As I have said before, the best production of Shakespeare I have ever seen live was a post-apocalyptic setting for Henry V. Musing about this performance years later, I decided I wanted to see some of the more nontraditional productions of Shakespeare out there and see how the traditional readings can be upended. Sitting through several seminars involving Shakespeare as an undergraduate, the importance of seeing a performance rather than reading a play became more and more apparent, and the oft cited influence of seeing Pinter performed assured me this was the proper slant.
Near the top of my list was Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, a version of Macbeth set in Samurai Japan. A haunting production, the stand out performance of Toshiro Mifune as Washizu, the Macbeth role, solidly grounds what I think is a fantastic movie. But for the basis in Shakespeare’s Scottish play, I have come to view it as less as Japanese version as merely a film inspired by it.
There is the Oriental notion of determinism that is at odds with the Western concept of individual free will. The characters in Throne of Blood seem to be fated to the events described by the haunting specter at the film’s beginning, but more likely they just buy into it so strongly that they see no other way. From the start we know Macbeth is a corrupt figure, but Washizu has noble influences, and believes strongly in his friend’s faithfulness and the justness of the rule of his Great Lord. Macbeth is merely talked into committing a murder he wants to commit anyway, while Asaji, Washizu’s wife, has to psychologically manipulate her husband in order to force his hand. The latter is a much more chilling display, perfectly captured by Isuzu Yamada. And unlike King Duncan, the Great Lord attained his position by killing his predecessor; in fact, the only way it seems possible to move up in the society surrounding the film is to emerge with violence. Therefore Shakespeare’s play shows us a world sunk by Macbeth’s corruption, whereas Washizu is part of a corrupt world already and subject to the pressures of such a place.
We can best see the arguments over determinism after the initial scene of the film as Washizu and Miki (Banquo) are riding through Spider’s Web Forest when they come across an evil spirit, at least a spirit identified as evil by the two men. She claims that both men will be promoted, and that one day Washizu will be the Great Lord and that later Miki’s son will be the Great Lord as well. Afterwards at the castle of the great Lord, both are given their promotions and the beginnings of the prophecy start to become true.
Yet, most of the action in the film is avoidable: had Washizu not listened to his wife’s claims against the Great Lord and Miki then wouldn’t he have just continued as Commander of the North Garrison? And his followers would never have turned on Washizu had he not informed them of the prophecy about the forest rising up against him. These were all choices he made, not actions he was fated to go through.
Despite the departures from Shakespeare’s play, I felt Throne of Blood to be one of the finest pieces from Kurosawa I have yet to see. It moved me, horrified me, in a way that Macbeth has never done before, especially Yamada’s barely audible manipulations that are delivered so realistically as the dominated ancient Japanese wife. Whether or not you concur with my analysis of the free will v. determinism argument in the film, or whether you think it is even there at all, seeing this movie will likely cause you to question your beliefs and never look at Macbeth the same way again.