• Throne of Blood: Shakespeare Transposed

    By Stephen Prince

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    Critics commonly describe Throne of Blood (1957) as Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth. While this description is certainly not untrue, the film is much more than a direct cinematic translation of a literary text. Kurosawa’s movie is a brilliant synthesis of diverse cultural, aesthetic, and historical sources, only one skein of which derives from Shakespeare. The film’s towering achievement lies in the way Kurosawa seamlessly integrates these and gives them superlative formal expression.

    Kurosawa often turned to foreign literary works for his films, but in all cases, the result was a transposition of the source rather than anything as straightforward as an adaptation. His appropriations of Shakespeare (here as well as in 1985’s Ran), for example, were acts more of historiography than of analysis, and descriptions of the films as adaptations minimize the true nature of what Kurosawa accomplished. In Throne of Blood, with his keenly developed sense of Japanese history, he found a kind of mirror universe in the period of turmoil, treachery, and succession battles that Shakespeare wrote about in Macbeth.

    Shakespeare’s play derives from a regicide and other historical events in eleventh-century Scotland. Emerging ideas of national unity and kingship were then vying with civil disorder caused by battles for power among regional lords. Struggles over succession often resulted in bloodshed. Malcolm II, grandfather of Duncan, the king Macbeth killed, seized the crown by slaying a rival prince and eliminated other rivals to ensure Duncan’s succession. Duncan, in turn, was killed when he unwisely ventured into Macbeth’s province in the north of Scotland. Kurosawa was keenly impressed with the heritage of violence that he saw in the play and its history. He once remarked that, in depicting an age when the strong preyed on the weak, Macbeth had a focus in common with all of his films.

    The parallel Kurosawa intuited and explored was with the century of civil war in medieval Japan. Following the Onin War, which lasted from 1467 to 1477 and laid waste to the imperial city of Kyoto, the nation entered this prolonged time of turmoil, the Sengoku Jidai (the Age of the Country at War), which was marked by internecine conflicts among rival clans, the absence of a central political power, and the kind of treachery, prevarication, and murder that Kurosawa dramatizes in Throne of Blood. Warlords violently seized domains, murdered trusted associates, and were killed in turn by their vassals. Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) may enact a story whose outlines are those of Macbeth, but he personifies elements of the historical spirit of his own age.

    Kurosawa’s chronicle is a highly selective one, however. As with his literary sources, his treatment of history is faithful to elements of the factual record while transposing them into poetic terms.He made the sixteenth century his own period by being one of the few Japanese filmmakers of his time to explore it. In Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress (1958), and Ran, Kurosawa concentrates on the epoch’s military strife, and his presentations of those conflicts are so apocalyptic as to imply that widespread killing was taking place in Japan’s medieval era. In fact, the rate of battlefield death in the samurai wars was not so extensive. Kurosawa gives us battles filtered through his perceptions as a twentieth-century artist well acquainted with the truly large-scale slaughters of his own time. The sense of apocalypse in the films is not of the sixteenth century but contemporary.

    Kurosawa’s transposition of Macbeth points to the transcultural materials in the play—the common human experience that underlies it—but also vitiates the Shakespearean elements. All that beautiful dialogue is gone. That surely makes it an odd adaptation, except that Kurosawa has transposed not only history but theater as well. There is plenty of theater in this film, but not the sort the King’s Men would have staged.

    Kurosawa’s radical gesture here is to supplant Shakespeare with Noh theater. Emerging in the fourteenth century and patronized by samurai lords, Noh was contemporaneous with the age Kurosawa depicts, and therefore he felt that its aesthetic style would furnish the right kind of formal design for the film. (In Ran, when he again transposed Shakespeare to sixteenth-century Japan, he again incorporated Noh elements.) Besides, he loved Noh and found it inexpressibly beautiful in its own right.

    Noh shows up everywhere in Throne of Blood, making the project a real fusion of cinema and theater and showing just how cinematic theater can be in the hands of a great filmmaker. Noh elements include the music (that assertive flute, for example), the bare sets, and especially the stylized performances by Mifune and Isuzu Yamada (as Asaji).

    Noh performing style, with its blend of dance, song, poetry, and mime, is antithetical to the realism and naturalism that invests acting in the West. It counters the meaning of Shakespeare’s famous lines in act 3, scene 2 of Hamlet about the actor holding the mirror up to nature.

