Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-jō) (1957)

***A fair warning: This post will contain spoilers for both Throne of Blood and Macbeth. It's based on Macbeth. The story's been around for about 400 years. Spoilers aren't really an issue for something like that***

There's always been somewhat of a cultural gulf between the anglosphere and Japan. From language to social attitudes to food to media, everything is different whether it's by a little or by a lot. SOme of the best modern films trade on this fact to make an impact. Two of my favourite films of the last decade are set in Tokyo and use the almost alien locale to paint massively different pictures for a Western audience: Lost in Translation uses it simply as a slightly offbeat and eccentric backdrop while Enter the Void embraces the neon and sleaze of the Japanese underworld to create an outright trippy experience.

So in a way Throne of Blood comes as a bit of a surprise. This is a film created completely by a Japanese crew, actors and director. This is the country that gave us the crazy and fantasical Studio Ghibli films and Miyazaki's anime creations. Then, of course, there is Throne of Blood's director Akira Kurosawa who brings a grounded and powerful adaptation of one of the West's classics.

Set in feudal Japan, this version of the Scottish play follows Washizu, a general and leader of the First Fortress, who upon meeting with a spirit in the forest is told he will one day became the Great Lord of Spider's Web Castle. From this moment on a huge doom-laden shadow covers the events of Wushizu's life as, at the behest of his wife, he goes on to satisfy what may have always been a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Adaptations of Shakespeare are a dime a dozen.  As much as I scoff at Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet, plonking the star-crossed lovers in 1990s LA complete with original script was a ballsy, brilliant, brilliant idea. Unique spins on the classic tales like that can either make or break an adaptation. But using feudal Japan as the tapestry hits the balance right and is makes Kurosawa's film still feel fresh while not straying too far from the source. "A land ruled by lords and violent power" could refer to both 1600s Scotland and Japan easily.

This film is a powerhouse of classic cinema. The theme of a never-ending circle of violence (one major difference to the source material being the King Duncan analogue seized the throne by killing his predecessor himself) along with Kurosawa's beautiful direction to create a landscape as haunting and desolate as the highlands brings this darkest of Shakespeare's plays to a beautifully tragic adaptation.