Throne of Blood

Dec 3, 1991

Director Akira Kurosawa had wanted to make Throne of Blood for some time. “After finishing Rashomon [in 1950] I wanted to do something with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but just about that time Orson Welles’s version was announced, so I postponed mine.” Kurosawa had long been fond of the play, once called it “my favorite Shakespeare,” and—beyond this—had another reason for making it. “I’ve always thought that the Japanese period film is historically uninformed. Also, it never uses modern filmmaking techniques. In Seven Samurai we tried to do something about this, and Throne of Blood had the same general feeling behind it.”

In Macbeth, Kurosawa saw a contemporary issue—a parallel between medieval Scotland and medieval Japan which illuminated contemporary society; and further, a pattern which is valid in both historical and contemporary contexts. Once asked if he wanted to pose philosophical questions in his films or whether he was merely making entertainment, he answered: “I look at life as an ordinary man. I simply put my feelings onto film. When I look at Japanese history—or the history of the world for that matter—what I see is how man repeats himself over and over again.” For Kurosawa the pattern of repetition is destructive and it is this pattern which free his heroes attempt to destroy—as in the director’s Ikiru, for example.

The fable of Macbeth held a special attraction for Kurosawa. The hero tries to realize himself. His fault—not ambition or pride, as such—is his failure to realize himself completely. Instead, he wants merely to rise in the world, he wants something as conventional as power. Naturally, one murder leads to another, because this is the pattern of power.

Kurosawa did not intend this film for himself. “Originally, I wanted merely to produce the picture and let someone younger direct it. But when the script was finished and Toho saw how expensive it would be, they asked me to direct it. So I did. My contract expired after these next three films anyway.” Perhaps if he had written the script with himself in mind he might have written it differently. He has said that the scripts he does for others are usually much richer in visuals than those he does for himself—and Throne of Blood is extremely visually rich. But what occurred, he says, is that he often visualized scenes differently than the way he had written them. Not that he improvised, or invented on the set. “I never do that. I tried it once. Never again. I had to throw out all of the impromptu stuff.” What he did do, once he knew he was to direct the picture, was to begin a study of the traditional Japanese musha-e—those early picture scrolls of battle scenes. At the same time he asked Kohei Esaki—famous for continuing this genre—to be the art consultant.

The designer, Yoshiro Muraki, remembers: “We studied old castle layouts, the really old ones, not those white castles we still have around. And we decided to use black armored walls since they would go well with the suiboku-ga (ink painting) effect we planned with lots of mist and fog. That also is the reason we decided that the locations should be high on Mount Fuji, because the fog and the black volcanic soil. We created something that never came from any single historical period. To emphasize the psychology of the hero, driven by compulsion, we made the interiors wide with low ceilings and squat pillars to create the effect of oppression.” Kurosawa remembers that, “First, we built an open set at the base of Fuji with a flat castle rather than a real three-dimensional one. When it was ready, it just didn’t look  right. For one thing, the roof tiles were too thin and this would not do. I insisted and held out, saying I could not possibly work with such limitations, that I wanted to get the feeling of the real thing from wherever I chose to shoot.” Consequently—Toho having learned from Seven Samurai onward that Kurosawa would somehow get his way—the entire open set was dismantled.

I was present during the location shooting for much of the film. Particularly fine were those rushes of the advancing hunting party, both the long silhouette shots and, later, the advance, taken with longdistance lenses which flattened the figures out and looked like a medieval tapestry. After they were taken Kurosawa said he was pleased. “I have about ten times more than I need.”

In the finished film this morning’s work takes ten seconds. Gone are the living tapestries (“they only held up the action”); the wonderful turning shots of the messenger (“I don’t know—they looked confused to me”); a splendid entrance of Mifune skidding to a stop (“you know, Washizu wasn’t that upset”); and a lovely framing shot of the procession seen through the gate (“too pretty”).

I still think of Kurosawa that morning, up on his platform, directing everything, always quiet, suggesting rather than commanding, looking through the view-finders, getting down to run through the mud to the other camera, making jokes, getting just what he wanted. And then—having the courage, the discipline to choose from that morning’s richness just those few frames which contained what would best benefit the film. And, all the time, making the definitive statement on man’s solitude, his amibition, his self-betrayal.