First published in 1623, Shakespeare’s Macbeth has seen a myriad of adaptations, stemming from its cultural relevance within political history. The great Orson Welles, a decade before turning to the silver screen, directed Macbeth for the Negro Theatre Unit in 1936, stirring controversy within the black community of Harlem who accused Welles of mocking black culture. Though on a grander scale, Welles’ production can be viewed as a telling tale of evil abroad, as Europe became engulfed in strife with the rise of Hitler’s regime, it quickly became an imperative reflection on the duality between reality and fantasy–how difficult it must be to sympathize with a character that so greatly reflects a tyrant’s hysteria.
Shakespeare himself, having already written Hamlet and Othello, took in observance the conflicting histories of England, Scotland and Ireland, crafting a tragedy that imparts cultural purpose amongst 17th century Europe. Based on the Scottish King of the same name, Macbeth ingrained itself in the repertoire of both cultural and theatrical relevance, becoming a significant and vital piece of written history. Rarely did Shakespeare stray from source material unfamiliar to the people, writing tragedies that derived from the rich history rooted in the European people.
When acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon [’50]) took up the pen to adapt Macbeth, he did so with a keen observance of Japanese panache and cultural motifs; Noh theatre elements and Jidaigeki settings symbolize an observance of Japanese tradition and history, while the story itself yields to Shakespearean roots.
Throne of Blood encapsulates the deceit and doubt that winds up plaguing General Washizu (Toshiro Mifune), who along with fellow General Miki (Minoru Chiaki), encounter a prophesizing spirit deep within Spider’s Web forest that accounts their rise and subsequent fall within the ranks. As Washizu becomes wracked with fear over Miki’s son eventually taking up lordship over Northern Garrison, his wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) begins spreading seeds of doubt, manipulating Washizu to the point of treason.
On the surface, Kurosawa’s film is replete with common tropes within a genre he had come to perfect through a mere two films; 1950’s Rashomon and 1954’s Seven Samurai. However, where commonality unites these three samurai films, their visual expressiveness divides them in a unique fashion that weaves a tapestry of operatic Shakespearean candor. Rolling fog cascades the mountainous landscape, creating an illusion of ghostly aura, where man lies teetering on the brink of war. Lush, rain soaked forest sprawls in different directions like a spider’s web. Lofty garrisons loom over rocky, soot-burned terrain in an attempt at immortalizing man. It’s these set pieces that help pave the way for a stage that fuses Shakespeare with samurai, wielding a katana that cuts through theatre of yesteryear.
Underneath the turmoil of impending war in Macbeth is the fragility in masculinity that appears wholly expressive, as Kurosawa utilizes traditional Japanese symbolism to tell a tragedy that is familiar with adaptations. As Washizu becomes burdened by the weight of doubt and deceit, his face becomes withered and concave. When we are introduced to his wife Asaji, she wears makeup that is representative of classic Noh, a form of Japanese musical drama.
However, music is replaced with the howl of the elements surrounding Washizu’s garrison, and both Yamada’s makeup and Mifune’s expressive facial features showcase Noh’s integration of masks as a means of foretelling. It’s this foretelling nature that offers Kurosawa the ability to meld both Japanese theatre with that of Shakespeare, as Washizu’s gaunt features symbolize a man on the edge of sanity, driven further by the power of femininity and his own treacherous thoughts. Traditionally, Noh masks are worn by men in theatre, yet Asaji wears the face to symbolize the feminine power and sway over manipulated masculinity, often leading Washizu to second guess his own thoughts and actions.
As our ill-fated Macbeth sits solemnly with his wife, we are often looking in through doorways, detached from the reality of war. Resting upright in the background is Washizu’s katana, never far from reach. When he eventually pierces the armor of Lord Tsuzuki, it isn’t with his own weapon, but that of a spear handed to him by his wife. There’s a feminine control over Washizu that penetrates his own armor, weakening a man who feels like he is about to lose everything. As our tragedy progresses, Mifune gradually establish a crooked smile, often emulating the face of Hannya, female demons representative of extreme fear and jealousy.
Perhaps his own splintered masculinity begins to shapeshift into the woman closest to him who poisons his mind, or perhaps his face merely becomes a stronger ideal that realizes his error at a point of no return. As a volley of arrows from his own troops reign down on Washizu, our armor-clad Lord transitions from a spiritual being crippled by his own masculinity into a man indicative of his own violence. It isn’t the violence that is glorified, rather disillusioned, as he attempts to prop himself up with his own sword; a weapon that had until now lingered in the foreground as an observance of man and the casualty war has on the human spirit.