Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Twelve

#12 — Throne of Blood (Akira Kurosawa, 1957)
Apparently, the official translation of the original Japanese title of Akira Kurosawa’s revisioning of Macbeth is Spider Web Castle. This isn’t purely metaphor, since the game of thrones being played in the film centers on a castle in an area termed Spider’s Web forest. Along with the worldwide English language title, Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s take on one of William Shakespeare’s paragon works is blessed with an embarrassment of cool monikers. Of course, since this is one of the true masters of cinema grappling with one of the greatest dramas in history, the title card represents the least of the film’s accomplishments.

Among the many other superlatives that can be affixed to Kurosawa, he was one cinema’s foremost interpreters of Shakespeare, at least on a par with the likes of Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles. That’s largely because he was indeed an interpreter, scraping away at the core humanity of the plays he took on, finding the universal truth that could be transposed from the deep history of the United Kingdom to his own homeland. In the case of Throne of Blood, Kurosawa in on the especially familiar ground of feudal Japan. The Scottish soldiers are now Samurai, and Kurosawa mainstay Toshiro Mifune is the brave warrior who is spurred to a devastating lust of power by a mystical prediction and the urging of an ambitious wife (Isuzu Yamada). In Kurosawa’s hands (he also wrote the screenplay with three credited collaborators), the already vast, powerful play soars to even more grandiose heights. Forging legends is seemingly second nature to Kurosawa, the muscular force of his storytelling combining with eerie, spectral imagery to to make it feel like the storied past manifested as a fever dream.

Though I premised this review largely on the notion that Kurosawa is fully prepared to carry the text of Shakespeare wherever his own muse may lead, Throne of Blood is fully recognizable as the Bard’s work. Even so, the film’s authorship can only be assigned to one man. Kurosawa’s incredible skill as a filmmaker comes through consistently, maybe most notably in his nearly unparalleled ability to make high emotion that borders on histrionics feel weirdly intimate and real. Mifune rages at the screen, and yet the film manages to reinforce one of the piercing paradoxes of the play, that the lead character’s oversized ambition is mostly indicative of the smallness of the man, a crumpled interior that makes him susceptible to the whims and passions of others. Within the vastness and boldness, Kurosawa creates nuance. Along with the name noted above, the film had yet another title in Finland, used upon a reissue release. It is Kurosawan Macbeth. That’s perfect, too. It might even be the most telling, exciting title of all.

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