January 27, 2018

Throne of Blood (1957)
Grade: 90/100

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Akira Kubo

What it's about. Set in Medieval Japan. Tsuzuki (Takamaru Sasaki) is a regional warlord, and his power base is a group of fortresses, first among which is the Castle of the Spiders Web Forest. His top military commanders, Washizu (Toshirô Mifune) and Miki (Akira Kubo) suppress an armed rebellion, and are summoned to a meeting with Tsuzuki.

They become lost in the Spiders Web Forest, where they encounter an evil spirit (Chieko Naniewa). They communicate with her, and learn their futures: both Washizu and Miki will receive immediate promotions. Washizu is destined to rule the Spiders Web castle, and Miki's son will succeed him.

The two men attempt to laugh off the meeting, but the spirit's prophesies soon begin to materialize. Washizu's cunning and scheming wife, Lady Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), convinces Washizu to murder his Lordship and assume his position. After the fact, he is supported by Miki, and as a reward, Washizu attempts to name Miki's son as his heir.

But Lady Asaji is pregnant, and prefers her unborn child to inherit command of the Spiders Web Castle. This time, her ambitious plans fail, and Washizu's position becomes precarious as former allies turn against him.

How others will see it. Throne of Blood is generally regarded as the best of the many adaptations of "Macbeth". Among Kurosawa films, though, it definitely trails The Seven Samurai in reputation, and is part of a pack of other highly admired Kurosawa movies, most of which (except Ikiru and Dersu Uzala) star the wildman Mifune.

Throne of Blood was a box office hit in Japan, and overcame the high costs of clearing the land and building a fortress on the steep slope of Mount Fuji. Despite Kurosawa's reputation and body of prior work, Throne of Blood was mostly ignored by international film festivals.

Today at imdb.com, though, the movie has a fairly high user vote total of 36K, and an uncommonly high user rating of 8.1 out of 10. This ranking is highest among men under 45. Women over 45 are outliers and grade it much lower, a mere 5.8. They presumably dislike the film's only major female character, murderous schemer Lady Asaji.

How I felt about it. Throne of Blood was the first Kurosawa film I ever watched, way back in 1985. It has always remained my favorite Kurosawa movie, even though The Seven Samurai is more widely acclaimed, as is, for that matter, Ran.

They are both great movies, no doubt, and in fact it appears that every Kurosawa movie is at least good. I have yet to see one that was mediocre. Kurosawa is likely the best film director who ever lived.

What makes Throne of Blood great? Is it because the story is based on William Shakespeare's "Macbeth"? Partly. The story allows the forest witch, Lady Asaji, and of course, Washizu to have gloriously hammy roles. And who can forget the dramatic ending, the waves of arrows that fill Washizu full of fear before taking his life?

There is a moral here, about the downside of ambition. It can make you believe that you are entitled to honors you don't merit, and can set you up for a fall. Ostensibly, Washizu is punished for his murders of his Lordship and Miki, but we know it is ambition that kills him, and even curses his spirit beyond the grave. Although Lady Asaji presumably survives, she has gone mad, a divine punishment for her sinister plotting.