It is a while, I'll admit, since I either read Shakespeare's 'Scottish play' (schooldays!) or indeed saw Jon Finch's 1971 big screen depiction and in the meantime I had forgotten just how dark and unremittingly bleak its atmosphere and narrative is, but as a potent reminder this 1957 Kurosawa interpretation leaves one in no doubt. Nevertheless, it is (of course) one of Kurosawa's most visually stunning works (and that's saying something) with as many standout set-pieces as pretty much anything by the Japanese master, whilst also showcasing an all-consuming, bravura performance from the director's 'muse', Toshiro Mifune, as the misguided megalomaniac, samurai warrior, Washizu.
Visually, Throne Of Blood is, for me, as impressive as anything that Kurosawa ever did, mixing expansive battle scenes with more intimate, subtler, atmospheric moments - typically either set against mist-enshrouded backgrounds or 'sparsely decorated' period interiors (all courtesy of cinematographer Asaichi Nakai's versatile black-and-white camera). Equally, Masaru Sato's score complements the film's brooding ambience with its mix of restrained and haunting themes, plus slow drum-beats (which recur frequently). Never has samurai armour appeared more resplendently detailed, particularly during the key (and highlight) early scene as Washizu and (best friend and co-combatant) Minoru Chiaki's Miki are confronted by a stunning 'bleached spirit' (Chieko Naniwa), who foretells their futures, undermining their hitherto unwavering mutual trust and sowing the seeds for future tragedy.
Thereafter, Washizu's spouse, Isuzu Yamada's impressive, coldly calculating Asaji, takes on the role of 'harbinger of doom' (with an eye on her own ambitions, of course), persuading her other half that (his) future success depends on his 'disposing' of all rivals. Consistent with Kurosawa's title, blood is, of course, a key motif, first conveying 'evil spirits' ('this stain chills my spine') to Washizu's new home and thence as Asaji is unable to remove its murderous traces. By this latter point, however, both husband and wife have been subsumed by delusional supernatural forces, and even though Washizu is 'brought up short' by the appearance of Miki's ghost at his 'dinner party' he still holds to the mystical prophecy he has received ('how can a forest move?'), oblivious to the fact that even the spirits can be deceived. Throne Of Blood represents Kurosawa at his most straight-faced - moments of (even dark) humour are few and far between, and limited to Washizu's gradual realisation of his folly and the scenes showing Washizu's underlings bantering (which also serve to further develop the film's back-story).
In the end, it is difficult (and unnecessary) to look past Mifune's towering central performance here which, though essentially an unsympathetic one, is, for me, one of his very best, culminating, of course, in one of the most stunning of all cinematic denouements.