“Throne of Blood” – A.J. Hakari

After finishing Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, I pondered exactly why it was such a rousing success. A tale of murder, deceit, and the supernatural, set squarely in the midst of samurai culture, Throne of Blood packs in more harrowing drama than you can shake a stick at. But is this due to the storytelling prowess of veritable film god Kurosawa, or is its success due to being based upon none other than William Shakespeare’s own play “Macbeth”? The answer is a combination of both; in adapting the Bard’s work to a foreign but surprisingly similar setting, Kurosawa has transformed Throne of Blood not merely into a superior samurai flick but also into one of the best films he’s ever worked on.

Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and Miki (Akira Kubo) are two commanders in service to the kindly lord of the looming, fog-drenched Spider’s Web Castle. After successfully battling away enemy forces, the pair find themselves lost in their kingdom’s mazelike forest en route to the castle. They end up confronting a ghostly old woman (Cheiko Naniwa) who informs the men that not only are they about to rise in the ranks, but that one day, Washizu will be lord of Spider’s Web Castle. Washizu and Miki shrug the whole experience off as a nightmare, until they’re both indeed promoted by their lord. Such a coincidence doesn’t go unnoticed by Washizu’s manipulative wife (Isuzu Yamada), who goads her hubby into fulfilling the old crone’s prophecy, igniting a violent rise to power that may very well prove to be Washizu’s undoing.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that because you know the basics of what goes down in “Macbeth,” watching Throne of Blood will be a boring trudge through the same, slightly-reworked motions. True, the stories share more than a little in common with one another, with the turn of events in each being pretty much exactly the same. But what sets Throne of Blood apart from being just another Shakespeare adaptation boils down to a matter of every real estate agent’s motto: location, location, location. With its burly battles, cast of hundreds, and larger-than-life performances, the samurai genre is just begging to receive a certain theatrical touch, and here, a dose of the Bard is just what Kurosawa needed to make his tale come alive. Not so much concerned with racking up a massive body count, Kurosawa sets his sights on constructing a grand tragedy, a feat he accomplishes with almost effortless brilliance.

First and foremost, Throne of Blood is a triumph of sheer atmosphere. The film begins with a marker indicating where Spider’s Web Castle once stood, then suddenly, the castle itself appears out of the mist, suggesting that the story that’s about to unfold is a vicious cycle that will continue repeating itself until the end of time. The sets also figure greatly into the tone of the plot; as expansive as some of them are, there’s an ever-increasing sense of loneliness and isolation as Washizu blindly concerns himself with amassing power, despite alienating those in his thrall just as quickly. But pitch-perfect set design and chilling aura aside, what’s key to Throne of Blood’s success is the quality of its performances, all of which are positively sterling. Right off the bat, there’s the great Toshiro Mifune, giving yet another compelling turn as Washizu, who begins the film as a noble man with a good conscience and ends it a cackling, power-hungry mess, his transformation serving as the picture’s emotional backbone. Just as admirable is Yamada as Washizu’s cunning spouse, subtly setting her husband’s own rise to power into motion while dealing with some personal demons that come as a result. Plus, Kurosawa caps everything off with an incredible climax, which I can only describe as possessing possibly the most heart-pounding archery you’ve ever seen in a film.

Throne of Blood is one of those movies that’s a masterpiece merely because it does what it does extremely well. Its story is indeed one that’s been told before, but it spins its own version with an irresistible combination of fierce performances, perfect atmosphere, and a fascinating plot that balances drama teeming with treachery with the samurai film’s signature swordplay. Even for a director whose rap sheet is filled with some of the greatest pictures you’ve ever seen, Throne of Blood is a true example of a man at the top of his cinematic game.

Rating: ★★★★

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

Read Chris Luedtke’s Throne of Blood review here.

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