Castles of Delusion – Reflections of Power in “Throne of Blood” (1957)

“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.”

Sings the ethereal chorus as we, the audience, are made witness to the crumbled walls of a once-mighty fortress, situated in a cold and arid valley. No signs of flora or life of any variety are apparent in the other-worldly landscape, just miles of jagged black igneous rock and dirt, draped in white fog rolling down the hills with the whistling winds. 

In the middle of the apocalyptic scene stands a splintering pillar baring the only allusion as to what this hollow relic was:

“Here Stands The Spider’s Web Castle” [1]

We pan out only to see the ruins swallowed by the mist before vanishing altogether. So begins and so concludes Akira Kurosawa’s eerie period drama Throne of Blood (1957). Throne of Blood is the late director’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, trading the warring Scottish Highlands for feudal Japan. It wasn’t one of the famed Japanese auteur’s most lucrative works when it was released, neither domestically nor internationally, but in the decades since the film has garnered significant praise among his oeuvre of works.

Like its muse, Throne of Blood is a cautionary tale that Kurosawa masterfully translated in such a manner that spoke to his own context, and in many respects offers the Muslim viewer with a useful meditation on how power is received in the world today.

The film follows Washizu, a general under the feudal lord Tsuzuki of the Spider’s Web Castle. Upon returning from a grueling battle, Washizu and his comrade Miki encounter an ominous oracle prophesying that Washizu will be promoted to the head of Tsuzuki’s northern garrison, before claiming his throne. The revelation sets him and his wife, the lady Asaji, on a destructive path to hasten his alleged destiny at the expense of their own conscience and souls.

For many who are at the very least familiar with the name Kurosawa the tone and themes presented in Throne of Blood – a jaded depiction of the past, where the warrior culture of medieval Japanese nobility is painted with a shade of cynicism – might conflict with the place its director holds in the imagination of many.

Akira Kurosawa might even be associated with the opposite. In many respects, he was a significant part of the iconization of Japanese antiquity in modern popular culture, with the genre of samurai cinema resting heavily on his shoulders. Kurosawa is best known for works such as Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and The Hidden Fortress. His mythologising of the historic samurai would be replicated in the Spaghetti Western, and eventually even science fiction (George Lucas drew heavily from Kurosawa in the making of Star Wars). 

There is, however, another side to Kurosawa’s roster of medieval sagas, with bleaker and disillusioned visions of the past. Throne of Blood is not alone in this roster, nor is it the director’s only adaptation of Shakespeare’s plays (1985’s Ran was adapted from King Lear) but indeed it stands out as a unique glimpse at the director’s own contentions with his nation’s legacy. 

Japan’s march into modernity has been a perplexing one and Kurosawa himself saw that process in his own life and career. His fascination with the classics of the western canon as well as in the depth of his own heritage is a product of an educational system carried over from the Meiji restoration. 

It might not be the case now, but Japan has a historic reputation of culturally distancing itself from the wider world, for centuries observing an intense period of isolationism. The Meiji restoration brought that era to an end. Seeing that in the 18th and 19th centuries European colonial enterprise swept through much of Asia and Africa, the Japanese military feared a similar fate and thus sought to overthrow the shogunate and industrialize, which demanded engagement with foreign technologies, customs and ideas. [2]

The Meiji period and indeed the early 20th century, where Japan pursued its own colonial ambitions, were a balancing act – an attempt to reconcile one tradition with a foreign and fairly new set of ideas. The restoration gave rise to Japanese industrialism, imperialism, shifts in cultural attitudes and sentiments as well as a new education system. 

It was this same system that Kurosawa grew up with, and the same social order which shaped his fascination with western literature. “Kurosawa must be seen as a man of his era: Educated both within older Japanese values and with a broad exposure to western arts… His stance was part of his early leftist political leanings, and coloured by his father’s samurai values”. [3]

Having witnessed part of the rise and fall of Japan’s imperial enterprise, the turmoil of the second world war and the US occupation of the country, Kurosawa’s upbringing was shaped by the same conflicts; social, ideological and physical, that influenced Japanese society as a whole at the time. His relationship and attitude towards ideas of power and national pride were dampened by those experiences.

