William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”, one of his great tragedies, has been most successfully transposed into film by Akira Kurosawa, Roman Polanski, and Orson Welles; the newest adaptation came out in 2015, directed by Justin Kurzel.
Here, the focus will be on Kurosawa’s version, which diverges from the original text at some points, although it follows the narration of Shakespeare’s work in its main aspects. While the other versions follow Shakespeare’s original almost by heart, Kurosawa’s approach is original and very interesting.
“Macbeth” is a tragedy that is also a morality play, depicting a consuming desire that destroys an individual. Macbeth, the antihero of the play, hears a prophecy from the witches that he will be the king of Scotland. He starts to believe it when he becomes a Thane of Cawdor, which is also a part of the prophecy.
Manipulated by his cruel wife, he murders the virtuous king and slowly descends into madness, killing his only and trustworthy friend. He does everything he can to stay in power, but as it sometimes happens in life, when you strive obsessively to prevent something, you actually make it happen. His delusions and absolute power destroy him. The number of his adversaries grows and they, accompanied with the English forces, kill him.
Lord Acton once wrote that absolute power corrupts absolutely. While this is empirically questionable, the morals of “Macbeth” are exactly that. For power to remain under control, it has to have restraints. The desire for power and hubris consume Macbeth, leaving nothing in his heart but emptiness; it is portrayed in his monologue about life being “a walking shadow”, “A tale told by an idiot/, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing.”
It is interesting to compare how different directors envisioned this monologue. Welles filmed the scene with Wagnerian fog floating over darkness while he recites the verses. Kurzel’s version of the scene is emotional, and that is possibly problematic.
Welles strives for a grandiose adaptation; it is powerful and at times almost on the verge of megalomania. In the sense of creating a work that surpasses all others in its ambition, it is a one-man-show on the part of Welles.
Polanski’s adaptation is creative, starting from the first shot to the last; it was an expressionist, brutal account of the famous tragedy, using voice-overs to depict Macbeth’s introspections.
Kurzel’s version is the most lyrical one, with beautiful visuals and emotional intensity. Its main virtues lie in its subtlety and careful build-up of narration that remains gentle and truthful. Witches are portrayed not as malicious demons, but supernatural interferences that look sad yet majestic. The montage is carefully and masterfully executed.
Here, 10 reasons will be provided with an argumentation why Kurosawa succeeded in creating the greatest transposition of “Macbeth” to date.
1. Powerful symbolism
Symbolism can be traced in the film’s title, “Throne of Blood”. This symbolism is not hard to grasp; the throne that Washizu occupies is built on blood, as his predecessor murdered the sovereign out of fear for his own life. Washizu did a similar thing, although his motivation is more complex.
These acts are symbolically portrayed via a chamber with blood stains on its walls where the sovereign was murdered. “Spider’s castle” bears multiple meanings. It is a castle where plots and schemes are envisioned; someone is caught in the spider’s web and that someone is ultimately Washizu – Kurosawa’s Macbeth.
The spider is ultimately the sovereign who sits at the throne, but as the film symbolically depicts, the spider is in the end the one who is devoured by his own ambitions and desires. Spider’s Forest also bears symbolism, pointing to the place where someone is caught in a web of delusions, and in the end manipulated and eaten. It is also a maze in which you can easily be lost, and this confusion is a symbol of a mind that is lost in its own schemes where it tries to trap others.
At the heart of the Spider’s Forest is a ghost, the spider himself, who entwines a web to catch a fly. One cannot but remember that in Shakespeare’s play, Banquo tells his son Fleance “Fly!” indicating that he is just a fly that can easily be eaten by a spider. An interesting symbolism in Shakespeare’s play is also the name of one of Macbeth’s servants: “Seyton” which, when pronounced, indicates the existence of pure evil.
2. Adaptation to Japanese culture
One of the things that makes the film such a successful interpretation is its departure from the original text and transposition to the director’s own culture. Instead of witches, there is a spirit, who in his recitations before the prophecy sounds like a Buddhist sage.
