Fog rolls across a desolate landscape. A chanting song gives an ominous command to the viewer: “Look upon the ruins / Of the castle of delusion.” Thus begins Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 film ‘Throne of Blood,’ a retelling of William Shakespeare’s infamous play ‘Macbeth’ set in feudal Japan. Kurosawa, considered a master of Japanese cinema and samurai films, provides a haunting portrait of ambition and the corruption of power. So, if you like murder and betrayal, prophecy and the descent into madness, this is one you should check out.
The film begins well enough for our main character, samurai commander Taketoki Washizu. After winning a major battle for his lord, Washizu and his friend Miki ride through the mazelike and appropriately named Spider’s Web Forest. Here, they run into a prophetic spirit, who tells them of future events that seem to be good tidings of the future. However, as each of these predictions come true, things begin to unravel for Washizu and all those around him. He indeed rises to be the leader of Spider’s Web Castle, as the spirit foretold, but at what cost to his own sanity? By his side during this ascent is his wife Asaji, who provides subtle but effective nudges to encourage Washizu to perform the horrific tasks necessary to both capture and maintain the power he craves. Without spoiling too much, things spiral out of control for our main character, culminating in a shocking final scene that sticks with you well after the film ends.
One of my favorite aspects of ‘Throne of Blood’ is the atmosphere created by Kurosawa. This is certainly one case where watching a film in black and white heightens the experience. It looks gorgeous and adds to a pervasive mood of dread. Many of the scenes also take place in fog or at night, adding to the confusion and isolation that Washizu experiences during the deterioration of his psyche. Spider’s Web Castle itself, the supposed ultimate prize, is foreboding and unwelcoming in appearance. It is also refreshing that the action sequences only serve to compliment the character study of Washizu instead of the other way around.
This was my first viewing of ‘Throne of Blood,’ and I have to say it has aged well. It is a great watch that builds tension until the very end. If you want to see it for yourself, the film is available through the University of Memphis Libraries’ database, Kanopy. A quick note on Kanopy itself: it is a wonderful service if you are a movie buff of any kind. It gets a wide variety of newer releases (check out the offerings from the outstanding A24 studio!) while also allowing the user to explore the history of cinema. I encourage you to take advantage of it for your next movie night!