Review: Throne of Blood (1957)

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Fans of Japanese cinema and excellent cinema in general should be no strangers to the works of Akira Kurosawa. Regular readers will have seen me (and others here, too!) swoon and spout hyperbole over many of his films. With good reason, mind you — many of them have become fixtures in critics’ lists of top films: action masterpiece The Seven Samurai, lone samurai classics Yojimbo and Sanjuro, study in truth Rashomon and the colour-drenched epic Ran in particular.

Shamelessly, I’m going to do it again. Throne of Blood is a particular favourite of mine, for the characterisation of its leads, and for its stunning cinematography. The story will be familiar to anyone (like so many who’ve been through the Australian school system) who’s read, studied or seen William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Kurosawa takes the story and transplants it to feudal Japan, with Lord Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) playing the part of Macbeth, a general who (along with Miki, played by Akira Kubo) has proven himself in battle by holding a major fort against attack for his lord.

On their way home, however, Washizu and Miki are entangled in the forest that surrounds their lord’s castle by some form of eldritch glamour, stumbling about in the gloaming until they encounter a spirit. Here, a series of prophecies are uttered: Washizu will be given command of Fort One, and later he will be given the Castle. Miki will be given Fort Two, and his son will also command the Castle. The unspoken implication here, of course, is that Washizu’s mastery of his realm will be temporary at best, since Miki’s son is fated to succeed him.

When they finally reach their lord’s castle, they found that the rewards that were prophesied — that the two generals will gain Forts One and Two — have come true. Washizu confides in his wife, eerily played by Isuzu Yamada, and she urges him to take action to complete the picture and do away with his lord and master, along with Miki.

Shot in B&W, Throne of Blood is a great-looking film, with some of the best use of black and white images I’ve seen in cinema. The elements are in full display, with rain and fog coating the film for the early scenes in the forest, and light streaming through to eerily paint the pale spirit the generals encounter. Lord and Lady Washizu look fantastic, their makeup, movement and characters inspired by traditional Noh theatre. Lady Washizu stalks around the sets, the rustle of her clothing the only movement we see, while her husband (with Mifune’s usual larger-than-life physical presence) storms around the room. The emotional trauma caused by the prophecy is displayed very well through Mifune’s physical performance, from the hardworking, loyal general we meet at the start of the film, to the maddened, delusional lord he becomes.

See it, and then see all the other Kurosawa you can get your paws on. It’s worth it.

10 arrows puncturing Toshiru Mifune out of 10.
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