Throne of Blood: Is it Shakespeare?

by Cathy Cupitt


There has been some debate amongst critics about whether cross-cultural adaptations of Shakespeare, such as the film Throne of Blood, are so removed from the source text that they are no longer Shakespeare. In this paper I will be looking at the sources of influence in Throne of Blood that have contributed to this perceived 'distancing' from Macbeth, and the main differences between the two texts.

Sources of Influence
Akira Kurosawa was the writer/director of Throne of Blood, and the film is a combination of many of his loves. Throne of Blood was released in 1957, and it was his sixteenth film.
1 Kurosawa has been influenced by both foreign and Japanese art forms, which is readily apparent in his films. So much so, that he has been labelled "Japan's most Western director".2

Perhaps the most significant factor in his stylistic development as a director was WWII. At the time that Kurosawa was developing his own distinctive style the censors had great power. During the war it was the Japanese who dictated content, and after it the Occupying American's had censorial control. However, his love of foreign literature and film predated this era.3

The background and cultural heritage of the writer/director are significant factors in the reinterpretation of Shakespeare's play. As a Western viewer of Throne of Blood, it is all too easy to read the film as Shakespeare, and not recognise the other important traditions heavily used in the film - the tradition of Japanese Noh theatre, and the historical background of the chosen setting.

Without some cross-cultural understanding it is all too easy to see the film as this critic did in the sixties:

If you think it would be amusing to see Macbeth done in Japanese then pop around ... and see Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood. For a free Oriental translation of the Shakespeare drama is what this is, and 'amusing' is the proper word for it.4
Throne of Blood is set in medieval Japan, during "the Age of the Country at War", a time when feudal Japan was undergoing civil war (1392-1568)5. This was a time when violations of the Samurai code were a concern, a time when traitors and renegade samurai were common figures. Real kings were deposed in similar circumstances to the Lords in Throne of Blood.

The Samurai were a doomed class, disbanded along with the Shogunates in the 19th Century6. This idea is always present for an audience - along with the knowledge that whatever action the hero chooses, his whole lifestyle is fundamentally doomed. This provides much of the tension in movies that use this period of history. Throne of Blood is no exception.

The word 'samurai' is derived from the word 'sabarau' meaning 'to serve'7. In Throne of blood this is ironic of course, as the whole world of the samurai is shown to be corrupt and self-serving. In place of an individual with a tragic flaw, as Macbeth is, we have a whole society with a tragic flaw - feudalism8. To the extent that Throne of Blood is about a trapped individual destroyed by a rigid social structure, the film can be read as an anti-feudal drama9.

The Noh theatrical tradition is also widely referred to throughout the film.

Begun around the twelfth century, the Noh theatre emerged as a highly esoteric presentational form which relies on dance, music, masks, and declamatory narrative to relate traditional folk tales. ... In Noh, one decodes the gestures, the masks, the music, and not the narrative being related.10
Kurosawa said of the Noh, "I like it because it is the real heart, the core of all Japanese drama. Its degree of compression is extreme, and it is full of symbols"11. Correspondingly, much of Macbeth has been compressed in Throne of Blood. The formalised, stylised movements of the Noh often replace action in the film, for example the movements of Asaji during the murder of the Lord of Cobweb Castle. As well, much of the action happens off screen and is left for us to assume, for example the riderless horse signifying the death of Miki. The compression is also due to the excision of the dramatic monologues. The actors here are more "reactive than reflective"12, there is little introspection left to the characters, which alters the viewers' perspective of them as agents with free will, to figures trapped by fate.

However, paradoxically, although the story is compressed, the film feels like it has a lot of space and time, due to the sparseness of the sets, and the way Kurosawa has framed things and used repetition. Some critics have said that this stylised use of images is poetry in its own right, and it is this visual poetry that replaces Shakespeare's words rather than the use of a more literal translation13. Adding strength to this argument is the fact that many of the images Kurosawa chooses are suggested by Shakespeare's text. "I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry" says Lady Macbeth, after Duncan has been murdered14. In the film we hear a bird hoot while Asaji and Washizu prepare to murder their Lord, and later birds flock to the castle as harbingers of Washizu's doom. The rigid symmetry in the human sets is constantly contrasted with the intrusion of nature - birds flocking, wild horses, the moving forest, the blood stain in the forbidden room. The human spaces are easily unbalanced by the intrusion of nature.

