Investigating past Shakespeare related movies, books, TV specials and theater productions that are still handy for the modern actor and theater company
Actors and theater producers that tackle Shakespeare are often are looking for the “new thing” or the cutting edge take that will give shape to their roles and productions but there is a wide body of past work that we can pull from for new inspirations and interpretation for acting, directing and producing Shakespeare’s works. In this series of columns, I want to explore and rediscover these useful resources.
In this column:
“Throne of Blood” by Akira Kurosawa
James Shapiro, the Brooklyn born Shakespeare scholar, has been noted in saying that the hottest area of Shakespeare study today, both in the theater and scholarly circles, is in “international adaptations”, that is taking into account what Shakespeare means to any given country and exploring how the Bard’s material is shaped and interpreted by the local or national identities. There is a definite difference between what Shakespeare means to Americans vs. what it means to the British, or Brazilians or even Nigerians. The Globe to Globe Festival of 2012 hosted by Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London and the RSC’s Complete Works Festival of 2006 in Stratford both showcased this trend as they invited theater companies from around the world to bring various Shakespeare titles to their respective venues.
However, nothing in Shakespeare or theater is ever truly “NEW”. Adaptations of Shakespeare have been done continually since the plays were first produced and even Shakespeare was known to rewrite, revise, and update his plays as the various versions of “Hamlet” and “King Lear” can attest. So in this latest column, I want to review and examine one of the more famous film adaptations of Shakespeare, Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood”, based on “Macbeth”.
Released in 1957, the film feels still feels like a fresh take on the better known Scottish tale streamlining some character and plot points and feeling like a story that organically belongs to the Japan and the Noh theater tradition. Anyone looking to do an adaptation or different take on “Macbeth”, “King Lear”, or even the Henry VI plays would be remiss in not checking out this atmospheric masterpiece.
For most of us, “Macbeth” is one of the most accessible plays of Shakespeare in terms of pacing, story, depth and range of characters in the forms of Macbeth and his Lady, Banquo, MacDuff, Lady MacDuff and even smaller roles like the murderers and action scenes. For actors it’s a play that offers a range of great roles to play but also feared by actors as the play whose name must not be mentioned. A heavy feeling pervades the piece from start to finish with little comic relief and that nihilistic feeling easily translates from the more familiar Scottish trappings to the fog shrouded volcanic mountains of medieval Japan.
The title in Japanese in “"Kumonosu-jô", per the commentary on the film, translates to “Castle of the Spider’s Web”, while the title for the English release was the still evocative “Throne of Blood”. Spider’s Web castle is the film’s counterpart to Dunsinane Castle, while the surrounding Spider’s Web forest stands in for Birnam Wood. It also notes that “Macbeth” was Kurosawa’s favorite Shakespeare play where he enjoyed both the story of an ambitious general bent on becoming absolute ruler of his country but also the various supernatural elements which Kurosawa takes full advantage of.
Plot of the film
The film opens on a windswept and barren mountain landscape. Fog billows through many crags while a group of off screen men chant about dangers passed from long ago. As the camera travels through this shroud of rock and smoke, it centers on a lone pillar that stands as a monument to the castle that once stood on its site but now no trace remains – The Castle of the Spider’s Web. The men continually chant of how the location came to ruin through ambition and duplicity. The scene fades back to an earlier time and the full breath of Spider’s Web comes into view.
As in “Macbeth”, a great battle begins the story to defend the kingdom of the Lord Tsuzuki (Takamaru Sasaki), but gone is the somewhat grandfatherly figure of King Duncan and instead Tsuzuki is a hardened commander who has fought his way to top and rules with absolute authority. One frightened messenger after another arrives to tell their great ruler that their enemies have taken the series of fortresses that ring Spider’s Web castle and the situation looks dire. As Tsuzuki confers with his remaining commanders, word comes of the miraculous push back of their enemy’s forces by his generals (Minoru Chiaki) as the Banquo character and Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) as the Macbeth character. The military victory is one of stalemate as they take back fortresses captured in the latest skirmish. Lord Tsuzuki seeks to honor his valiant commanders with new promotions.
The tired and battle weary Miki and Washizu attempt to return to Spider’s Web castle but as the name indicates, the path is incredibly difficult and twisted. The pair ride for what seems like forever and in circles even questioning themselves the way to the castle that they’ve been to many times. The samurai soon discover a hut they’ve never seen before and a singing old woman. The woman pays them no attention as she simply spins a loom and appears to be sewing but instead is a wheel that collects a thread. She like the male voiceover chorus sings of humanity’s frailty and insignificance. Miki and Washizu attempt to speak with her but she already know who they are and tells them of new honors that await them at the house of their great lord. Also, that Washizu will become the Great Lord but Miki sons will rule after him.
The forest spirit disappears and as the two return to Tsuzuki's estate, the foretold rewards are granted on the dumfounded men. Washizu returns to his fortress stronghold and relays the fantastic events to Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) his wife. Like Lady Macbeth, Asaji sees that providence has visited on Washizu and he must act but while Lady Macbeth is showy and uses sex as a way to manipulate her husband, Asaji is cold, methodical and uses logic to manipulate her husband into considering killing their great lord.
