Throne of Blood (1957)


For his next film Kurosawa would once again return to the jidai-geki, or period picture.

Throne of Blood would be the first of three Shakespeare adaptations by Kurosawa. Ran and The Bad Sleep Well would be the other two (the latter is only loosely based on Hamlet).

Kurosawa chose 16th century Japan as the setting for Throne of Blood, as he saw similarities between what was going on in Scotland at the time of Macbeth and what happened in his country in the 16th century.

In Japan this time period was known as the Age of the Country at War. It was a time when, not unlike what happens in Macbeth, lords were being killed and overthrown constantly.

In Throne of Blood Kurosawa injected one other notable domestic tradition into the English play, the Japanese Noh theater.

Noh is a style of Japanese theater that began during the 13th century and was widely popular during the time Throne of Blood is set. Noh dramas can still be seen today in Japan.

Noh is characterized by its minimal set, unique music and masks which the actors wear.

Kurosawa inserted all of these elements into his film.


The film begins with a messenger returning to his castle to bring news from the battlefield. When it looked like all was lost, commanders Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and Miki (Minoru Chiaki) held the forces back and secured victory.

While returning from battle the two men become lost in Spider's Web Forest. There the come across an evil spirit (here Kurosawa replaces the three witches in Macbeth with a more traditional Japanese hag).

The spirit tells Washizu that he will become leader of the North Garrison and eventually Great Lord of Spider's Web Castle. The spirit also tells Miki that he will become leader of the First Castle and his son will eventually rule as Great Lord.

Of course, the evil spirits predictions come true. Washizu, perfectly content at his post as leader of the North Garrison, is urged by his wife to murder the Great Lord and secure his position now.

Washizu eventually cracks under the pressure and assassinates the Great Lord. After Lady Washizu learns that Washizu intends to announce Miki's son as his heir, she hatches a plot to kill them both. Only Miki is killed.

A battle looms on the horizon as opposition forces move to reclaim the throne of Spider's Web Castle. Washizu, who has gone almost completely mad with paranoia, returns to the forest to seek out another prediction from the spirit.

The spirit, as in Macbeth, tells Washizu that unless the forest moves, Washizu will not be defeated.

With renewed confidence Washizu returns to the castle. The next day he awakes to panicked soldiers. The forest has begun to move.

Finally Washizu's own forces (there is no Macduff character in Throne of Blood) turn on him and begin to loose volley upon volley of arrows at him. He is struck several times, but the final blow pierces his neck.

He slowly walks down from his perch on the castle walls and collapses in front of his men while the enemy slowly creeps towards the castle.


Anyone who knows the story of Macbeth knows the fate of Washizu from the very beginning of the film. But even those who are not familiar with the play learn from the opening narration of the film that this will not be a happy story.

Kurosawa filmed Throne of Blood on Mount Fuji, and as a result there was a tremendous amount of fog that contributed to the setting of the film.

Not only did it help establish the grim and dark times of Japan's 16th century, but it contributed strongly to the theme of the film.

One loses their way easily in fog. Just as Washizu is lost in Spider's Web Forest and the fog leading to Spider's Web Castle, he is also becoming lost within his soul.

The uncertainty of the fog is contrasted with the inevitability of fate that permeates the film. Through a series of bad omens and foreshadowing, we know that Washizu is doomed from the time the spirit makes its predictions.

"Life can always be improved," says a soldier in Washizu's army. These soldiers are often the source of hints to Washizu's fate. When the final battle approaches, they talk about the rats that have left the castle. "Rats flee a house before it burns," one says.

While those around him are frightened when birds start to flock into the castle, Washizu merely laughs it off, not realizing that it is because the approaching army is causing the birds to flee the trees that are being cut down.

Washizu goes through a stark transformation throughout the film. In the beginning, he is simply proud of what he has done on the battlefield, but after he learns of the spirits predictions, a conflict grows inside of him.

The scenes between Washizu and Lady Washizu (both wearing make-up that resemble Noh masks) are key to Washizu's transformation.

While Washizu contemplates, we see in the background a horse being tamed. The horse is a mirror of Washizu's inner conflict. He is torn between his duty and his ambition. Almost the exact same scene occurs later when Lady Washizu talks of killing Miki.

"Ambition makes a man," Lady Washizu says.

Lady Washizu herself is just as ill-fated as her husband. When the Great Lord comes to stay at Washizu's castle, Washizu and Lady Washizu must stay in the room of the former lord who, though dead, has left blood stained walls in the room.

No matter how hard they scrub, two men say, the stains will not come off. This comment is more foreshadowing, for at the end of the film when Washizu goes to his wife, he finds her frantically attempting to wash her hands of imaginary blood.

Throne of Blood is one of if not Toshiro Mifune's best roles in a Kurosawa film. With the exception of perhaps Tajomaru in Rashomon and Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai, Mifune has not exhibited so much energy in a film.

Kurosawa once said of Mifune, "The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three."

This statement rings true especially in Throne of Blood, where Washizu changes emotions quite rapidly at times. Mifune becomes Washizu, and because of this brings a very real air to the character in the film.

For a Kurosawa film, Throne of Blood contains few close-ups. Because of its Noh underpinnings, the film is shot many times like it was being filmed on a theater stage.

At one point in the film, Washizu kills a messenger and instead of cutting in or moving the camera, the camera remains stationary, as if the audience were observing a play.

"Here stood Spider's Web Castle," says the inscription on the monument at the end of Throne of Blood.

It is a solemn reminder that we should not forget our past and that it is possible to learn from it. But like many Kurosawa films, Throne of Blood takes a bit of a pessimistic attitude toward the future.

This film certainly does not end on a high note. With the opposing army approaching, we cannot help but feel that these types of events will continue for centuries, and indeed they do throughout the world.