Monday, April 1, 2013

Short Take: Throne of Blood

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Throne of Blood (1957), Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s treatment of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, is considered by many to be the finest adaptation of a Shakespeare play on film. (T. S. Eliot greatly admired it, and Harold Bloom, otherwise violently opposed to Eliot as a critic, takes the same view.) Kurosawa effortlessly moves the story to medieval Japan. An indomitable warlord (Toshiro Mifune) encounters a prophecy of his rise to the throne. At the behest of his wife (Isuzu Yamada), he decides to fulfill his destiny through treachery and murder. Guilt and paranoia overwhelm him, and he ultimately faces battle with other warlords who challenge his rule. Kurosawa doesn’t include any of Shakespeare's poetry. He makes the story his own through an unforgettable use of locations, virtuosic staging, and expressionistic stylizations. The outdoor sequences have the grandeur of the best location work of D. W. Griffith and John Ford. The indoor scenes are even more impressive; they reportedly rely on the influence of Japanese Noh drama, and their austerity serves to make the warlord’s descent into madness all the more vivid. The spare, largely empty sets create a powerful dynamic with Mifune’s performance: the more overwrought he becomes; the more isolated and diminished he seems. The scenes in which the warlord’s wife goads him into conspiracy and murder are especially impressive. She is ghost-like and preternaturally still; when she speaks, she doesn’t seem a real person so much as a chillingly rational personification of his ambition and ruthlessness. Her almost unholy calm has its flipside: when her complicity in murder finally drives her insane, the contrast with her earlier affect is shocking. The scene of her trying to wash her hands of imaginary blood is perhaps the most effectively realized treatment of the moment in any Macbeth production. Kurosawa also comes up with some indelible epic visuals, such as the coming of the forest to the warlord’s castle, and the warlord’s final confrontation with his archers. The latter may be the greatest finish for an action-film protagonist ever. Kurosawa shares screenplay credit with Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Hideo Oguni. The excellent black-and-white cinematography, finely atmospheric in the outdoor scenes and elegantly crisp in the indoor ones, is by Asakazu Nakai.

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