Akira Kurosawa's Ran, an adaptation of King Lear, was one of the best Shakespeare adaptations I've ever seen (second only to Chimes at Midnight). Its personal impact got me interested in seeing his version of Macbeth, a feeling only strengthened when I look around only and saw numerous people citing it as one of the master's best. So, over the protests of my bank account I added another of Kurosawa's films to my collection, but that tiny inner voice of fiscal responsibility can stow it because it was worth every penny.
What made Ran so interesting was how willing it was to play with Shakespeare's original dialogue, freeing it from the narrow confines that befall literal translations while never not feeling like King Lear. Throne of Blood operates in much the same fashion. The general plot follows the same direction: Macbeth becomes Washizu Taketori (Toshiro Mifune) who, along with his friend Miki (the Banquo substitute), meets a witch who prophesies him to become Master of the Cobweb Castle, while Miki's children will assume the throne following Washizu's death. Eventually it all ends in tears. You know, typical Shakespeare.
But what sets Throne of Blood apart from your average adaptation is how many liberties Kurosawa takes with the material. Even Ran stayed more or less faithful and its only modifications seemed to come from necessity in its transportation across continents, but Throne of Blood makes some bold choices that certainly not make it better Macbeth, but turns it into something almost as rare: unique.
First of all, Kurosawa scales the action waaaaaaaay back. Drawing heavily from the Noh style of Japanese theater, the action of Throne of Blood manifests itself mostly internally. Macbeth certainly dealt with inner madness but the stage tends to run red with blood; Throne of Blood, on the other hand, chiefly implies its action. For example, when Washizu's wife Asaji convinces her husband to kill his master Tsuzuki, Washizu wanders off-screen while Asaji moves in a short series of stylized movements that may look strange but clearly represent nervousness. Later, a soldier brings Washizu, the new master, the head of his friend Miki, but the master refuses to allow the guard to show him.
But the biggest change is how Kurosawa re-shapes the characters to craft an entirely new subtext for the material. Macbeth is about how man's ambition can cause his downfall, but Throne of Blood, created after the fall of royalty, paints a more complete picture of the mindset of feudal and monarchical society. Without a king or queen breathing over his neck, Kurosawa reveals how Washizu's actions merely continue a cycle instead of representing a lone man undone by madness. Tsuzuki gained the throne through bloodshed, so why should anyone be surprised that Washizu does the same? For that reason Throne of Blood is less an adaptation of Macbeth and more what Shakespeare might have wanted to say if he were freed from the constraints of the times. After all, a whole bunch of monarchs die in his plays; who's to say he wouldn't have some harsher words about them if those words wouldn't get him killed?
Even Lady Macbeth gets an overhaul. Isuzu Yamada, who would go on to appear in Kurosawa's version of The Lower Depths and in Yojimbo, brings a subtlety to the role that seems almost alien, both to the original character and to the more exaggerated styles of Japanese acting. Perhaps the most brilliant decision of the entire film was Asaji's pregnancy, as it casts the character into a whole new light. The original Lady Macbeth, despite remaining one of Shakespeare's more memorable characters, fits too neatly into the archetype of the evil woman who leads good men astray. It's been around since the Bible, and I doubt it'll ever go away. But Kurosawa's Lady Macbeth, while still very much sinister, has actual layers and for once we see her ambition rather than bloodlust. These added dimensions make Asaji seem so much more human even though she's far more calculating than her English counterpart; not only does she convince her husband to kill the master, she also arranges for the death of Miki.
I've mentioned that a lot of action takes place off-screen, but that pertains mainly to the psychological aspects of the play. It wouldn't be a Kurosawa samurai film without some great battle scenes, and sure enough there are two action sequences in this film that could shame almost any other director out there, then or now. The final sequence in particular, in which the "forest" comes to the castle, illustrates not only a taut, thrilling action sequence but Kurosawa's use of creative liberties. In Macbeth the lead rebelled against a pure king more or less because his wife manipulated him and sent him spiralling into madness. But there is no higher ideal in Throne of Blood; Washizu is simply another cog in an endless wheel of corruption and violence. He, and his soldiers, are motivated not by religion or greed but by fear. Washizu's soldiers do not fight for their master as Macbeth's troops; when they see the forest "move" they immediately turn on their master and kill him because they are too frightened to face the possibility of such a foe.
Throne of Blood, for me, seemed to work better almost as an afterthought. As I watched it, I couldn't help but feel that Kurosawa took the edge of the emotion with his Noh stylings, and at only 110 minutes the movie felt like it came and went to quickly. Yet the second it ended, and I mean the very second the title card came up, it hit me just how brilliant this film was. If it seems shorter and more personal, it is, but Kurosawa gives us the most claustrophobic version of Macbeth ever made. It simmers with social commentary and actually delves into what drove these people to madness instead of turning them all into little Satans for rebelling against a noble king. The more I think about it the more I'm tempted to separate Throne of Blood from Macbeth entirely; both are masterpiece in their own ways, but each offers radically different subtext. As a Kurosawa film, it's one of the master's finest, but as a Shakespearean adaptation, it surely ranks in the top three alongside his own Ran and Orson Welles be-all, end-all mash-up Chimes at Midnight.