Another use of Noh is in the make-up used on the actors. Kurosawa said:

I showed each of the players a photograph of the mask of the Noh which came closest to the respective role; I told him that the mask was his own part. To Toshiro Mifune ... I showed the mask … of a warrior. ... To ... Asaji I showed the mask named Shakumi. This was the mask of a beauty no longer young, and represented the image of a woman about to go mad.15
These archetypes are played on in many ways. For example a parallel between Asaji and the Witch is made apparent by the similarity of their make-up and their unnatural stillness. Asaji is even prophetic, in one speech she says to Washizu "Arrows will seek your life not only from the front but from the rear"16. This parallel is not obvious in Macbeth.

Throne of Blood and Shakespeare's Macbeth
Although the plots of Macbeth and Throne of Blood are similar, there are some important differences between them.

Firstly, Macduff is practically gone, along with the murder of all his pretty ones. This destroys the heroic and righteous moral ending of Macbeth. Instead we have the much more ambiguous mass assassination. This can be read as the ultimate betrayal in a fundamentally corrupt society, or it can be read as a hopeful assertion of the power of the working class against the corruption of their leaders. The ending, as a result of this change, is inconclusive morally, although the framing chant gives the impression that this sequence of events is inevitable, and will happen again due to the fundamentally ambitious nature of humans.

Secondly, Asaji's pregnancy is a masterstroke. It is an addition that clarifies much of the motivation of the characters, adds another element of tragedy, and shows Asaji to be much more calculating and ambitious than Lady Macbeth. In many ways Asaji and the Witch become the driving forces of the action. It is Asaji who plots the murder of Miki, unlike Lady Macbeth. She is clever, manipulative and bold. Washizu in contrast is less articulate and seemingly less self aware than Macbeth. The Witch is symbolised as being more knowing than the Macbeth witches. She holds "the thread of fate, and is spinning the tragic wheel of fortune"17. Her hut is surrounded by the skeletons of armies. But it is not clear if she is demonic, or just right about the ambitious and self destructive nature of humans. However her prophecy has changed - the 'man not of woman born' device is gone, not only because it is not needed, but because of cultural taboos and the difficulty of translation18.

Perhaps the most important change is the corruption of the Duncan character. Washizu murders his Lord, who had himself murdered his Lord. This changes the entire feeling of the story, once again emphasising the cycle of doom Washizu is caught up in. And pointing up the ultimate corruptness of this system of rule. There is no obvious moral successor to the Cobweb castle, because all the Lords must take this Throne with some degree of Bloodshed. Shakespeare's emphasis is much more on the noble but flawed individual, than on a flawed society, or a universal flaw in human nature. In this regard Washizu is certainly a far different creature to Macbeth, his motivation more understandable, his tragedy more inevitable.

I believe this final difference between the two texts is the fundamental difference, between Macbeth and Throne of Blood. In Kurosawa's version "cause and effect is the only law. Freedom does not exist"19. The Buddhist ideology of unchanging human nature negates the Christian idea of redemption found in Shakespeare's play20. Instead we have the idea of the cyclic nature of evil and a pervasive rot at the core of feudal society. Washizu is just part of the corruption, there is no higher order of values present (as symbolised by the pure Duncan) for him to act against. Washizu's response to murder indicates he does act against his better self, but Asaji's deadly logic is unarguable in this situation. It is not only ambition, but fear that overcomes loyalty for both Washizu and his men.

In this world "the hero and the traitor are in many cases the same man at different moments"21. With no totally noble creatures there can be no ritual purification of bad individuals by the good. So we have tragedy without heroism, and collective anonymous action, rather than heroic individual action. Or read another way, democracy rather than elitism as the "exploited nameless minions" of feudalism act in concerted rebellion22. Tragedy here is humanity's general heritage rather than an individual failure.

In conclusion, Throne of Blood can be argued to be Shakespeare on the grounds of its close following of the Macbeth plot, and its use of poetic visual images suggested in the original text. I would argue for inclusion on another ground. While the play's meaning is altered by a change in emphasis from individual to social, I think it can be argued that Kurosawa's interpretation echoes a meaning that hides beneath much of Shakespeare's work. So many of his history plays are about the betrayal of, and the moral disease and corruption found in monarchs, that an overall view of a corrupt feudal system can be read into his work too.

On the other hand, the wide use Throne of Blood makes of the Noh tradition, and of the historically rich feudal Japanese setting, could be used as a foundation for a successful argument that the film supersedes the original play. That Throne of Blood is something new, fashioned out of the bones of something old, with fundamental changes in emphasis, speech, imagery and setting.

I think both of these points of view are valid. Throne of Blood is a rich text that benefits from a viewing that includes a knowledge of Macbeth, as much as it is enriched by a knowledge of Japanese culture. It is something new and yet timeless, due largely to the fusion of its two main sources and cultures: Shakespeare's English play and Japanese Noh theatre.

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Bibliography

Clifton, Charles.
"Making an Old Thing New: Kurosawa's Film Adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth." In Ruppert, P. (ed.) Ideas of Order in Literature and Film (Tallahassee: University Press of Florida, 1980), 52-58.

Davies, Anthony.
Filming Shakespeare's Plays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Desser, David.
The Samurai Films of Akira Kurosawa. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1983.

Goodwin, James.
Akira Kurosawa and Intertextual Cinema. Baltimore, London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Hapgood, Robert.
"Kurosawa's Shakespeare Films: Throne of Blood, The Bad Sleep Well, and Ran," In Davies, A. and Wells, S. (eds.). Shakespeare and the Moving Image. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Kliman, Bernice.
"Visual Poetry in Throne of Blood." The Literary Review, 22 (1979), 472-481.

McDonald, Keiko.
"Noh into Film: Kurosawa's Throne of Blood." Journal of Film and Video, 39 (1) (1987), 36-41.

Mellen, Joan.
"On Kurosawa's Throne of Blood." The Literary Review, 22 (1979), 461-471.

Pearlman, E.
"Macbeth on Film: Politics." Shakespeare Survey, 39 (1987), 67-74.

Prince, Stephen.
The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Richie, Donald.
The Films of Akira Kurosawa. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1973.

Shakespeare, William.
Macbeth, Act 2 Scene 2. In Alexander, P. (ed.). The Complete Works of Shakespeare. London, Glasgow: Collins, 1990.

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End Notes

  1. Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1973). This information is summarised from the chapters on Akira Kurosawa and Throne of Blood.
  2. David Desser, The Samurai Films of Akira Kurosawa (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1983), p. 2.
  3. Desser. This information is summarised from the Introduction, and the chapters The Samurai Film and The Samurai Films of Akira Kurosawa.
  4. Anthony Davies, Filming Shakespeare’s Plays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 154. Davies is quoting from Bosley Crowther, "Screen: Change in Scene," New York Times, 23 November 1961, p. 50L.
  5. Robert Hapgood, "Kurosawa’s Shakespeare Films: Throne of Blood, The Bad Sleep Well, and Ran," In Anthony Davies and Stanley Wells (eds.) Shakespeare and the Moving Image (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 235.
  6. Desser, p. 3 and 23.
  7. Joan Mellen, "On Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood," The Literary Review, 22 (1979), p. 462.
  8. Mellen, p. 464.
  9. Desser, p. 39.
  10. Desser, p. 28.
  11. Richie, p. 117.
  12. James Goodwin, Akira Kurosawa and Intertextual Cinema (Baltimore, London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1994), p. 183.
  13. Bernice Kliman, "Visual Poetry in Throne of Blood," The Literary Review, 22 (1979), 472-481.
  14. William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 2 Scene 2. In Peter Alexander (ed.) The Complete Works of Shakespeare (London, Glasgow: Collins, 1990), p. 1006.
  15. Stephen Prince, The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 146.
  16. Goodwin, p. 181.
  17. Goodwin, p. 178.
  18. Mellen, p. 479.
  19. Richie, p. 115.
  20. Davies, p, 166.
  21. Charles Clifton, "Making an Old Thing New: Kurosawa’s Film Adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth," In P. Ruppert (ed.) Ideas of Order in Literature and Film (Tallahassee: University Press of Florida, 1980), p. 53.
  22. E. Pearlman, "Macbeth on Film: Politics," Shakespeare Survey, 39 (1987), p. 73.


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