I’m generally not a fan of Asian filmmaking. Outside of the occasional bad horror movie or bad other-genre movie getting ripped by Mystery Science Theater 3000, the only quality Japanese films I have seen have been by Director Akria Kurosawa. In truth, I did not care for Roshomon, but I did thoroughly enjoy Throne of Blood.
I became aware of this movie a couple years ago when seeing a play of the same name in Shakespeare Town, Ashland, Ore. The program referenced that the play was based on this movie, which is a Japanese adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”. The play was stellar in an unsettelingly creepy way, and now that I have viewed the film, I see that it drew heavily from its inspiration.
A feudal kingdom is in the midst of war when we open. The Great Lord and his advisory panel are convinced the land will fall to its enemies, but are relieved when word arrives that two warriors have led victories on two battle fields. Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and Miki (Minoru Chiaki) are the heroes whom we meet on their journey back to Spiderweb Castle. En route they become lost in the woods surrounding the castle, the paths through which are spiderweb-like so as to protect the kingdom from enemies.
Soon the men hear a wicked laughter in the woods and come across a pale, white-haired androgynous person (Chieko Naniwa) who sits in a wall-less hut and manipulates yarn on a spinning wheel. The evil creature –as the men see it– prophesizes that Washizu is already master of the North Castle and Miki the commander of Fort One. The spirit also predicts that Washizu will become Great Lord of Spiderweb Castle one day as will Miki’s son.
Upon arrival at Spiderweb Castle, the Great Lord bestows upon the war heroes just what the spirit foretold. As time passes, Washizu becomes increasingly ambitious and eager to fulfill his destiny. When the Great Lord visits the North Castle, his wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) –possibly the human embodiment of the evil spirit– convinces Washizu to murder the lord and blame it on his guards. The man then seizes the throne even though many suspect he killed his way to the top.
Once established as lord of Spiderweb Castle, Washizu sees enemies on all sides. When he must choose an heir, he considers selecting Miki’s –his best friend since childhood– son, but Asaji suggests she is pregnant. The evil spirit visits Washizu once more to assure him he will not lose in battle until the trees of Spiderweb Forrest rise up against him. That prophecy unfolds.
When watching a foreign film, it is often difficult to judge the acting quality, but in Throne of Blood it is evident we aren’t watching the same cast as Goke, Body Snatchers from Hell. Mifune as Washizu is particularly impressive in his body language and facial expressions. His wife, played by Yamada, brings the creepy, manipulative role to dark places. She seems to be constantly in a subordinated position on the floor, yet yields great control over her man. The performance of the evil spirit by Naniwa is heightened by special effects. The white makeup, fog around her and warped voice would send a chill down anyone’s spine.
If you are looking for a great way to start off your Halloween season, or just want to see a brilliant rendition of “Macbeth”, Throne of Blood is not to be missed. The picture is also well restored on the Criterion Collection DVD, which I rented; although, it offers little in the way of bonus features.
Meet the witch (it arrives at minute 3):