    Performance in Noh aims for a paradoxical conjunction of elements. When an actor moves in a powerful way, he must stamp his foot gently. Noh performance is a striking blend of stillness and agitation, a mixture of different gestures and tones that can be seen in the acting throughout the film, and that Kurosawa even carried over into the cinematic design of entire sequences, as when he cuts from a long, static scene of ritual immobility and austere playing to a scene of furious action choreographed with flamboyant camera moves.

    Actors in Noh use masks, and while Kurosawa doesn’t do anything so blatantly artificial here, he does have Mifune and Yamada model facial expressions that resemble popular Noh masks (a strategy he extended in Yamada’s makeup). The Noh masks point to a huge difference between this theatrical tradition and Shakespeare’s, one that helps give the film many of its unusual qualities. Noh is not psychologically oriented; its characters are not individualized, they are types—the old man, the woman, the warrior, and so on. And the plays are quite didactic, aiming to impart a lesson. Kurosawa, therefore, strips all the psychology out of Macbeth and gives us a film whose characters are Noh types and where emotions—the province of character in the drama of the West—are formally embodied in landscape and weather. The bleached skies, the fog, the barren plains, and characters going adrift against and within these spaces—this is where the emotion of the film resides. It is objectified within and through the world of things.

    As a result, the film has a definite coldness; it keeps the viewer outside the world it depicts. Kurosawa wants us to grasp the lesson, to see the folly of human behavior, rather than to identify or empathize with the characters.

    This provides us with a different cultural way of seeing, which Kurosawa extends by incorporating another medieval art informed, like Noh, by a Buddhist orientation. The striking emptiness of the spaces in the film—the skies, the dense, roiling fog that obscures mountains and plains—is a cinematic rendition of sumi-e composition. This style of pen-and-ink drawing leaves large portions of the picture unfilled, making of emptiness a positive compositional (and spiritual) value. Kurosawa believed that this art form resonated deeply with the Japanese, and he was eager to infuse the film with its aesthetic. (Production designer Yoshiro Muraki’s castle set was black, and was built on the dark, volcanic soil of Mount Fuji in order to heighten the sumi-e effect, the contrast between dark and light. Although based on historical sketches, the castle is not of any single period.)

    As a positive value, this pictorial and spiritual emptiness is set against the human world of vanity, ambition, and violence, which Kurosawa suggests is all illusion. The Buddhist arts of Noh and sumi-e enabled him to visualize this disjunction between the hell of life as we poor creatures know it, subject to our strivings, our desires, and our will, and the cosmic order that negates them.

    If Kurosawa strips the psychology from Macbeth, he also strips out Shakespeare’s political conservatism, refusing to give us the play’s reassuring conclusion (flattering to James I) in which a just political authority triumphs. In Kurosawa’s film and worldview, the cycle of human violence never ends. Thus the film’s many circular motifs describe the real tragedy at the heart of the history that Throne of Blood dramatizes. Why do people kill one another so often and through so many ages? Kurosawa had no answer to this question. But he showed us here, through the film’s chorus, its circularity, and its Buddhist aesthetics, that there may not be an answer within this world.

    The aesthetics and philosophy of Throne of Blood take us well beyond Shakespeare, and that’s why this is a great film. Its accomplishments are not beholden to another medium or artist. Kurosawa gives us his own vision, expressed with ruthless, chilling power, and it’s the totality of that vision, its sweep and its uncompromising nature, that moves and terrifies us—and that we are so seldom privileged to see in cinema.

    Stephen Prince is a professor of cinema at Virginia Tech and an honorary professor of film and media at the University of Copenhagen. He is the author of numerous books on cinema, including The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2003 DVD release of Throne of Blood.

