Kurosawa’s Rhythm in ‘Throne of Blood’ (1957)

The thing that’s so impressive about Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) is that he takes an already great story and produces a new work of art that is entirely his own. In his interpretation of Macbeth (1606), Kurosawa is not afraid to alter Shakespeare’s design if the result is a more effective piece of cinema. He goes beyond a good screen version of the play and simply creates an exceptional film: to use Hitchcock’s phrase, we see Kurosawa remove a highly-praised piece of drama out from under ‘the proscenium arch’ and use all the techniques unique to cinema to recast it convincingly and powerfully in celluloid.

What, then, separates Throne of Blood from other attempts at adaptation, from, say, the Macbeths of Welles or Polanski (1948 and 1971)? There’s a clue in their titles: it’s something to do with words. While most directors attempt to respect the language of Shakespeare, Kurosawa’s Japanese script allows him to give his images more importance than his words in the narration of his inherited story. While an English modernization of the play is in danger of seeming intellectually weak, shying away from Shakespeare’s linguistic and artistic mastery, a translation cannot hope to render the same subtleties of semantics and word play and is, then, in a sense, freer to take the broader structure and transform it. While Polanski and Welles make their debt to Shakespeare explicit, Kurosawa draws a distinction between Macbeth and his Throne of Blood. (To be clear, though, I’m not suggesting that Polanski or Welles do not use cinematic language to tell their stories, nor am I necessarily suggesting that Kurosawa’s film is better than theirs. I only mean that it’s more difficult to make anything other than the words the most important element of an English presentation of Shakespeare, on screen, stage or otherwise.)

For me, the effectiveness of Throne of Blood lies in its rhythm and atmosphere. Both are rooted in the movement of Kurosawa’s camera and the editing of his picture. Take, for example, the scene in which Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) brings the body of Tzuzuki (Hiroshi Tachikawa) to Miki (Akira Kubo). The establishing shot is a wide shot (WS) which shows Washizu riding ahead of the coffin carriers and, as he approaches the castle, calling out to those inside. This part of the scene is constructed as follows: Kurosawa chooses to shoot a close up (CU) of Washizu, allowing us to focus upon the nervous uncertainty drawn on his face, revealed through the shape of his mouth and the creases around his eyes. He then cuts to a WS of the seemingly deserted castle. The wall fills the frame and parallels visually the silence that is oppressive and apparently perpetual. The few empty windows that stud the wall create a similar feeling to the two on the first floor of the house in The Amityville Horror (1979): with the castle anthropomorphized, we feel Washizu is being watched but we’re not sure from where or by whom. With these two shots established, the film moves between them.  The call and response is hypnotic in the emptiness it reveals. Just as we lull, Kurosawa introduces a shot of the coffin, which has now reached the castle, and then returns to the establishing WS. The editing decisions allow us to feel the emotions of Washizu, for a moment, before the cut to the coffin returns us to the wider course of events.

As the coffin reaches the castle, Kurosawa reveals the psychological and political shifts that take place. Miki, on horseback, sits just inside the entrance to the castle; Washizu, also on a horse, rests a few metres outside. The section unfolds as follows:

  1. WS. As the gates of the castle open, revealing Miki, the camera is positioned about six foot behind Washizu to his left side.
  2. The camera, maintaining a WS, moves to just over Washizu’s RIGHT shoulder. After a pause, Miki rides slowly forwards, stopping a few inches away from the other horse.
  3. The camera shifts to a close shot (CS) in front and to the right side of Washizu.
  4. There is, then, the reverse shot: a CS in front and to the left side of Miki.
  5. As 3.
  6. As 2.
  7. In the same position as 1, though now the coffin fills the bottom third of the frame.

Two aspects of this arrangement strike me. To begin, it’s artfully structured. At its center, it is a shot reverse-shot sequence (3, 4 and 5). This center creates a mirror in which the rest of the section is doubled: in other words, 1 is paralleled by 7 and 6 parallels 2. It’s the earlier movement – the ebb and flow between Washizu and the wall – reconfigured to take us from far-away observations of the action to a series of close-ups and back again. Again the coffin breaks the tension that Kurosawa generates: it is only by set-up 7 that we know for certain that Washizu and his package have been accepted into Miki’s castle. Secondly, we notice that Kurosawa creates this tension partly by playing with the line between the two men (without actually crossing it). He makes the camera zig-zag towards the shot reverse-shot sequence, moving from beyond the left shoulder of Washizu (1) to the right (2) and back again (3). Just as the established conventions for shooting dialogue threaten to dissolve, there is also a wobble of uncertainty surrounding Washizu’s request to enter Miki’s castle.


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When he isn't busy writing about film, for his own blog as well as for the MacGuffin, Mark is currently studying English literature at Oxford University.

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