Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Throne of Blood’, the finest Shakespearean adaptation

Photo: Hollywood Reporter

By Mohammed Mishad K

They say that any original work and the cinematic form based on it can never be replicas. This stays true to most of the films that have been released up to this day. However, watching Akira Kurosawa’s film, Throne of Blood (1957), an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s renowned tragedy Macbeth, renders the above statement utterly topsy-turvy.

Shakespeare’s tragedies have been extensively adapted both at the national and international levels. Vishal Bhardwaj’s trilogy Maqbool (2003), Omkara (2006) and Haider (2015) are among the best adapted in Bollywood. Macbeth has been adapted for the big screen many times by the finest of filmmakers in the world. In India, it was Maqbool that narrated the classic tragedy with Mumbai mafia as the backdrop. Similarly, Veeram (2016), directed by Jayaraj, is set in feudal Kerala with characters made popular through ballads of North Malabar. Although both the films succeed in deftly narrating the themes central to the tragedy, especially in portraying the dour, grace-epitomized protagonist, they never escape the so-called ‘trademarks’ of Bollywood such as catchy music, songs and dances, and unwonted erotic scenes. On the contrary, there is nothing out of the context in Throne of Blood where the play originally set in Scotland is turned into a ravishingly visual exploration of the warrior traditions of Japanese myth. Therefore, I hail this Japanese film as one of the finest celluloid renderings of the Bard’s Macbeth.

On their way back to their lord’s Forest Castle, samurai warriors Washizu and Miki are intercepted by a spirit who foretells their futures. When the first part of the spirit’s predictions comes into being, Washizu is dragooned by his ambitious wife Asaji into speeding up the rest of the spirit’s predictions by murdering his lord and usurping his place. Owing to this, he undergoes a fatal death at the end. The central themes of superstition, loyalty, betrayal and tragedy that incorporate the original drama remain intact throughout the film. Thus, watching the film gives me an impression of reading the drama in a sitting. There is nothing cheesy, nothing swashbucklingly overloaded and nothing overworked. Rather, the original story is deftly, but truly depicted, and the entire ‘mosaic’ of the film makes us soak in its magnificent visual riches.

It is not only the language that tries to speak to us but also the entire film with its storyline, shots, music and everything attributed to the film. For example, the fog at the start of the film tries to speak to us in a number of ways. We can see manifold shots that look on the far landscapes predominantly obscured by the omnipresence of a thick fog. The actors are not clearly shown. They are sometimes enclosed and sometimes partially seen; their structures reveal themselves. This gives the impression that they are bound by destiny’s cold hand, often unscrupulous, always unvanquished. The only remaining freedom left is of pride and status. Braving all the odds, one can go on achieving the status one aspires, while pride can externally burst from within. This is the world in which Washizu is supposed to be ensconced so that he is, like others before and after him, set on traversing to the peak and pinnacle of the status he is able to arrive at. The fog also represents an allegorical reference to the clarity of vision Washizu achieves. On his way back to the castle, he gets lost in the pervasively thick fog. This is before his meeting with the spirit who predicts his fate. Thereafter, the fog seems instantly banished, revealing the castle.

The music is also finely set. When there is confusion looming around, there is no music at all, not least during the elongated conversation scenes between Washizu and his spouse Asaji where the latter eggs on the former to murder the lord. Since Asaji is represented as the source of the vices in the story, as is the case with Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, her presence on the screen is not accompanied by any music unless there is an inevitability of expressing other emotions interwoven therewith. The elongated nature of the conversation lends an intensity to the situation as the protagonist gradually bows down to the tempting mantras of his wife.

By dint of a minimalist visual flair, Kurosawa deftly narrates the story. The visual scenes reveal a lot more than the conversations in the movie. In their way to the Forest Castle, Washizu and Miki get stuck in the labyrinthine forest. To demonstrate this, along with their conversations revealing the nature of the forest, the pair rides about a dozen times towards the camera before turning away. Similarly, Washizu’s descent into madness constituted by obsessive rants, silent stewing, hallucination and so forth are shot dexterously. The scene of the ‘moving forest’ near the end of the movie gives us an insight into the originality of the play, whereas the same shot in the movie Veeram seems nonsensical and unjustifiable, marring its original version.

As a piece of cinema, Throne of Blood is a well-conceived endeavour and a must-watch. Deftly narrated, the film tugs at our heartstrings. Possibly the finest Shakespearean adaptation on the screen, its only disadvantage is its lack of semblance with the original dialogues in Macbeth. It is also very interesting that the film starts and also ends with a poem that encompasses the morals in the story as is the case with its original drama Macbeth. To put in a nutshell, while Macbeth gives an opulence of linguistic vigour, Akira Kurosawa’s film is a landmark in cinematic visual brilliance.

Mohammed Mishad K
studies Masters in Education at Azim Premji University, Bangalore. He has completed a B.A. in English Language and Literature at the University of Calicut, Kerala. An aspiring writer, he has got a few published articles as well as a couple of poems. Shakespeare is one of his areas of interest. Email: misadvilayur@gmail.com


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