Macbeth was a play of particular intrigue for the director, who had planned on adapting it several years prior to its release in 1957. He believed the subject matter of Shakespeare’s original parallels both historical Japan he mused over and the contemporary reality he faced.

“In Macbeth, Kurosawa saw a contemporary issue—a parallel between medieval Scotland and medieval Japan which illuminated contemporary society; and further, a pattern which is valid in both historical and contemporary contexts”. [4]

The 1950s was a period of rapid change in Japan. Though the US occupation ended in 1952, and the empire was no more, the nationalistic sentiments which defined previous decades, especially during the second world war, did not dissipate immediately. 

Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth was an attempt at addressing the conflict between the idealized vision of Japan’s history with his own cynicism toward the notion of power. Washizu’s arc follows the same trajectory as that of Shakespeare’s Scottish nobleman – a man of prestige and dignity disgraced by his pursuit of power at the expense of his conscience. As the first of the prophecies comes into fruition, Washizu is driven to murder upon murder first to usurp Tsuzuki’s throne then, in a paranoid attempt to secure it, betraying his closest friend in the process and ultimately losing the very prize that demanded his betrayal. 

The plot makes apparent both Shakespeare and Kurosawa’s message about the corrosive nature of power, but Kurosawa’s visual translation adds a certain emphasis that the original text may not have realized in its intended context. He adapts the narrative into a visual vocabulary that Japanese audiences could identify with, not only in historical context but in visual style, genre and symbolism throughout the film.

One of the most striking examples comes in his allusions to Noh theater, a traditional style of masquerade performance. Noh theater relies more on narration than plot – the performers are storytellers as opposed to characters, and much of the narrative relies on both their accounts and their attire – of which the mask is a key accessory and plot device.

Noh masks became associated with Japanese horror cinema in the 20th century. [5] The near featureless style commonly associated with Noh has been utilized in Japanese horror to create an uncanny feeling- an air of uncertainty and distrust to unsettle the viewer.

Kurosawa deploys this aesthetic in Throne of Blood, primarily in the character of Asaji, the film’s depiction of Lady Macbeth. As in the source material, Asaji is cunning, ambitious and morally ambiguous relative to her husband. She is a pale faced, specter-like character, with little to no expression and a monotonous manner of speaking. A combination of Isuzu Yamada’s performance and the stylistic choices of the film’s auteur, Asaji’s appearance reflects that of the expressionless Noh mask, and her presence evokes a sense of discomfort and distrust from the viewer. 

This choice of portrayal serves as more than a historical allusion, but also adds emphasis to the theme of corruption in the film. The character most associated with ambition and cunning is firmly established as unsettling from the outset, she is a manifestation of the disdain for power expressed in the narrative.

This is taken further when we first see this expressionless veneer broken. Following the string of murders she and her husband have been complicit in, we find Asaji hallucinating, frantically trying to wash her hands in a basin, imagining them stained with the blood of their victims. It’s a rare instance where Asaji breaks from her cryptic demeanor, her face overwhelmed with guilt, paranoia and disgust with her actions. To display arguably the most frightening character in the narrative with such vulnerability adds an additional depth to the cautionary message Kurosawa addresses the audience with- of how ugly and horrific the pursuit of power can be.

The setting of the film also adds to this effect. “The Spider’s Web Castle”, which was also the film’s working title, alludes to a particular idea of evil itself. The spider has been depicted in some traditional plays as an evil character, “spinning its web of intrigue and deception until it is unmasked and conquered…” [6] Washizu, in this respect, occupies the role of the spider, planning and plotting elaborately, entangled in his own web of corruption only to find the grand scheme rent asunder and his legacy brought to an end. 

