in Criterion Month

Throne of Blood (1957)

People in Kurosawa movies are pissed. I’m talking eyes bugging, neck veins pulsing, men in suits of armor screaming their lungs out. When so many other films of the era were restrained or classy affairs, it’s cathartic to see a filmmaker unafraid to give his characters a real backbone. Just look at a picture of Kurosawa’s favoring leading man, Toshiro Mifune. He was a good looking dude. Yet only in a Kurosawa movie could he disappear into the role of a shlubby wannabe samurai, a grizzled wandering ronin, or in this case a crazed general teetering on the edge insanity. Yep, this is a Kurosawa movie.

Naturally, I was drawn to Throne of Blood because of its iconic arrow sequence. If you’re not familiar with the scene it involves Toshiro Mifune as General Washizu being shot with dozens of arrows fired by his own men as he stands perched outside of the mighty Spider Web’s castle—Possibly the best name for a castle after Castle Duckula from the iconic Count Duckula comic. The reason the scene is so incredible is that real arrows were used. Even after watching it I can’t believe it. Especially because some arrows actually appear to hit Mifune. Was Kurosawa really that crazy? What’s the rest of the movie like?

The rest of the movie is actually fairly familiar in that it’s a relatively straightforward take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Except instead of Scottish dudes it’s samurais who scream at each other. Like Macbeth, Washizu is told by a witch or in this case “The Spirit of Spider’s Web” (Chieko Naniwa) that he will soon be named Lord of the Northern Garrison and then Lord of Spider’s Web Castle. Upon his return, Washizu does become Lord of the Northern Garrison and with the help of his conniving wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) the prophecy continues to be fulfilled.

Washizu and Asaji plot to kill their way to the top of the Spider’s Web castle through druggings and stabbings and they are creepy as fuck doing it. Every scene the two share together are these tense drawn out back and forth conversations in these big empty rooms. What’s interesting about seeing this as a take on Shakespeare is that it’s free from all of Shakespeare’s unnecessary hoity-toity dialogue. Yeah, I said it. Come at me Shakespeare bros. Throne of Blood is a film that takes the skeleton of a Shakespeare story and builds something fresh and exciting over it.

Speaking of building, the craftsmanship of this film is impeccable. To shoot Spider Web’s castle, Kurosawa actually had part of a castle built on Mt. Fuji. It was hard to travel to and far from the rest of civilization but I can’t imagine the film without its mighty exterior. The detail in the sets and clothing and styles really takes you back to a simpler time of ghosts and relentless murder.

Though what makes Throne of Blood interesting is the same thing that holds it back. The fact that it’s an adaptation of a very old and very famous story makes it feel predictable and a little dated. Don’t get me wrong it’s a blast but with the exception of a couple of outbursts and arrow sequences, it lacks the originality of Kurosawa’s other work. Still, I love the energy, I love the look, and I love Mifune. Maybe someday I’ll get to scream right back at him in Heaven.