Hit Me With Your Best Shot!: “Throne of Blood”

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Call me morbid, but MacBeth is my favorite Shakespeare. Having just hit the 400th anniversary of his death, it seems appropriate to celebrate one of his most death-obsessed pieces of work, here with the bold reinterpretation done by Akira Kurosawa in Throne of Blood.

Kurosawa folds in elements of Noh theatre to a streamlined, brisk version of Shakespeare’s text, creating perhaps the stagiest adaptation of the Bard this side of Baz Luhrman. The Noh angle creates a more archetypal experience for the actors and the audience, somehow getting to the root of the original text in a way that more naturalistic adaptations by Roman Polanski and Justin Kurzel have missed. This “Scottish” king and his Lady M (Taketoki and Lady Asaji) are physical embodiments of their fury and calculations, the contrast between his brazen madness and her anxious guilt never more clearly defined on film.

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And these are two brilliantly physical performances. Toshirô Mifune’s Taketoki flailing rage is barely contained by the frame, all clenched teeth and sudden movements. Isuzu Yamada takes the notoriously difficult role of Lady M, her Asaji an effortless swing from contained to manic. The murder at the center of the text is often glossed over for the highs of their guilt to come, but in Throne Mifune and Yamada fill the moment with the trauma to fuel the final act filled with madness. Dare I say they’re our best cinematic examples of these towering roles.

Taking a more fundamental approach takes the emotion to its necessary heights, but it also makes for a unique viewing experience for the audience. The pacing is deliberate and decisive, the frame patiently delivering Shakespeare’s brooding mood with gorgeous visuals. Director of photography Asakazu Nakai (a Kurosawa regular) lights the film to mystifying effect – Lady Asaji fading into the night, inescapable fog, overexposed ghosts brightening the space unnaturally. Kurosawa and Nakai are using Noh to reinterpret film as much as they are with Shakespeare, using the camera to integrate stage elements with the cinematic.

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My choice for Best Shot fuzes the theatrical and the cinematic with a simplistic bit of stagecraft and camerawork, a perfect example of the film’s elemental approach:

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In one fluid movement, the camera pulls in to see Taketoki’s horrified reaction, then pulls back to show the ghost of the slain occupying the once empty space. The camera becomes like a piece of stagecraft, a scrim removed to reveal the ghost on stage. It’s remarkably simple (rudimentary, even) but the effect is impressive and fascinating for how it informs Mifune’s performance in the moment.

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One thought on “Hit Me With Your Best Shot!: “Throne of Blood”

  1. great writeup. i’m so glad i picked this.

    I love that you focused on its fusion of cinema and theater (and the way you describe it with the scrim removed – nice) because it honors both somehow which, as countless stage to film and film to stage transitions have shown over the decades, is VERY hard to pull of

    Liked by 1 person

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