Kurosawa’s inspiration for the spirits came from Noh plays, which are popular in Japan. Evil witches are alien to Japanese culture. The spirit sings: “Men’s lives are as meaningless/as the lives of insects/The terrible folly/of such suffering.”
Washizu hesitates to kill his lord because of their relation as the landlord and a vassal, not because they are of the same kin, as in Shakespeare’s version. When Washizu is named Commander of the Northern Garrison, torches are lit, as in some kind of a ritual. Characters are less keen to rely on prophecies and more to their instinct and reason. Miki’s son is the most prominent in this regard.
Although he is offered sovereignty, he hesitates and calls it a scheme of an evil spirit, seeing it as irrational. The Christian concept of guilt is absent, and shame and violent anger take its place. For instance, when Washizu sees his friend’s ghost, whose assassination he ordered, he says that he will kill him again. Although disturbed, he does not show symptoms of remorse.
3. Toshiro Mifune’s performance
Toshiro Mifune is the one who drives the whole film; his portrayal of anger, doubt, violent outbursts, and resoluteness is mesmerizing. His cynical laughter, both arrogant and terrifying, is what stays in the mind of a viewer. He is passionate, and at moments calm and rational.
At other moments, his eyes move in doubt and disbelief; he masterfully portrays a confident character who wavers in his thoughts. It is interesting to compare this role to the one of his less famous ones, such as in “Idiot”, where he is violent, irrational, and brutish. This role is more refined, as he is cold in his brutality.
When Washizu becomes delusional, Mifune becomes godlike in his stature. Most memorable are his eyes, which depict terror, confidence, and sense of being lost. When he wields his sword he is resolute, and with a spear in his hand after killing the lord, he resembles a wild boar hunter. Mifune is arguably the most famous Japanese actor of his generation, and his acting skills are unmatchable.
4. Motivation behind the deed
In the original text, Macbeth is driven to commit a murder solely on the basis of his wife’s pleading and calling him a lesser man; it is a successful attempt to awaken the drive for power in a man. The promise of manhood is the promise of the wholeness of identity, of power over one’s destiny.
According to Jacques Lacan, a “subject” is constituted by a lack that cannot be surpassed. When someone longs to be a “true man,” like Macbeth does, he wants to fill that lack and achieve greatness that will bring uninterrupted enjoyment; the promise of sovereignty is precisely that. Although Washizu is motivated by the instinct of survival, his drive for completeness is also present.
Washizu doesn’t believe Lady Asaji at first, but when armed lord’s men approach the castle, his fears become realized for a moment. Paralyzed with fear for his life, he calls his men to arms. Lady Asaji’s manipulation is masterful; she leads Washizu to believe he could be murdered. She points at his friend Miki, who could allegedly inform the Great Lord about the prophecy.
That is a possibility Washizu denies because of Miki’s friendship, but Lady Asaji calls their times degenerate, as parents kill their children and vice versa in order to advance in the world. Her manipulation is executed in a way that can be easily accepted by someone who lives at a time when such things are commonplace.
5. Portrayal of Lady Asaji
Lady Asaji is calm and almost indifferent in her cruelty. When Washizu agrees to kill the Great Lord, a hint of a smile appears on her face. Her manipulation is perfectly executed and does not leave any room for doubt; her argumentation is flawless when it comes to persuading her husband to commit murder.
Polanski’s Lady Macbeth’s beauty and her character can be explained in her own words: “Look like the time, bear welcome in your eye/Your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower,/But be the serpent under’t.” Marion Cotillard’s latest interpretation of Lady Macbeth is interesting and sincere in her malice.
On the other hand, Lady Asaji is like a spider; she carefully entwines her web, but gets caught in it herself. At the end of the movie, she washes her hands obsessively, faced with certain defeat as she knows that death and destruction is near; her mind cannot accept it, so she falls into madness.
While Lady Macbeth is driven to madness by guilt over her actions that spurred murder across the country (of infants as well), Lady Asaji goes mad because she fails to realize her own ambitions and stains her hands with blood for nothing. She sees her actions as a product of a degenerate time; she is Machiavellian; she resembles Cesare Borgia lying sick in bed while his defeat was near; she is powerless and ultimately brought to ruin by her own malice.