As opposed to Duncan casually coming to Macbeth’s castle on what seems like a festive tour, the Great Lord arrives at Washizu’s palace for necessity. The enemy who launched the attack at the beginning of the movie is still out there and Lord Tsuzuki uses Washizu’s palace as a base of operations. Asaji uses the turn of events to further prod her husband toward assassination. The night of the murder plays out in a similar fashion, where the guards watching the Great Lord are drugged by Asaji with wine, here sake. The murder is more methodical than reflective but Washizu returns just as shaken to the core as his Scottish counterpart and Asaji takes charge to cover up their tracks by composing her husband and putting a bloody spear in the hands of one of the three unconscious guards. She yells "murder" through the courtyard, and Washizu stabs the guard before he has a chance to plead his innocence.
Great Lord Tsuzuki's vengeful son Kunimaru (Takamaru Sasaki) and an advisor named Noriyasu (Takashi Shimura) both suspect Washizu as the murderer and lead a thrilling chase from Washizu’s palace to the palace of Miki to warm him. As the two arrive at the palace, Miki denies them entry and as they are fired upon by Washizu’s men, the pair rush off into the wilderness to take refuge with the Tsuzuki’s old enemy. With the former Great Lord’s son and a rival out of the way, Washizu easily takes control, however, the other prophecy, that a son of his will never succeed weighs on Washizu’s mind.
Being that the forest spirit told him that Miki sons would rule, he decides to make Miki’s eldest son Yoshiteru (Akira Kubo) his heir apparent and make it official at a grand banquet. Asaji, though, will have none of this and she is the one who says that Miki cannot be trusted and eggs her husband on once more to murder his childhood best friend. Asaji sweetens the pot by telling her husband that she is pregnant with their first child. Although Miki has some reservations about the turn of events he is initially optimistic about Washizu’s plans for his son but at his son’s urging begins to reconsider the proposal.
The evening of the banquet arrives and despite their best efforts, the new royal couple make an awkward ruling pair. The court is decidedly on edge making the absence of Miki and his son all the more apparent. In this apprehension, Washizu begins to have fearful visions of seeing Miki’s ghost and challenges it to a duel. He and his wife try to calm their guests but each sighting of the ghost sends Washizu further into a rage even striking the mat intended for Miki. As Asaji urgently dismisses the guests, a guard arrives to inform Washizu that the order to murder Miki has been carried out and carrying his severed head, but that his son escaped.
Asaji soon has a miscarriage and news of an imminent invasion led by Tsuzuki’s son arrives and Washizu flies into a rage. He returns to the forest to summon the spirit for more prophecy and she tells him that he will not be defeated unless the trees of Spider's Web forest rise against the castle. Washizu scoffing at the impossibility of such an event uses the news to rally his troops. He informs them of the prophecy using it as a form divine propaganda that they will be victorious over any invasion. They share his confidence.
As he and his warriors wait for an attack, the cry of women is heard and Washizu finds Asaji in a crazed state trying to wash imaginary blood from her hands. A panicked soldier then arrives informing him that that the trees of Spider's Web forest have started to move toward the castle. The prophecy has come and Washizu decides to fight regardless. However, instead of dealing with the coming enemy, Washizu’s own men take revenge on him. Seeing that the prophecy was not a divine directive that Washizu would prevail but instead the spirits turning against him, the men take matters into their own hands and rain hours down on their commander. The enemy army arrives and its show that the trees were really just camouflage, bits of branches broken off to cover their numbers. The film concludes where it began on wind swept mountain focusing on a crumbling monument to a long gone castle with the chorus of men chanting on the futility of ambition.
Interesting Diversions from “Macbeth”
I’ve pointed out several parallels to the play in the movie’s synopsis but some of Kurosawa’s changes to the story work well and better suit the Japanese setting. The Malcolm and MacDuff characters are almost non-existent in the film and really their counterparts only serve to create antagonists for Washizu. The Act 4 scene with Malcolm and MacDuff where the two try to feel each other out for treachery can be somewhat boring and is a stumbling block for most productions and in this case Kurosawa intentionally leaves it undeveloped. While in a longer version, you could have had the characters developed, the movie doesn’t really loose anything from not having these characters more present.
Asaji as the Lady Macbeth character does many of Lady M’s signature moves such as egging her husband on to kill his king, assisting to cover up the murder and going mad in the end with the hand washing scene, however, she goes about it in much more different way. As opposed to an over sexual being, who manipulates he her husband through emotion and sentiment, Asaji is the polar opposite taking a cold and direct voice to her husband’s ambition. She is very direct and matter of fact and totally right about everything she says. She is the voice that you know is right but do not want to listen to.
