#137: Throne of Blood

Like Macbeth, but in Japan

june gloom
4 min readMay 28, 2023

This review was originally posted to Twitter on July 14, 2019.

Initial release: January 15, 1957
Director: Akira Kurosawa

The 1950s and 60s were a ripe time for Japanese historical cinema (known collectively as jidai-geki.) Set in japan’s distant past, these films are a genre unto themselves. But only one is based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth: Akira Kurosawa’s Spiderweb Castle, known in the west as Throne of Blood.

Kurosawa has always drawn heavily from western sources for his films; indeed, some of his films were literally inspired by westerns, as well as film noir, and both of these influences are evident in Throne of Blood. It’s a good mix.

You might ask how a movie so thoroughly steeped in Japanese period drama could be a good adaptation of such a revered play. Simple: you set it in an unspecified time in the Sengoku period, roughly analogous to medieval Scotland, and change some names around. So for Macbeth we get Washizu, for Banquo we get Miki. Instead of kings and thanes we get daimyos and samurai. Elements of traditional Japanese noh theater are blended with western filmmaking techniques to use a western play to tell a fundamentally Japanese story. So what’s at heart a universal tale of murderous ambition, paranoia and hubris becomes a commentary on the fall of the samurai code and the seeming end of a chivalric way of life. Even Lady Washizu outright says it: “in this degenerate age, one must kill so as to not be killed.”

Side note: the Criterion collection release of this film does away with the original translation from the film’s first localization back in the early 1960s. Instead, it offers two alternatives. One is a brand new translation by film translator Linda Hoaglund; the other is from Donald Richie, a film historian and Kurosawa expert. Richie’s version actually dates to the production of the film, but Toho, the film company, nixed it in favor of another translation that is seen by some as subpar. For the purpose of this review I personally went with Hoaglund’s; her translation feels richer and more naturalistic.

As you might expect from Kurosawa, this is a very visually arresting film; Roman Polanski was heavily inspired by it for his own adaptation of Macbeth, but arguably the noh influence is a big part of what makes this film stand out, both in visuals as well as the score. Longtime Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune stars as Washizu, and he brings a boisterous, low-key angry energy to the role. But the real treat is Isuzu Yamada as Lady Washizu; her take on Lady Macbeth is fantastically creepy, calculating and manipulative. The evil forest spirit (the film’s take on the three witches) is just as creepy, especially in the later scene where Washizu returns to the forest for more advice. It’s not as bonkers as Polanski’s version but it’s deeply unsettling. The repeat elements of fog and the forest (and the way the very same forest the spirit lives in is used in the attack on the castle) give the film a claustrophobic feel; we can feel Washizu’s rising panic as he desperately tries to hold on to power. Late in the film a swarm of birds suddenly invade the castle en masse; bird sounds feature frequently throughout the film, but here they make a physical appearance. at first it seemed random, but then I realized it’s foreshadowing the enemy using the trees to conceal their approach. It’s a great scene, not least because it helps show how much Washizu is starting to come unhinged, as he’s the only one who insists this avian invasion is a good omen — the rest know it for what it is, a sign of things to come. The final scene, however, is an interesting twist on the usual ending of Macbeth. Instead of being cut down by the enemy, Washizu’s own men turn on him. An extended scene of him being beset by their arrows is terrifying and amazing, especially if you know the arrows are real. (Mifune had nightmares about that scene for a while afterwards, apparently; he had to use big movements to direct the archers so they wouldn’t hit him, and there was always the risk of an accident.)

Often hailed as one of the best adaptations of Macbeth (despite generally dropping the Macduff subplot), this is a solid entry in the samurai cinema canon. It’s a great melding of western and Japanese tradition for a highly stylistic take on the classic tragedy.




june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [she/her]