Had Shakespeare been a feudal Japanese playwright rather than the European that we know him to be, then Akira Kurosawa's adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth - entitled Throne of Blood (1957) - is the closest that we will get. This is possibly one of the greatest film portrayals of Macbeth, in that Throne of Blood is distinctly its own film while still holding true to the basic plot of Shakespeare's classic tragedy. Naturally - as the title would imply - blood will be shed for the throne sealing the destiny of many and resulting in self-fulfilled prophecy as well.Starring the always magnificent actor Toshirõ Mifune in the lead role as Washizu (Macbeth), Washizu is the general of the first fortress of Spider Web Castle. After defending the fortress against the approaching armies of the local enemy Inui, Washizu and the general of the second fortress (Miki) are on their way to Spider Web Castle to report to the Great Leader of their triumph in battle. However, on the way to the castle, both of them get lost in Spider Web Forest (known for its misleading paths) and encounter an evil spirit that tells both of them their future. The spirit tells Washizu that he will soon be the Lord of the North Castle and that Miki will be promoted to the first fortress. Both of them are skeptical, but the evil spirit continues with his prophecies by stating that Washizu will eventually be promoted to the Great Leader of Spider Web Castle and that Miki's son would be the the Great Leader after Washizu passes away.
The events that follow are a series of self-fulfilled prophecy as leaders are murdered and positions of hierarchy are negotiated over.
Filmed in black and white, director Akira Kurosawa used this to his advantage by allowing layers of fog and smoke to separate the screen in many scenes. At times, the layers of fog and smoke are so thick that the audience is as lost as the characters as they ride to Spider Web Castle. The fog also adds a level of horror to the scenes with the evil spirit (specifically during the spirit's supernatural moments). As the evil spirit morphs into kabuki warrior style appearances, lightning is striking and rain is pouring only adding to the intensity of Washizu's meeting with this ancient spirit.
Notably, there are also many riveting tracking shots as Washizu runs out of the gate of the North Castle with sword in hand, and when he rides his horse towards the camera in hot pursuit of the rightful heir to the throne. These camera movements intensify the scene while adding an aware sense of artistry. Simply showing Washizu on a horse in full samurai armor would be exciting, but the tracking camera heightens the action and adds an extra dimension to the events on the screen.
Toshirõ Mifune - an actor who has been in many lead roles in Kurosawa's films such as Stray Dog (1949), Rashomon (1950), and most famously Seven Samurai (1954) - is essentially Kurosawa's Robert De Niro. His versatility in every film role is remarkable as he shifts his hair styles and facial hair to fit into the soul of the character. Only three years after Kurosawa's samurai epic Seven Samurai, Toshirõ validates his abilities again by transforming from a rebellious wannabe-samurai into a samurai general for Throne of Blood. As Washizu, Toshirõ captures the essence of a power hungry leader, but he also masterfully captures the inner battles taking place within his Macbeth based character. The paranoia that he experiences as he thinks he sees the ghost of his friend (whom he betrayed) is completely believable... but much of the credit has to go to director Akira Kurosawa.
What separates Akira Kurosawa from other jidaigeki directors (samurai movie filmmakers) is that Kurosawa is not as concerned with the samurai as other Japanese filmmakers. Kurosawa is always more concerned with the humans under the armor rather than romanticizing the samurai bushido. With Throne of Blood being based upon Shakespeare, American and European audiences could relate to the film while Japanese audiences would be able to relate to the highly dramatic samurai setting of the film.
Inspired by Kurosawa's samurai films Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), legendary western filmmaker Sergio Leone changed the western in the same way that Kurosawa changed the samurai film. Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dollars (1964), For A Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966) are all brilliant films because they relied less upon the actual wild west and more upon character development. The cowboy is the American samurai, but the only great westerns are the ones like Sergio Leone's Clint Eastwood epics.
Throne of Blood is a samurai epic that is much more than just a samurai film because of its Shakespearean roots, but its at Kurosawa's credit that the film is as perfectly executed. While maintaining the history and culture of Japan, Kurosawa masterfully adapts Shakespeare into the roots of Japan making Throne of Blood an instant classic and dramatic achievement.
My ranking: 5/5