Home > Multimedia Essays > Macbeth on Film: Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood

Macbeth on Film: Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood

Shakespeare is universal. His works can be well-appreciated across the world, transcending cultures, traditions, languages, and religions. Among the many themes that the playwright brought forth in his masterpieces is faith. Faith has played a very important role, and it is evident before the readers’ eyes. One example of this is his treatment of the subject of sin in his play, Macbeth. Although readers may find Macbeth as a play about crime, it is actually not about it. Crime is the mere “transgression of the law”, a “power struggle” to be exact. As opposed to sin being the “upsetting of the natural and divine order” thus identified by guilt which is in due respect to what is right. (Colston, 61). Religion, including the concept of a higher, supreme God, and the concept of sin,  is reflected and alluded in most of Shakespeare’s other plays as we also see in Hamlet.

Throne of Blood – Trailer

While the undeniable triumph of Kurosawa’s take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Throne of Blood, has lifted itself to become one among the few great moving pictures that successfully captured Shakespeare’s beauty in his plays, there is a colossal difference of the film compared to the original Macbeth.

The 1957 picture is nonetheless interesting as it is set on 16th century medieval Japan. The style of Noh, a highly abstract and philosophical Japanese dramatic form emphasizing the aspects of human action and emotion, is used. The plot is familiar as follows. Military victors Commanders Miki and Washizu are on their path back to the emperor’s castle when they get lost in Cobweb Forest. They soon encounter a mysterious ghost of time, spinning a spindle in the middle of the forest. This ghost predicted great success for both of the commanders: Washizu will be promoted and soon become emperor, but his descendants will not continue his legacy. Instead, it shall be Miki’s descendants who will reign as emperors. Both of them take the prophecy as nothing more than a joke, and though stunned over what has transpired, they carried on finding their way back to Cobweb Castle. When they arrive, the emperor takes them to his throne and promotes them accordingly to the ghost’s prophecy. The two commanders are, of course, astonished.

Throne of Blood Music by Masaru Sato

When Washizu’s wife Lady Akaji finds out about it, it gives her the confidence to manipulate her husband into killing the king in order to secure and to take hold of the emperorship for himself.

The spindle of the lady ghost symbolizes time, as the three witches of Fates exist in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, to tell the Past, Present and the Future. Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, will be Thane of Cawdor, and a king thereafter. But it is Banquo who shall beget kings even though he himself will not be one. When Scottish Thane, Ross announces the promotion of Macbeth to Thane of Cawdor, he confirms the prophecy of the witches. This gives Macbeth an exquisite and strange sense of victory, and wonders if he can truly gain more triumph in being a king.

What Banquo tells Macbeth of this is of importance,

…But ‘tis strange

And oftentimes to win us to our harm

The instruments of darkness tell us truths,

Win us with honest trifles to betray’s. (Act I, Scene III, 120-123)

This warning shoves Macbeth to a choice between good and evil. It is important because it portrays the disparity of the binomial, which concerns the very concept of sin. The prophecy serves as a temptation to Macbeth to choose what is evil, and thus to fall into sin. His sin causes his crime into killing King Duncan. However, this concept of sin is not shown in Kurosawa’s film, because the religion in medieval Japan is Shintoism with which its concept is not present. The impurities in this religion come from mourning and being ill instead.

Washizu’s guilt after he kills the emperor is depicted when he comes trembling upon seeing the ghost of Miki at the banquet. Even beforehand, he is conscious that what his wife is asking him to do is preposterously appalling and wicked, for the emperor trusts him. As a samurai, he draws the sword while his “opponent” is without his own, thus breaching the code of gentlemen. This guilt is unquestionably inconsistent, because he supposedly does not believe in sin in the first place, being of Shinto. If guilt is the manifestation of the condemnation due to sin, then his clamor might have only stemmed from his fear of the ghost itself, but not the fear of being separated from a supreme God, a God that is not a kami that he could worship and please through rituals. It is not only a samurai code that he breached, but of a divine order that he is apparently not aware of.

Toshiro Mifune as Washizu and Isuzu Yamada as Lady Akaji

Let us not forget Lady Macbeth who is a woman with a lust for power as represented in her “unsex me here” soliloquy on Act 1, Scene 5 where she asks for all the demons to take possession of her and to fill her with cruelty. Her washing of her hands in her sleepwalking signifies the washing away of her sins, but her suicide soon after affirms that she believes the guilt could not be washed away and she cannot live her life for it anymore. Though Lady Akaji is a part of the murder by manipulating her husband, her suicide is not supported by the same reason that Lady Macbeth killed herself for. (Or it could be, though we are not really sure.)

Not to mention, Kurosawa’s film does not have the last three prophecies of the apparitions given through the witches in Act IV Scene I. This is for Macbeth to “beware Macduff, Beware the Thane of Fife…” (83-84); that he should be “bloody, bold, and resolute. Laugh to scorn/ The power of man, for none of woman born/ Shall harm [him].” (95-97), because he “shall never vanquished be until/ Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill/ Shall come against him.” (108-110). This is because the character of Macduff is not even present in Kurosawa’s film. Washizu is instead killed by one of his soldiers who shot arrows until a fatal one pierced his neck.

The irony is well portrayed in the film. However, since it is set in ancient Japan, considering its culture, tradition and religion, the film may have failed to capture the very essence of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: sin and its consequences. Macbeth has lost everything that he possesses, his honor, his wife and his own life because he allowed himself to be deceived by what is seemingly good, but what is entirely evil. He took a bite of the poisonous apple; Washizu bit himself.

Colston, Ken. “Macbeth and the Tragedy of Sin.” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Volume 13, Number 4, Fall 2010, pp. 60-95 (Article)

Presented by:

Kristine Raphaelle de Ocampo

2008-78789 BA Creative Writing

UP Diliman

Categories: Multimedia Essays
  1. Camille Martinez
    February 27, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    When i saw this film two weeks ago, i thought it was a very clean adaptation of Macbeth. I wish i had read your essay before viewing it because i think the section on Shintoism is particularly interesting. In most high school classes dealing with Macbeth, teachers often ask the students decide if Macbeth is a victim or villain. I’ve always believed this binary was too clean. Looking at Macbeth in the context of Shinto beliefs somehow unsettles traditional analysis.

  2. March 24, 2011 at 10:52 pm

    It’s a very slow paced movie. It may get boring at times. But as the story progresses, it gets a bit more fast paced. There’s also this big difference between Throne of Blood and Macbeth, that in the former, Washizu (Macbeth) openly shares to his warriors that an evil spirit revealed to him that he won’t be defeated unless the forest comes to the castle. Miki (Banquo) also shares to his son about the possible succession. In Macbeth, we don’t see any of this. Well, this is a Japanese adaptation containing Japanese culture. I guess it’s because Japanese people believe more in spirits than Western people do. Not to mention their religion which is Shintoism.

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