Another change is that in the play once King Duncan is dead and the couple is crowned, Lady Macbeth thinks its smooth sailing, however, Asaji here tells Washizu that Miki and his son must be killed if their reign is to continue. The idea of keeping the country in a constant state of war where Washizu is suspected of killing the king from the start works nicely to keep the tension ever present and plays better in the historical context of ever warring clans jousting back and forth for power. What doesn’t really work is the death of Miki where its set up very well but you never see Washizu really fret over it or give the order or even see it carried out. Its sort of decided on and we get to the banquet and a ghost randomly shows up. For a film that spends a lot of time on atmosphere and build up Miki’s “Banquo at the party” scene feels underwhelming.
Asaji’s pregnancy works well to justify the Miki’s murder and her miscarriage is serves as nice turning of the tide against Washizu that prompts him to return to the forest. We really don’t lose anything pairing down three witches to one as the forest spirit is sufficiently creepy and theatrical and really just dealing with one prophecy as opposed to three works well to streamline the end of the movie.
Its hardly a spoiler to note that Washizu dies at the end as does Macbeth, however, HOW he dies is one of the main departures from Shakespeare’s play. The decision is a tour de force both from a cinematic standpoint and story standpoint. The final death or judgment of Washizu doesn’t come in a one-on-one duel with the man whose family he killed in the form of a MacDuff character, but it is Washizu’s own men or country who take revenge on him. Like many an Asian leader before him, Washizu uses the prophecy as his royal claim as he was inspired by a divine vision to assume control and this legitimizes his rule. However, as the trees of Spider’s Web forest appear to march toward the castle, the men become afraid that powers that be have turned against their commander and he must be purged.
First a single arrow lands in the wall next to Washizu and as he protests another and yet another rain down on him. Finally, the ambitious commander is done is by a hail of arrows from all of his archers in what has become one of cinema’s greatest death scenes. Viewers are certainly impressed with the scope of arrows being visited on both the actor and the surrounding set and with the intensity that they hit. This is because they were using REAL ARROWS as this site’s video explains.
The actor Toshiro Mifune wore planks of wood under his costume to receive the arrows that were had pins on the end of them so they would stick into the wood. The prop master on the film is interview and states the needles were about as thick as those found on phonograph players. Mifune needed several drinks after the shooting the scene as he joking notes.
“Washizu's famous death scene, in which his own archers turn upon him and fill his body with arrows, was in fact performed with real arrows, a choice made to help Mifune produce realistic facial expressions of fear. The arrows seen to impact the wooden walls were not superimposed or faked by special effects, but instead shot by choreographed archers. During filming, Mifune waved his arms, ostensibly because his character was trying to brush away the arrows embedded in the planks; this indicated to the archers the direction in which Mifune wanted to move.”
What is Noh Theater?
The stylistic presentation of the film’s setting and characters is based on a style of Japanese theater called “NoH’ The word in Japanese can mean skill or faculty and is older than the more commonly known Kabuki dating from the 14th century. Noh theater is often based on tales from traditional literature with a supernatural being transformed into human form as a hero narrating a story. The style bears some resemblance to Greek theater in that they use masks, a chorus that comments on the events, costumes and various props in a dance-based performance. Emotions and motives are conveyed using stylized conventional gestures and the masks present the various archetypes.
- Shite(仕手, シテ). In plays where the shite appears first as a human and then as a ghost, the first role is known as the maeshite and the later as the nochishite.
- Shitetsure(仕手連れ, シテヅレ). The shite's Sometimes shitetsure is abbreviated to tsure (連れ, ツレ), although this term refers to both the shitetsureand the wakitsure.
- Kōken(後見) are stage hands, usually one to three people.
- Jiutai(地謡) is the chorus, usually comprising six to eight people.
- Waki(脇, ワキ) performs the role that is the counterpart or foil of the shite.
- Wakitsure(脇連れ, ワキヅレ) or Waki-tsure is the companion of the waki.
- Kyōgen(狂言) perform the aikyōgen (間狂言) interludes during plays. Kyōgen actors also perform in separate plays between individual noh plays.
- Hayashi(囃子) or hayashi-kata (囃子方) are the instrumentalists who play the four instruments used in Noh theater: the transverse flute (笛 fue?), hip drum (大鼓ōtsuzumi?) or ōkawa (大皮?), the shoulder-drum (小鼓 kotsuzumi?), and the stick-drum (太鼓 taiko?). The flute used for noh is specifically called nōkan or nohkan (能管?).
“A typical Noh play always involves the chorus, the orchestra, and at least one shite and one waki actor.
Noh performance combines a variety of elements into a stylistic whole, with each particular element the product of generations of refinement according to the central Buddhist, Shinto, and minimalist aspects of Noh's aesthetic principles.”
If you are looking for an interesting take on your next Shakespeare production or looking to do something with a more international feel to it, nothing can quite compare to this cinematic classic. The themes of ambition leading to ruin feel like they spring from the midst of Mount Fuji as opposed to England or Scotland and lend a very contemporary feel for a nearly 60 year old film. Thus it reinforces how adaptable Shakespeare is and open to an infinite amount of interpretation. Theatrical in its presentation and execution, Kurosawa’s film never loses its connection to the stage play on which its based and is still a riveting movie for Shakespeare fans, theater practioners looking for ideas and just for lovers of film.
“Throne of Blood” is available on Amazon, see its page here: