Horror is not usually one of the generic attributes associated with the output of the great Japanese film master, Akira Kurosawa. The horrors of human nature and corporate greed are perhaps evident in both Rashomon (1950) and The Bad Sleep Well (1960). In Throne of Blood, Kurosawa convincingly depicts the creepy atmosphere needed for a medieval Japanese adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The resulting film is not just one of Kurosawa’s finest films – or one of the finest Shakespearean screen adaptations – but one of the most effective horror films ever made.
The basic plot stays faithful to the events in Shakespeare’s play, and this is to the story’s credit. The original tale is one of the most well-known stories of betrayal, greed and murder. A general of a local lord’s army stumbles upon a ghostly spirit in a forest and is told that he will become ruler of the region, after he and his accompanying commander receive a promotion from the current lord. Neither desire to gain such rewards any time soon, and swiftly leave the forest. However, these two men find out they have been promoted, General Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and his wife (Isuzu Yamada) immediately start scheming to obtain more power.
Setting these events in the feudal medieval era of Japan is a stroke of genius, and at times the sloping landscapes, castle walls and misty outdoors look very similar to the original play’s Scottish setting. The story is a slow-burning one, and though it concerns the machinations of a warlord, there is little action compared to Kurosawa’s other films. And yet this shows how masterful he is, as the viewer’s attention never strays because of the film’s pacing, and the direction of the scenes and the actors. For example, the fictional Spider’s Web Castle is breath-taking to see itself – and illustrates Kurosawa’s attention to detail that he maintained throughout all of his films. The infamous final scene involving Washizu’s demise (and the shooting of real arrows at Mifune) is now legendary, and still works as an excellent climax to a grim tale.
Any version of the play is also not complete without a conniving Lady Macbeth, and Yamada almost steals the show from Mifune. However, what particularly makes this an effective horror film is the witch character. They were originally three, but Kurosawa distils them into one ghostly apparition (Chieko Naniwa). Though she innocently operates a spinning wheel when she is discovered, her unnaturally white aura is incredibly disturbing, and it literally haunts Washizu in a later scene. Here, the ghost keeps appearing and disappearing while the new lord holds meets guests and advisers within his newly acquired castle. It can be read as a genuine haunting, or a slow descent into madness that Washizu is experiencing. In these scenes alone, Kurosawa reminds viewers that Macbeth is meant to be a dark horror tale of inner torment and guilt.
Throne of Blood precedes many famous Japanese horror films from the 1960s, such as Jigoku (1960), Kwaidan (1964) and Onibaba (1964). Kurosawa is often seen as the instigator of the action-orientated chanbara (swordplay) genre, but it is perhaps fair to say he was influential on later horror films because of Throne of Blood. It also demonstrates how much of an impact he had on filmmaking in general, as his adaptations of non-Japanese stories (such as Macbeth) show how many similarities there are between stories around the world. Ghosts and ghouls have characterized Japanese folklore and films for decades, and they are found in several Shakespeare plays. Kurosawa undoubtedly realized while making Throne of Blood that he had to make his ghost scary. Thankfully, he succeeds.