You could do a thesis studying Lady Washizu’s eyes in Akira Kurosawa’s underrated masterpiece “Throne of Blood.” Isuzu Yamada is brilliant as the feudal Japan equivalent of Lady Macbeth, at once appearing sinister and manipulative just in the way she controls her body’s stillness and gaze into nothingness. And when you realize she’s capable of overcoming the powerhouse acting of even Toshiro Mifune, you realize how eerily wonderful this entire film is.
“Throne of Blood” is possibly the best Shakespearean adaptation ever made, rivaled only by Kurosawa’s own “Ran,” which adapted “King Lear” rather than “Macbeth.” It’s a loose retelling that takes liberties with the story and especially the language, but Kurosawa’s interest lies not in making a poetic character drama but a tight, haunting genre picture that finds poetry in its cinematography.
Lady Washizu never dances around the kill or be killed paradox running through “Macbeth,” and her character rapidly develops as someone capable of eating away at every inhibition we carry. What Mifune’s character Washizu is left with is his own hubris and apprehensions, all compiling to build toward his tragic (and awesome) death.
Despite Shakespeare’s powerful tragedy, the story is almost a side factor to Kurosawa’s enchanting mash-up of Japanese Noh Theater and Western movie imagery.
Interior shots are particularly theatrical, and the camera beacons and teases the audience and the characters by starkly isolating them to the point of vulnerability. The framing is impeccable in the dinner scene in which Washizu awaits his guest of honor and rival Miki (Akira Kubo), and there’s no question from Kurosawa’s off-kilter camera how crazed and engrossing the lengthy, uncomfortable moment is.
As for the exteriors, Mifune is a commanding presence unlike any actor Japanese or American, and yet Kurosawa is capable of dwarfing him with thunderous surroundings, eerily luminous lighting amidst forestry and the Godlike effervescence of the film’s evil spirit. Kurosawa captures fog in his shots like few directors, and in smaller scope scenes he controls it even further to skillfully mask the studio space as we venture into the evil spirit’s ghastly hollow.
But above all else, “Throne of Blood” is famous for its unbelievable finale. An over-confident Washizu barks at his men to enter into a losing battle, and his archers betray him in a hellfire of arrows. The scene is done with real arrows and without special effects, and it has the power of engulfing us in madness as we watch. It’s also followed by one of the best movie deaths ever as a defeated Washizu staggers aimlessly with an arrow jutting from his throat.
How “Throne of Blood” could be little seen or underrated amongst Kurosawa’s oeuvre is beyond me. He made it in 1957 shortly after his triple play of “Rashomon,” “Ikiru” and “Seven Samurai” and didn’t exactly break new ground in storytelling or action direction the way he did in those films. But as a cinematic masterstroke first and Shakespearean adaptation second, it deserves a place amongst Kurosawa’s finest.