Akira Kurosawa’s first brush with William Shakespeare, an adaptation of Macbeth aptly named Throne of Blood (1957), is one of the filmmaker’s finest films—and one of the few instances of plot-driven Shakespeare that actually works. Perhaps it’s because Macbeth has a stronger plot than many of Shakespeare’s plays, or perhaps it’s because Kurosawa opted to reject the poetry and simply go with the story and the atmosphere. It is certainly not lacking in atmosphere—and, in fact, has a feel that is comparable to Orson Welles’ 1948 Macbeth, although achieved quite differently.
What the film does lack—or more properly, what the film deliberately eschews—is subtlety. The film comes on in full battle-cry and stays in that key. About the only character who doesn’t shout the dialogue is Asage (Isuzu Yamada), the film’s version of Lady Macbeth, whose contrasting quietness makes her all the more sinister. It’s not the easiest thing to get used to, but it’s intentional on Kurosawa’s part. This is the style in which he wanted the film played. Someone once wrote of (I believe) the legendary English actor David Garrick that watching him play Hamlet was like reading Shakespeare by lightning. That might be a good way of looking at Throne of Blood: Shakespeare by lightning. And if you can go with it, it’s both effective and disconcerting.
The Toshiro Mifune Macbeth, Washizu, hardly seems to descend into madness. He seems pretty much there from the onset. The surprising thing is that he can keep constantly upping the ante in terms of flashing-eyed craziness. It’s quite unlike any other Mifune performance I’ve seen—and it’s brilliant in its own way. Kurosawa’s barbaric vision of Macbeth would simply not hold together with anything less. It’s an even greater necessity because the tale is sometimes rather sketchily told and Mifune’s blustering craziness diverts your attention from this.
Visually, Throne of Blood is astonishingly beautiful. It may be the director’s best-looking black-and-white film. Yet, it’s strange in that—apart from the scene of Macbeth’s final moments—it leaves behind more an impression of what was seen than much in the way of concrete images. Perhaps that was Kurosawa’s intention—one that mirrors his film’s status as more an impression of Macbeth than an actual Macbeth.