his own ego and misguidance.
If you’ve ever read or seen a version of the play or any of the numerous film adaptations, you should already be familiar with the story. Washizu (Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune), a fierce warrior during the Japanese Civil War period, gets a premonition from a mysterious spirit in the forest that he will one day become the ruler of all the land, if he can keep his enemies, present and upcoming, in check. Emboldened by the premonition and goaded by his power-hungry wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), Washizu decides to lay waste to his supposed allies in order to become the ultimate ruler. Slowly but surely he begins to realize that the more power he gains, the more he will worry about losing it and therefore will eventually seal his own doom.
Staying true to the Noh style, Kurosawa focuses more on tone and mood than dialogue. The very little amount of dialogue in the piece works as almost a cliff’s notes version of Shakespeare’s play, only appearing to communicate vital plot exposition and emotions that could not be relayed through the silent body language performances alone. Otherwise, the emotional states of the characters are conveyed mostly through long, silent scenes that rely on the performances, as well as the somber art design and haunting cinematography.
Consider a famous scene from Macbeth: After Macbeth kills Duncan, he expresses his immense guilt to Lady Macbeth, who basically orders him to suck it up and act like a leader. It’s a long scene full of dialogue expressing the inner workings of the characters. Kurosawa’s version of this scene is completely devoid of dialogue. He knows that all we need to see at that point is the shock on Washizu’s face and the blood on his hands. This is the best version of that scene that I’ve ever seen.
During production, Kurosawa asked the actors to pretend they had Noh masks on while delivering their performances, meaning they would mostly have to hold onto a single facial expression during entire scenes, forcing them to use their body language in order to show the depth of the character.
You can see this approach work perfectly via Yamada’s performance. Her version of the manipulative Lady Macbeth takes on a much more haunting and almost inhuman attitude, as if she’s another demon who’s hell-bent on sealing Washizu’s tragic fate. I may be wrong, but I don’t think she even blinks once during her entire performance.
Mifune, on the other hand, reminds me more of his paranoid, scared old man from Kurosawa’s underrated I Live in Fear than his more lively and boisterous Jidaigeki (Japenese period film) performances from Seven Samurai or Rashomon. His version of the Macbeth character is not one who enjoys his newfound powers for a single second but is constantly consumed by his inevitable fate, as if he’s more of a spectator to his own downfall than a participant in it.
The stark black-and-white photography and art direction full of fog and darkness presents a bleak and distressing mood that smothers the characters, almost as if they are already in hell. The harrowing tone is present throughout the film. Even the three witches, which can appear somewhat goofy depending on the performance, are replaced by a white-faced demon hypnotically spinning a wheel, talking with a deep voice that sounds like it’s emanating from the very depths of hell. I wouldn’t be surprised if David Lynch was inspired by the demon scenes for the dream sequences in Twin Peaks.
Throne of Blood is especially recommended to fans of Shakespeare and Kurosawa, it’s one of the most daring and creative filmed adaptations of any play. It's available now on Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection.