Throne of Blood: Who dared to adapt Shakespeare like that?

One knows of William Shakespeare solely due to his several dramatic works. If we do not also count his sonnets, his plays alone have occupied the position of excellence for several generations. Shakespeare’s legacy has spread to parts of the world other than his origin. Not even written to be read as books, Shakespeare’s works, akin to an artist’s romantic dreams, have truly managed to survive the snares of time. Ranging from renditions into comics to animation and feature films, Shakespeare remains intact as an artist par excellence. The adaptations of his works in the cinematic era are several. This article looks into an adaptation of his play Macbeth, called Throne of Blood. Directed by the Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, the necessity for discussion of this film lies in its very capability to surpass the actual play itself.

Whereas most neighboring countries were introduced to Shakespeare following colonial contact, it was the passing of the law for universal education in 1872 that triggered the forthcoming of Shakespeare in Japan. Ending its prior state of isolation, the Meji Restoration of 1868 turned Japan to dramatically embrace Westernization. The first known Japanese translations of Shakespeare’s works are credited to Tsubouchi Shoyo. Shakesperian characters themselves became popular among the Japanese through various adaptations. It was only 29 years following the publication of Shoyo’s complete Shakespearian cannon in 1928, that Throne of Blood saw its debut release in 1957.

Throne of Blood’s first giant leap towards innovation

Shakespeare’s legacy, more than anything else, stands firmly atop the several soliloquies and dialogues that his characters deliver. In other words, the verses are a chief constituent of any Shakespearian drama. He remains undoubtedly one of the most quoted writers, globally.

Shakespearian verses had have a profound impact throughout history. Even in countries such as India where people localized Shakespeare, and sometimes also appropriated his works to suit different ideological needs and agendas, the intricacies of the dialogues were adhered to. Quite often, the verses have posed various challenges to translators throughout history. The same was the case for the initial translations of Shakespeare into Japanese. The aim to remain true to the originals in translations has prevailed throughout the history of Shakespearian adaptations.

The first detour, then, that Throne of Blood takes away from an absolute metamorphosis into a Shakespearian adaptation, is the elimination of all original dialogues.

The simpler dialogues that prevade Throne of Blood, instead of Shakespeare's oft-quoted archaic speech
The simpler dialogues that pervade Throne of Blood, instead of Shakespeare’s oft-quoted archaic speech

The dialogues in Throne of Blood are quite simpler compared to the poetic style of delivery in Shakespeare’s works. This toning down of the dialogues also aids in rooting out the play from its setting. Opposed to 11th century Scotland, it sets itself in feudal Japan. The dialogues, apart from being drastically different, are also characteristic of Buddhist philosophy, dominant during the era of this story. The change in dialogues, however, also demanded changes in the narrative.

The significance of Spider’s Web, as elaborated in Throne of Blood

The simplest of changes contribute immensely. Macbeth and Banquo did not roam the forest desperately when they headed for the castle. The duration dedicated to the roaming of the warriors, Washizu and Miki, in the dense forest searching a way out serves to enhance the intensity of their confrontation with the spirit entity when the latter appeared. This also hints towards the significance of the Spider Web forest itself, an important constituent of the film. The terminology asserts the complex nature of the forest. It was akin to a complex web where one is bound to lose themselves.

Miki in Throne of Blood, as Banquo in Macbeth
Miki’s exclamation concerning Spider’s Web forest…

Equating Spider's web forest to an actual spider's web
…and its maze-like properties

Locating Throne of Blood in a regional setting

“The Abbess referred to the net of Indra. Indra was an Indian God, and once he cast his net, every living thing without exception was inextricably caught in its meshes. And so it was that all creatures in existence were inescapably bound by it.”

Spring Snow(1969),Yukio Mishima

Much discussed in Buddhist beliefs, Indra’s net is what may be referred to as the chain of causality. The Spider’s Web forest is akin to Indra’s net, outspread like an impenetrable maze. Apart from being just a defense for the castle, Spider’s Web acquired a centripetal force. It encompassed all the objects of desire of the main character Washizu. This makes Spider Web all the more significant of Indra’s net, which, with its illusory distractions, sustains its ensnaring quality over humans.

At the very start of the film, a chorus introduced the beginning of a narrative of causal events that took place at Spider Web’s castle, now in ruins.