35 comments

  • By Justin Chen
    December 02, 2011
    12:07 PM

    This article points out a detailed comparison of "Throne of Blood" and "Macbeth" in which the "Throne of Blood" is an Eastern adaptation to "Macbeth." I liked it when you mentioned that Kurosawa stripped the psychology of "Macbeth" and have also stripped out the political conservatism. I can see both, in how the politics and ideas playing a role in the plot line are similar. The mentioning of the settings and actors were also analyzed well for "Throne of Blood," where the actors lack emotions and where the setting provided a feeling of emptiness. Thank you for this essay, that it pointed some things in which I haven't noticed in the both stories.
    Reply
  • By Justin Chen
    December 02, 2011
    12:15 PM

    This article have bring me to a different conclusion to both sides of the story in Macbeth and in Throne of Blood. There have been many things that have been pointed out in which I didn't realize at first. Some of the things included the political ideas and the psychological ideas that you mentioned. Another major thing that you have pointed out is the characters and settings. From the original story Macbeth, we have to play the scenes in our head to imagine what the characters and settings would have been like. However, in the film Throne of Blood, we can easily tell that the characters seems like they are lacking emotion and the setting provides a feeling of emptiness.
    Reply
  • By Elaine W.
    December 04, 2011
    08:40 PM

    I did not realize that many differences between Macbeth and Throne of Blood at very first time. Your article helps me to understand the huge contrasts between Macbeth and Throne of Blood. Not only the way Shakespeare expressed his play differed from Kurosawa's film, but also the cultural differences. Kurosawa put his perspectives of the era in Japan into the film. Throne of blood is not just an adaptation of Macbeth, but it gives viewers another level of thinking and feeling.
    Reply
  • By Win win Chang
    December 05, 2011
    06:47 AM

    This is a truly amazing article, full of examples explaining the differences and similarities between the two works. I really enjoy reading all the specific details you gave describing the significants of both plays. How you actually dug into the back of the story and compared them, gave people really deep insight into the discrepancy between Shakespeare's "Macbeth" and Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood". In your article, you mentioned a lot about Noh, is that also a point he tries to express or focus on? Did he put it in his film on purpose? I think you really did a great job on comparing, I've learnt how Kurosawa did not only take the whole play and filmed it in his own way, but he developed a deeper meaning from it and actually made this HIS film instead of a remake film based on Macbeth. I really love the part when you talk about how it's interesting that Kurosawa did not use the dialog, which is where the beauty is at. However, in the very end of this article you explained your opinion and why this film is a great piece of work, really enjoy reading it. Thanks a lot for sharing.
    Reply
  • By Win win Chang
    December 05, 2011
    06:51 AM

    This is a truly amazing article, full of examples explaining the differences and similarities between the two works. I really enjoy reading all the specific details you gave describing the significants of both plays. How you actually dug into the back of the story and compared them, gave people really deep insight into the discrepancy between Shakespeare's "Macbeth" and Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood". In your article, you mentioned a lot about Noh, is that also a point he tries to express or focus on? Did he put it in his film on purpose? I learnt from this article how Kurosawa did not only took Macbeth and filmed it in his own way, but he actually developed a deeper meaning from it and made it HIS work. I love the part when you talk about hoe people are confused cuz of how he did not use the dialog form Shakespeare, which is the part if the beauty of the play. Also in the very last paragraph you described why this film is a well made piece of work and also a part of your opinion. Really learnt a lot from this article, thanks a lot for sharing.
    Reply
  • By Jonathan Chiao
    December 05, 2011
    09:35 AM

    This article gave me some great insight on the comparison of the film and the play. Thank you, sir, for writing this article, because it actually helped me see a lot of details and differences between William Shakespeare's Macbeth and Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood.
    Reply
  • By Tim H.
    December 05, 2011
    09:49 AM

    I really like your essay, it's impressive. I like how you show the difference between Throne of Blood and Macbeth by telling not only about their different plot but also their different tone. The Japanese really took Shakespeare to the other level and expressed his work with their unique culture. I agree with you saying that Throne of Blood is more realistic since Kurosawa didn't have to flatter the king like Shakespeare had to. I can also see the emptiness in the film, and I now understood the reason for that after reading your essay. Thank you very much for your interesting essay!
    Reply
  • By Kotomi Shimizu
    December 05, 2011
    04:30 PM

    This is amazing work!! You compared "Throne of Blood" and "Macbeth" with details. I totally agree with your idea about this movie. When I watched this movie, I thought it might be the story during the Sengoku Jidai. As what you mention, Japanese people view this most violent era in Japanese history as anger, hatred, and killing cycles. People at the time seriously had had a a lot of wars and killed each other. They didn't trust people and were full of doubts. I think this article lets people realize what Akira Kurosawa wants to tell!! Thank you so much for your article! I truly like it!!
    Reply
  • By Kotomi S.
    December 05, 2011
    04:38 PM