The castle is a deceptive building. At both the start and end of the film we see it fade in and out of existence like a mirage, and it serves only as a source of pain and cause for treachery throughout the duration of the film. Power itself is the “castle of delusion” of the chorus’ ominous hymn. 

It could be said that Kurosawa’s conception of power is a product of his social context, witnessing the pain and suffering inflicted in the name of imperial ideals and an idea of nationhood with which he was disillusioned. Throne of Blood, in that respect, is an attempt at shattering those ideals through a sinister vision of an idyllic past. I would contend that the Muslim audience, for whom power is not defined by a specific context but understood through the lens of revelation, Throne of Blood still serves as a useful vignette on the nature of power.

There are two main aspects of power that the believer can observe: the physical and Divine manifestations. Power in the physical realm should be understood as a transient and ephemeral idea. It is not something absolute for any human being and is not a matter over which we have control, consider the ayah in Surah Ale Imraan:

“If you have received a wound, they have received a similar wound. Such days We rotate among the people, so that Allah may know those who believe and let some of you be martyrs – and Allah does not like the unjust” [03:140]

Nations, dynasties, and seats of power all rotate, their presence is no more virtuous than their absence. Part of our creed is the acknowledgement that power does not belong to us, but to Allah in its entirety, which relates to the second manifestation of power. Power in the Divine realm is distinct from the physical, firstly because it is absolute, and secondly because it is free from any possibility of corruption. 

Numerous names of Allah as referred to in the Quran and Prophetic traditions relate to His power; Al-Aziz [The Mighty], Al-Jabbar [The Compeller], Al-Qawih [The Possessor of Strength] and more. A key principle of Islamic creed is that the names of Allah cannot have negative connotations, however, some of these names and attributes when used in the human context, can hold such connotations. 

“When the name Al Jabbar describes Allah, it is an attribute of praise and glory. By contrast, when the word is used to describe human beings, it is to rebuke and censure them for their pride and self-aggrandizement”. [7] 

In Surah Maryam, when the prophets Yahya and ‘Isa (A.S) are described, they are mentioned as not being “Jabbar” towards their parents, as the word in the human capacity refers to tyranny, whereas with Allah, the attribute of compelling is ultimately good and pure. This is because God is free from the imperfections of humanity that limit our capacity to reflect some of His attributes, and the base urges we are tested with that sully our ability to reflect others. Power in and of itself is not a sinful matter, but rather its ability to provoke the lower elements of our nature is what makes it a matter to be wary of. Absolute power is not a tool humans were created to wield and thus it lies with Allah.

The Muslim is not forbidden from seeking power but is cautioned about the dangers it invites because of our imperfections. One of the seven noble people shaded by the throne of God on the day of judgment, as mentioned in a prophetic narration [Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 660] is the just ruler, because to exhibit justice whilst endowed with power is a difficult feat. 

In this light, we can see that Throne of Blood concerns the former of the two realms of power – it is a meditation on the physical realm of power, made ugly and brutal by our superficial ambitions, and like its source material, it serves as a cautionary tale of the consequences of ambition untethered from principle. 

Works Cited

[1] Akira Kurosawa, Throne of Blood (1957)

[2] Meiji Restoration, Britannica

[3] Dolores Martinez, From ‘Scottish’ Play to Japanese Film: Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, MDPI AG

[4] Donald Ritchie, Throne of Blood [essay], Criterion Collection 

[5] Yau Shuk-ting Kinnia, A “Horrible” Legacy: Noh and J-horror, East Asian Cinema and Cultural Heritage

[6] Ana Laura Zambrano, Throne of Blood: Kurosawa’s Macbeth, Literature Film Quarterly

[7] Salman Al-Oadah, In The Company Of God 

Photo via Toho Studios

About the Author: Ibraheem Ali is a graduate of English from the UK. His interests include literature, film, and Islamic history.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

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