“Look upon the ruins, of the castle of delusion

Haunted only now by the spirits, of those who perished

A scene of carnage, born of consuming desire

Never changing, now and throughout eternity

Chorus, Throne of Blood(1957)
The Spider's Web castle, the epicentre of Kurosawa's daring adaptation. The surrounding natural mist finds its way into Throne of Blood
The Spider Web’s castle, the epicenter of Kurosawa’s daring adaptation. The surrounding natural mist finds its way into Throne of Blood

Of the spirit entity, in Throne of Blood

In contrast to the three witches of Macbeth, the prophetic power lies in Throne of Blood with a spirit entity. Where, on one hand, the witches lied in wait for Macbeth and Banquo, the spirit entity on the other sat intently bent over its spinning wheel. It was Washizu and Miki who approached the spirit, driven by their desires to conquer it.

A first-timer, who if anyway aware of the film being a Shakespearian adaptation, is bound for new revelations at this moment. The elimination of the original dialogues enabled Kurosawa to extend his liberty to the farthest stretches of creativity. A song by the spirit entity in the film replaces the witches’ discussion before the entering of Macbeth. The song referred to the cycle of rebirth. Being barely audible initially, it grows gradually louder as the warriors approached nearer.

The prophetic power characteristic of the witches in Macbeth, lies in Throne of Blood, with a solitary spirit entity
The prophetic power characteristic of the witches in Macbeth lies in Throne of Blood with a solitary spirit entity

The sighting of the spirit entity by Washizu and Miki in Throne of Blood
The sighting of the spirit entity by Washizu and Miki

Of the spirit entity’s song

The song began in a meek tone. Paving way for utter silence, it contrasted the sounds of armor and horses till Washizu’s aiming of his arrow at the hovel.

“Strange is the world

Why should men receive life in this world?

Men’s lives are as meaningless

As the lives of insects”

the spirit entity, Throne of Blood(1957)

The tone of the spirit’s voice animated at the instance of comparison to insects. It, then, gradually aimed for the lowest pitches possible in the succeeding verses. The tone of his voice, at this moment, suggested mockery. “To decay into the stink of flesh” ended with the lowest pitch, following which a melancholic tone characterized the verses depicting man’s act of “heaping karma upon karma”. The song ended in amazement over the blooming of the living flower, its perfume rendered from the stench of decaying flesh at a previous life’s end.

Why are there no witches in Throne of Blood ?

The solitary personality of the spirit entity differed from that of slyness and mischief of the witches. Witches have appealed to the European imagination for generations. Often in translations of Shakespeare, the witches’ position has been reserved for regional she-demons. Kurosawa, too, turns to the expressionless visages of Noh masks. The spirit’s face devoid of expressions, served in enhancing the horror significance of this scene in Macbeth, all the more. It, moreover, aided the spirit’s pondering over the cycle of life, all the while rotating the spinning wheel.

However, the reduction in the witches’ number to only a single entity by Kurosawa was both an innovative and daring move. Moreover, where witches have now become the stuff of popular imagination, cartoons, Halloween costumes, such an approach by Kurosawa manages to evoke an innovative freshness, even now. Given the obscurity of indigenous Japanese art forms, the incorporation of them in contemporary visual arts also retains the qualities of the former. The cinematic medium not only aids the resurrection of such art forms but also ensures lesser chances of their extinction.

Noh dramatic styles and music are, in fact, vital inspirations for Throne of Blood.

On Asaji

The simplest of differences from the original plot assist in massively impacting the narrative of Throne of Blood. Often, the film approaches certain moments in the play differently and tends to build upon them. Where Macbeth gave orders for the assassination of Banquo and his son immediately fearing the witches’ second prophecy, Washizu resorted to other ways after the first prophecy attained fulfillment. His decision to pass on his rule to his friend Miki’s son was fueled not only by the desire to embrace the spirit’s second prophecy by acting upon it himself but also due to the primary factor of him and Asaji being heirless.

Asaji, akin to Lady Macbeth, had already influenced his husband to kill the Lord. But, the decisive turning from the path of the original happens in her persuading Washizu to assassinate Miki as well. A moment of conflict for Washizu, the weight on his scales tipped to one of the sides with the announcement of Asaji’s, “I am with child”. The fixed expressions of Asaji‘s visage, also reminiscent of Noh‘s expressionless masks hiding one’s true passions, conflicted with her ambitious words to her husband. Although representing the character of Lady Macbeth, Asaji never engages in soliloquies detailing her inner thoughts. Instead, the conflict between her cold face and comparatively fiery words brings out her reservoir of hidden desires. The mask-like face is, then, a deception that conceals well the cruelty of her desires.

The faces of the spirit entity and Asaji, characteristic of expressionless visages of Noh masks in Throne of Blood
The faces of the spirit entity and Asaji, characteristic of expressionless visages of Noh masks

Kurosawa’s omens

However, it is not always deviations that characterize Throne of Blood. Kurosawa himself, it appears, looked up to Shakespearian dramas for narrative strategies. For instance, he often used Shakespeare’s signature style of depicting ill-fated omens in the film.

Such symbolic omens are quite akin to Shakespearian drama. They served in the task of warning or hinting towards misfortune, especially on the part of the protagonist. One of Shakespeare’s notable omens, for instance, is the Soothsayer’s warning to Julius Caesar, “Beware the Ides of March”, in the play Julius Caesar.

Although few in Macbeth itself, Kurosawa cemented Throne of Blood with several recurring omens. A watchtower guard, for instance, claimed of having seen “..a pack of rats fleeing the castle grounds.” This is quite in the veins of a Shakespearian character’s sighting of a lion on the streets of Rome, in Julius Caesar.

Kurosawa’s omens serve as effective mediums of transitioning. Asaji’s announcement of pregnancy, for instance, followed the maddening of the horse at Miki’s home. This symbol was as if contrasting Asaji’s repressed emotions with maddening visibility. Yoshiteru, his son, asserted the actions of the horse as an ill omen.

There are always characters in Shakespearian plays who disregard such omens. Miki headed for Washizu’s banquet despite Yoshiteru’s warning. The omen of horse’s maddening is only a part of an entire process of building towards a conclusion. The horse returned after Miki and Yoshiteru had left for the banquet. The scene transitions to that of an impatient Washizu seemingly waiting for his friend. Meanwhile, a Noh dance performer at the banquet narrated the tale of a treacherous warrior, murdered by his henchmen.

Kurosawa's omen, reflective of Shakespearian dramas
Kurosawa’s omen, reflective of Shakespearian dramas,…

Such Shakespearian omen is brought out through Japanese Noh performance.
…is brought out through Japanese Noh performance.

Recurrent recalling of the spirit entity

The spirit is often referred to in the film, whether consciously or subtly. Although later events in Macbeth are certainly connected to the witches’ prophecy, seldom do they evoke an ambiance reminiscent of the initial appearance of the witches. If their presence is the darkness characteristic of Macbeth, then Throne of Blood evokes the darkness at various moments in subtle ways.

Unlike the play, the film allowed the knowledge of the prophecy to characters like Miki’s son. Even the Noh performer’s tale, although being unconscious on the part of the performer, occurred in a quite similar manner to the spirit’s prophecy concerning an event before its actuality. The whereabouts of Miki and Yoshiteru were yet unknown. The uneasiness of Washizu over the performer’s words is reflected with distressed facial expressions, and led to the obstruction of the performance. The silence following the obstruction acts as another enhancement. It only ends at the scene mutual to the play as well as the film -the sighting of the friend’s spirit.

The recurrent recalling of the spirit entity in Throne of Blood, unlike in Shakespeare's Macbeth. Here, the indication towards the spirit entity takes place through Miki's ghost.
The recurrent recalling of the spirit entity in Throne of Blood, unlike in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Here, the indication towards the spirit entity takes place through the sighting of Miki’s spirit.

How Miki’s spirit hints at the spirit entity?

Miki’s spirit appeared brightly shining. It was even quite similar in its whitish appearance to the one he and Washizu had encountered in the forest. Kurosawa leaves no stones unturned in recalling again the ambience characteristic of the spirit entity’s presence. Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth does not contribute in any direct hinting at the witches and the causal loop that they had set forth with their announcement of prophecies. The similarity in Miki‘s and the spirit’s form serves to transport an essence similar to the first sighting of the spirit. The difference is only in space. Kurosawa’s reduction of the witches to a single entity aids a great deal in establishing this similarity, as opposed to the differences in the forms of Banquo and the witches.

It is only in the succeeding scene that a killer confirms the successful assassination of Miki. The appearance of Banquo’s spirit in the fourth act of the third scene in the original play happens to succeed the scene of his murder. Whereas, only Washizu’s sighting of his spirit before the viewer’s knowledge of Miki’s murder changes the narrative order while continuing to build upon Washizu’s uneasiness. The extent of his gradual maddening was such that he denied seeing Miki’s decapitated head following the killer’s arrival.

Cathartic attempts of narration

Already on the verge of insanity, Washizu’s actions at this instance are constructed through more deviations from the original plot. Unlike Macbeth, Washizu killed the killer following the latter’s report of Yoshiteru’s escape. Having stabbed him in rage, Washizu drew his sword out, and standing back glanced at the man dying. After his feet touched his deceased friend’s head, a current as if, ran across his body. Running instantly backward in fear, he threw his sword following the dying man’s last groan for help. With the prophecy already in mind, a sense of helplessness now dawned upon him, resulting in changes in facial expressions. He outstretched his hand, as if in an attempt to save the dying man in some way. The man died, making Washizu step even backward, with fear adorning his face.