    This is amazing work!! You compared "Throne of Blood" and "Macbeth" with a lot of specific explanations. I totally agree with your idea about this movie. When I watched this movie, I thought it might be the story duing the Sengoku Jidai. As you mention, Japanese people view this era as anger, hatred, and killing cycles. In this era people seriously had had a lot of wars and killed each other. They didn't trust others and were filled with doubts. Your article lets people realize what Akira Kurosawa wanted to tell. Thank you so much for your article! I truly like it!!
    Reply
  • By Kevin Yang
    December 05, 2011
    11:22 PM

    This is a very useful sources about the Throne of Blood and Macbeth because this article gave clearly examples to us about the difference of these two. Also the movie was really bring Skakepeare's play into another different place. The japanese use Shakepeare's play and their own culture to represent this movie to us. I really learn a lesson about Macbeth and Throneof Blood on this article. Thank you very much for sharing this story to us.
    Reply
  • By michael c.
    December 08, 2011
    10:34 AM

    The blog did an exceptinally awesome job comparing the Macbeth and Throne of Blood. It did not only clarify the differences found between the movies and the play. It gave us a fundemtnal understanding of the Noh play. It showed the originiality of the movie, and how it showed the turmoils of the modern civilizations, not the earlier ones. The polictical upheaveal and the inner struggles of the policticans were implied gradually through the movie. It was not simply an adaptation, but a brand-new creation that made it a colorful film through the presentation of the color black and white.
    Reply
  • By Beverly
    December 08, 2011
    10:06 PM

    You clearly established the idea that Throne of Blood is not simply just an adaptation of Macbeth. Instead, the storyline of the film was made based on Japanese culture. The director of Throne of Blood successfully combined Shakespeare's Macbeth with Japanese history in a perfect way. I support our idea that Throne of Blood can actually be consider as a different story from Macbeth. I like how you established your idea through the analysis of Japan's Noh Theater. This is a very powerful essay with solid examples and reasons.
    Reply
  • By Jane c.
    December 15, 2011
    12:58 AM

    I love how you see through Throne of Blood and Macbeth with a different perspectives. The concept of the silent movement was amazing, it increased the mistery of the movie. Noh, added new elements from the Japanese culture maybe the most opposite of Macbeth. While reading the play of Macbeth, it was hard to imagine the scene because it wasn't relative to live. However, throne of blood made everything possible with the new insight of the play. at first, I didn't really realize the face motion of Lady Macbeth, after reading your acticle. I finally realize the tiny mistery of each turn, blank, and words she speak. Everything went perfectly well with the new added culture.
    Reply
  • By Judith Siqueira
    December 11, 2012
    01:39 AM

    A beautifully beautiful analysis. Two points I enjoyed--1) The analysis of the transposition of Macbeth into Japanese history and art; and 2) I wondered why the film left me cold. now I know. thank you.
    Reply
  • By Phillip O'Bucket
    May 08, 2013
    12:23 PM

    No quotations.No evidence.
    Reply
  • By Tom Rakehell
    July 14, 2013
    02:33 PM

    Why are all these comments so identical and so weird?
    Reply
    • By Sean
      January 11, 2014
      09:00 PM

      My guess is that all of those comments are made by students of some kind, (possibly Mr. Prince's own?) who are following a rubric for a simple assignment. This kind of thing was common to see while I was at college as many students simply wanted to complete piles of assignments from multiple classes as fast as possible. The Teacher or Professor requires their students to read such an essay and make a blog post about the comparison detailed within it, while raising some example questions. Unfortunately, instead of truly engaging with the essay, the students just hit the required notes/answers and move on to the next piece of homework, and in the process all create dull, robotic answers.
  • By Mike
    December 09, 2013
    08:01 PM

    Yes, weird indeed! What's going on here?
    Reply
  • By Happy Mike
    December 11, 2013
    03:26 AM

    Weird indeed - almost as if .... - no surely not! By the same hand and all saying the same thing - wonderful/excellent how you.......... Funny though!
    Reply
  • By Bimbo Bollywoddle
    December 11, 2013
    03:28 AM

    Stephen your various comments are about as well written as your'essay'!
    Reply
  • By Stephen Prince
    January 09, 2014
    08:44 PM

    Thanks!
    Reply