Rudyard Kipling famously wrote that “east is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet, till earth and sky stand presently at god’s great judgement seat.” He might have added “or until Akira Kurosawa adapts Macbeth for his 1957 masterpiece Throne of Blood.” Throne of Blood, also known as Kumonosu-jō or Spider Web Castle, strips Shakespeare’s tragedy down to its essentials, not only simplifying the plot, but translating Elizabethan blank verse into a cinematic version of traditional Japanese Noh drama. The result is to set Macbeth free and let it loose on film.
Throne of Blood opens at the ruin of Spider Web Castle, a forbidding edifice at the base of Mount Fuji. We hear a solemn chant over the volcanic landscape. We’re about to watch a Buddhist morality tale.
“Look upon the ruins of the castle of delusion, haunted only now by the spirits of those who perished, a scene of carnage, born of consuming desire, never changing, now and throughout eternity. Here stood Spider Web’s Castle.”
We go back in time to the court of Kuniharu Tsuzuki, the Great Lord of Spider Web Castle, Kurosawa’s Duncan. A messenger arrives, then another. The first messenger brings grim news. Lord Fujimaki’s rebellion in the north threatens to break through Tsuzuki’s defenses and put Spider Web Castle under siege. But the fortunes of war can turn on a dime. The second messenger informs the Great Lord that Taketoki Washizu, Macbeth, and Yoshiaki Miki, Banquo, have all but smashed Fujimaki’s army. Spider Web Castle is safe.
Throne of Blood then cuts to Wazhizu, played by Toshiro Mifune, and Miki, played by Minoru Chiaki. If you were wondering whether or not Kurosawa decided to keep the three witches, he’s about to answer your question. Wazhizu and Miki are lost in Spider Web Forest, traveling in circles through a landscape that should be perfectly familiar, but which has temporarily bewitched them. Just at the point where we start to wonder if we somehow wandered into Blair Witch Japan, the two generals meet the Forest Spirit. Washizu will be named master of the North Fortress, today, she tells them, and Miki will command Fort One. Later Washizu will become the Great Lord himself, but since his wife is barren and unable to produce an heir, the throne will pass to Miki’s son. Like Macbeth, Washizu will become king, but, like Macbeth, he will not start a dynasty.
We now get to meet Kurosawa’s Lady Macbeth. The park like serenity of the Northern Fortress, such a contrast to the grim, volcanic setting of Spider Web Castle, is a master stroke of story telling. Three soldiers lounge about the courtyard in the peaceful early morning air. What healthy soul would chose to reign at Spider Web Castle over the Northern Fortress? Washizu’s aggressive, nervous movements soon reveal that, unlike the three soldiers, he’s not a contented man. Asaji Washizu, Lady Macbeth, a terrifying Isuzu Yamada, a pale, spectral, almost puppet like figure, becomes the embodiment of her husband’s fears and ambitions. While Throne of Blood looks back to the feudal Japan of the 15th century, Lady Asaji’s exhortations to her husband are strikingly modern. The Great Lord Kuniharu Tsuzuki is no saintly King Duncan. He’s a man who took the crown for himself by murdering his predecessor. The world of Spider Web Castle is capitalist, Darwinian. If Washizu doesn’t continue to grow more powerful, his wife insists, if he doesn’t take Spider Web Castle for himself, the Great Lord will eventually see him as a rival and have him killed.
Washizu’s aggressive protests of loyalty to the Great Lord are shown to be hollow when Tsuzuki pays a visit to the Northern Fortress with 300 soldiers. Washizu is terrified. His wife’s predictions seem to be coming true. Has the Great Lord come to murder him? No, he has not. It’s a hunting expedition, but a hunting expedition in great force. Tsuzuki plans to use the Northern Fortress to complete his suppression of the rebellion that opened the film, a sign of his trust in Washizu, not his intention to murder him. But Washizu is helpless against his wife’s, really his own ambition’s, constant pressure to become the Great Lord of Spider Web Castle. As Macbeth murdered King Duncan, Washizu murders Kuniharu Tsuzuki, killing him in his sleep, then framing and murdering his guards, who Lady Asaji had earlier given Saki laced with a sleeping potion.
Noriyasu Odagura, Macduff, and Kunimaru, Malcolm, correctly surmising that they’re about to be killed next, flee the Northern Fortress and attempt to take shelter under Miki’s wing at Spider Web Castle. Washizu takes off in pursuit. The chase is terrifying, far more realistic than Shakespeare’s play, where Malcolm and Macduff slip away quietly in the commotion of the murder’s aftermath. Even though Miki denies Noriyasu and Kunimaru entrance, his soldiers raining a hail of arrows down onto the desperate pair of men off the Spider Web Castle’s battlements, Washizu is not only half-mad with ambition, he’s fully mad with jealousy of a position he does not yet even occupy. He has no children. Miki’s son will take his place, and, in a master stroke of psychological manipulation, Lady Asaji announces that she’s pregnant. We never find out whether or not she’s lying, but it doesn’t matter. Washizu hires a murderer to kill Miki and his son Yoshiteru, Throne of Blood’s Fleance. Like Shakespeare’s best o’ the cut-throats, the hired killer manages to get the father, but not the son. Like Banquo, the ghost of Miki haunts Washizu until he’s driven half mad with fear, revealing his guilt to anybody not trying to deny what they see with their own eyes.
The final act of Throne of Blood dispenses with all the sound and fury of Shakespeare’s poetry, but we barely miss it. Kurosawa’s spare narrative elegance and cool dramatic irony more than compensate until the shocking, violent, over the top denouement. We are spared all the details of the deaths of Macduff’s children, a part of the play that Roman Polanski, for obvious reasons of his own, makes the very center of his film. Washizu will die not at the hands of a grieving father and husband. He will be killed by his own soldiers, and it’s here where cinema allows Kurosawa to do things that Shakespeare couldn’t.
“Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?” Shakespeare asked in the prologue to Henry V. The answer would probably be no. When the witches told Macbeth that he need not fear death “till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane,” and when Macduff’s and Malcolm’s troops camouflage themselves with boughs and leaves, it’s an entirely different thing to imagine it than it is to actually see. Kurosawa’s images of Noriyasu’s and Kunimaru’s troops marching on Spider Web Castle as though they were nature itself rebelling against the tyrant Washizu took more than technical skill. The clumsy final act of Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers, where the Ents march on Isengard, demonstrates that you can have all the technical mastery in the world, and still end up with cartoon silliness. It takes the skill of a poet, something Kurosawa has, maybe even on the same level as Shakespeare. You probably won’t forget the images of Spider Web Forest marching on Spider Web Castle. You certainly won’t forget the moment when Washizu’s troops turn on their general. Washizu, who had told his troops of the wood spirit’s prophecy, has doomed himself with his own arrogance. His troops, observing the trees creeping closer and closer to the fortress, let fly a hail of arrows, impaling Washizu again, then again, then again. Kurosawa has decided to set aside the lucid restraint he’s used up until now and indulge himself in a moment of Shakespearean blood and thunder.
East is still east and west is still west but they meet here as Washizu stands presently at God’s judgement seat, and is damned to hell.