Washizu's gradual maddening
Washizu’s gradual maddening

Changes in narrative order and additions contribute to cathartic revelations. For instance, the heightened emphasis on Washizu’s and Miki’s friendship earlier makes the film possess the capability for impactful catharsis when the death of the latter is known. Similarly, the addition of Asaji’s pregnancy aids in shattering the very hopes that it ignited in Washizu, for it serves in unrevealing the cathartic impact that would lead to Washizu’s misery, instead of an heir. The child was stillborn!

Washizu's and Miki's moments of serenity
Washizu’s and Miki’s moments of serenity

Subtractions and reductions

Although Throne of Blood adheres quite an extent to the basic plot of Macbeth, there are subtractions, too, on part of Kurosawa. Like the reduction in the witches’ number, the film does not engage itself as well with the wide range of the play’s characters. It keeps itself rather limited. The dominant focus is on Washizu, Asaji, Miki, and the spirit. The film does not concern itself much with elaborating on characters such as Noriyashu or the fate of his family, unlike the slaughter that Macbeth ordered for Macduff’s family. Moreover, the spirit’s last prophecy was also reduced as opposed to the many visions by the witches. It is common to only one of the witches’ multiple prophecies concerning Macbeth’s death.

Kurosawa used the vaguest prophecy. It was the one that was unbelievable enough to rekindle the hopes of the soldiers in Washizu‘s victory. Due to its ridiculous aspect, the fulfillment of this prophecy was what had the most profound impact upon the soldiers. The impact was to such an extent that Washizu’s soldiers turned against him. Washizu dropped dead, pierced by the arrows of his soldiers. The Noh performer’s song rings aloud in one’s mind.

The perplexing causality of “Macbeth”

Such resultant was also unlike the play, where Macduff killed Macbeth. Throne of Blood is more in adherence to the play’s aspect of causality. The plot of Macbeth is itself akin to a bootstrap’s paradox or a causal loop without any definite origin. Kurosawa put the doubt that has perplexed readers of Macbeth for centuries through the words of Yoshiteru.

“The spirit has tricked you into fulfilling its prophecies, and now you believe the prophecies have come true.”

Yoshiteru, Throne of Blood(1957)

Macbeth had readers frequently ponder over whether the prophecy or the actions of Macbeth himself triggered the chain of events. In Throne of Blood, one finds oneself questioning along the lines of Washizu -whether the sequence of events was a dream or a manifestation of base desires.

Whether it was the spirit’s prophecy or Washizu’s actions that instigated the chain of events

Kurosawa‘s adaptation of Macbeth, in fact, chiefly aims to bring out the causal aspect. His reductive attempt is, then, an approach of simplicity. Such sets the story within a premise of limited characters, through a recurrent loop of treachery and betrayal.

From the beginning chorus to the nomenclature of Spider’s Web, from the performer’s song to the conclusion -all serve in bringing out this aspect of the play.

Of heightened expressions

Even if simplified, Kurosawa chiefly relies on expressions and music for the most part in the film. It is akin to Noh dramas’ constituents of flute and drums, and dependence on the characters’ expressions. The plots of most Noh dramas, in respect to Shakespearian dramas, were comparatively simple. The prime focus, then, remained on the Noh actors’ own ability to arouse emotion. That too, through expressive actions rather than soliloquies. Noh dramas often demanded the viewer’s imagination rather than laying everything down in plain sight. Elements such as music produced through few instruments(the flute and three drums) accompanied the movements of the actors, enhancing their expressive gestures.

The subtle differences that sets Throne of Blood apart from Macbeth

Throne of Blood is strongly reminiscent of Noh dramas, with its demands on the viewers’ imagination. Kurosawa, although limiting himself in the context of the play’s plot, utilizes the most out of expressions. Focusing chiefly on the protagonist and his closest acquaintances, Kurosawa puts the effort into building upon the bonds the characters shared. He uses simple dialogues when not just expressive gestures. For instance, the moments shared by Washizu and Miki following their success in getting out of the forest, are reflective of the depths of their friendship. One gets to realize that both are quite comfortable around each other, attempting to joke their doubts away. Macbeth does not stress upon the friendship of Macbeth and Banquo with such dedication.

Asaji’s expressions of horror also become apparent only at the end of the film, her original emotions having been suppressed by herself for long by her expressionless face.

Expressions of horror on Asaji’s expressionless visage

The successful transferring of the play to an entirely different premise is what Throne of Blood does as a film. This is the very reason why Throne of Blood surpasses Macbeth, despite being a daring artistic attempt.

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