Akira Kurosawa sure leaves no stone unturned when it comes to delivering a product that is an adaptation of a literary work of William Shakespeare. And of course, one wouldn't expect anything less from a prolific director like Kurosawa...he would be the last filmmaker on earth to make the Bard turn in his grave!
"Throne of Blood" is Kurosawa's rendition of "The Tragedy of Macbeth". Those familiar with the story of Macbeth would know how it plays out. Despite the predictability of the story (only because the story is known to many and there have been various adaptations of the play over the years), Kurosawa crafts a powerful and gripping drama, transposing the plot of Macbeth to feudal Japan.
The film tells the story of a Samurai Commander, Washizu (Toshiro Mifune), a valiant warrior working under Lord Tzuzuki. Triggered by an ominous prediction by an 'evil spirit', and further fuelled by the poisoning of his mind by his wife, Lady Asaji, Washizu turns greedy and his lust for power makes him commit regicide. The rest of the film details the bitter aftermath of his actions.
Akira Kurosawa supposedly takes significant liberties with the original plot but the differences are insignificant, as the focus lies on the heinous acts committed by the central character, abetted by his wife, and the eventual catastrophe that lies in store for the both of them. There is a lot of ironical symbolism going on in the film. So while the evil spirit (akin to the three witches in Macbeth) makes prophecies about what the future holds for Washizu, there is that long yet outstanding sequence in which Washizu and Commander Miki are trying to find their way to the castle through the dense fog...they cannot really "see ahead". At one point, they are shown riding into the fog, into the screen and away from the viewer, they soon come back riding to the same point, visible again on the screen, showing how uncertain they are of their direction. The fog then probably represents the inherent inability of a human being to see "what lies ahead"!
There is a constant sense of doom and despair in the latter part of the film, just like in Kurosawa's adaptation of another tragedy of Shakespeare ('King Lear'), the magnificent "Ran". Kurosawa's use of some Japanese chants in the beginning and the end of the film add an eerie touch to the narrative. Especially the beginning which shows the remains of what used to be Cobweb Castle. "Throne of Blood" also has one of the best, masterfully filmed climaxes in the history of Kurosawa films...one, during which you are likely to skip a beat!
The camerawork is astounding as usual...which is not entirely a surprise, for this is, after all, a Kurosawa film! I can't help but mention here that Kurosawa would've excelled in making a horror film as well, and it shows with the manifestation of his vivid imagination of a radiating ghostly being spinning a yarn on a wheel deep in the dark woods....and its reappearance later amidst some excellent sound effects..these scenes are spine-chilling to say the least!
There are some shortcomings though, which albeit minor, must be highlighted. Although the main focus of the film is the character of Washizu, some other very important characters are hardly developed or get almost no screen time! Best examples are the characters of Miki (Minoru Chiaki) and Noriyasu (Takashi Shimura). Takashi Shimura is one of the finest talents from the Kurosawa camp, yet he gets about five minutes of screen time in this! Ditto for Minoru Chiaki (who played the memorable role of Heihachi in "Seven Samurai"), who I think gets about five minutes more than Shimura!
As for Lady Asaji, the scheming wife of Washizu, played by Isuzu Yamada; this character makes quite an impression, but one wonders why Kurosawa had to get such inconsistent and hence, unnatural acting done from her. For example, when she is doing some of her brainwashing acts on Washizu, she appears deadpan, stares at the wall and acts almost ghost-like with hardly any expression and talks without any tone modulation. But then again in other scenes, particularly during a feast and in a later, very important scene she seems to go overboard with animated emotions! She pulls both these extreme acts really well, but then the inconsistency in mannerisms of the character renders the character unnatural! Perhaps she is supposed to be another 'evil spirit' personified and hence such a representation?! Maybe....
But the man who rules the film in the acting department has to be the great Toshiro Mifune, whose fantabulous performance leaves you breathless and gasping for more! His amazing display of a range of emotions and the sheer energy he puts into his performance is applause-worthy.
All said, "Throne of Blood" is a terrific film, and one of Kurosawa's greatest works. But it is very short by Kurosawa standards with a running time of about 105 minutes. The film itself is captivating and reaches its end before you know it. However,...and I rarely say this, the film should've been longer by at least another half hour; to focus more on the aforementioned important characters that drive the story.....or simply for giving Takashi Shimura some more screen time!