Saturday, January 09, 2010

Kurosawa Centennial: Throne of Blood

Reportedly, it was the favorite film of T.S. Eliot and it has one of the coolest death scenes in cinema history. As if that were not enough, Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is also considered one of the best film treatments of the Scottish Play, sans the Shakespearean language. Recast during the “Warring States” period of Japanese history, Throne (a.k.a. Spider Web Castle, trailer here) ranks in the top tier of Kurosawa’s considerable body of work, making it an essential selection of Film Forum’s enthusiastically recommended celebration of the great director’s centennial (1910-2010).

Washizu (Macbeth) and Miki (Banquo) have just vanquished the enemies of Lord Tzuzuki (King Duncan). Expected at Spider Web Castle for a reception in their honor, the childhood friends find themselves lost in the forest. Wandering in circles, they stumble upon an evil spirit who makes several predictions. Not only does it foresee short-term promotions for both men, it prophesizes Washizu will become king, but he will be succeeded by Miki’s son.

If you don’t know the story from there, shame on you, but watching Throne would make for a heck of a crib note. Still, keep in mind Kurosawa and his four credited screenwriters cut one of Macbeth’s major antagonists, altering the climax as a result. (The upshot for Washizu/Macbeth is the same though.) Rewriting the Bard might sound presumptuous, but since in this case it produced that truly epic death sequence, Kurosawa and his team pulled it off with style.

Frequent Kurosawa collaborator Toshirō Mifune has the perfect larger-than-life swagger for Washizu, but also makes him a touch more sympathetic than other screen portrayals of Macbeth. Conversely, Isuzu Yamada’s ghastly pale Asaji, the Lady Macbeth figure, is particularly creepy, almost looking like she would be at home in a j-horror film. Takashi Shimura, another Kurosawa regular, is also on hand as Noriyashu, one of Washizu’s rivals who does not have a clear parallel in Shakespeare’s play.

Perhaps more than any other Macbeth on film, Kurosawa brings a real sense of place to Throne. Spider Web Forest is quite the foreboding environment, while the Castle is appropriately grand but austere. He clearly had a strong affinity for the material producing a masterwork that borders on legitimate masterpiece status. An essential Kurosawa film, Throne screens at Film Forum on Friday (1/15).