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What Do You “Noh” About Macbeth?
How Akira Kurosawa used classical Japanese theater conventions to translate the Bard’s poetic language into visual poetry
By Courtney Suciu
When acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood made its American debut in 1961, U.S. critics didn’t quite know what to make of it.
The visually stunning, now-classic film is a retelling of Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy, Macbeth – set in feudal Japan, using conventions from traditional Noh theater.
While reviewers from publications like Newsday and The New York Times lauded Kurosawa’s striking artistry, they also dismissed the project overall as a “second-rate version” of Shakespeare’s play.
However, despite this early reception, Throne of Blood endures as a cinematic masterpiece. We look at how a deeper understanding of classical Japanese drama can enhance our appreciation of Shakespeare’s devastating tale about the perils of fate and the relentless quest for power; and why Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood endures as a brilliant merging of cultures and theatrical conventions.
What early critics had to say
In renowned Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, the themes and storyline are much the same as in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The main character, renamed Washizu, receives a prediction – not from three witches but instead a spirit – and his wife, renamed Asaji, urges him to commit murder in order to bring this prophecy to fruition.
However, rather than 11th-century Scotland, Throne of Blood takes places place in 16th-century Japan, an era of warlord rulers called Shoguns and their warriors, known as samurai.
In addition to this change in setting, Kurosawa made no attempt to translate Shakespeare’s language, and instead relied on Noh conventions such as the actors’ slow, deliberate movements and dramatic silences to convey the unfolding tragedy. For some western critics, this proved problematic.
While some lauded Kurosawa’s haunting visual artistry, many agreed with the sentiments of Newsday entertainment editor Ben Kubasik1 who dismissed the film as a “second-rate version” of Shakespeare’s tragedy.
In a review titled “Throne of Blood is a Royal Bore,” Kubasik complained that the director’s use of “stylized devices from his country’s Noh Theater techniques…does away with the majesty of Shakespeare’s own words” and “Kurosawa’s effort is likely to be remote, slow-moving and repetitive to western audiences.”
That assessment seems generous compared with the one presented by Bosley Crowther2 of The New York Times who described the film as “amusing” and explained his choice of that particular adjective: “We label it amusing because lightly is the only way to take this substantially serio-comic rendering of the story of an ambitious Scot.”
Crowther went on to acknowledge that Kurosawa probably “did not intend for it to be amusing for his formalistic countrymen, but its odd amalgamation of cultural contrasts hits the occidental funnybone.”
British reception wasn’t much more enthusiastic. The “London Film Critic” of the Manchester Guardian3, admits there are “splendid things in the film,” including the acting, especially of Isuzu Yamada who played the Lady Macbeth character as well as “occasional pictures of sudden, vivid beauty.”
Unfortunately, for this critic “These items did not add up (by Western arithmetic) to a great film.”
A visual interpretation of Shakespeare’s poetry
So why did western critics have such a dismissive response to Throne of Blood?
That is the topic of a dissertation by Ming Liang Lai4, who explained when scholars from the U.S. and Europe argued that “Throne of Blood is not a tragedy…because Shakespeare's poetry is gone, [and] Washizu is unable to express his thoughts and feelings, which are necessary to establish his tragic stature,” they neglected Kurosawa’s “translation of Shakespeare's poetry into movements and, more generally, images.”
According to Lai, Kurosawa originally trained as a visual artist and this influence can be seen in the “painterly” quality of his filmmaking, particularly his interpretation of Macbeth. Conventions of traditional Japanese Noh theater provided the director with a framework in which to explore Shakespeare’s well-known tale through a different kind of aesthetic experience – which might be jarring to audiences who are predisposed to the poetry of Shakespeare’s language.
“The characters in Macbeth convey their thoughts and feelings primarily through speech, while those in the Throne of Blood express themselves through movement as well as speech,” Lai wrote. “Kurosawa follows the Noh tradition in choreographing the movements of Washizu, Asaji, and the old woman... turning them into ‘dance.’”
In doing so, the scholar continued, “He thus gives their movements symbolic meaning. The actor's movements are never unintentional; instead, they complement, emphasize, or even replace speech. Kurosawa achieves this task through Noh, in which style and story are one.”
The prioritization of slow, subtle and deliberate movements over speech in Noh might not be familiar to western viewers and could hamper their enjoyment or understanding of the film. This perhaps contributed to critics’ dismissal of Throne of Blood as “amusing,” “boring” or humorous. But for clarity, Lai explained how the conventions of Noh functioned in Kurosawa’s retelling:
Noh performers wear masks in order to hide their facial expressions and thus emphasize their body movements. Despite the fact that a Noh mask has a fixed expression, it is very expressive. By tilting his mask upward or downward or moving it left or right, a performer can create a multitude of expressions especially when he combines his mask movements with those of his more mobile body. By moving his painted mask, he manipulates the reflection of light, which also contributes to creating different expressions.
Knowledge of these conventions can help a viewer better appreciate, or at least understand, how they are used to translate Shakespeare’s poetic language into poetic movement. The result is a different medium and viewing experience, but with no less – or perhaps with heightened – drama.
Because “a Noh performer remains still for a long time,” Lai wrote, “any movement that he makes, however slight, draws the immediate attention of the viewer.” One example of this effect is “when Asaji and the old woman ‘take off’ their masks and smile knowingly at Washizu because of his hypocritical statements, the viewer immediately notices the change in their expressions.”
As a result, according to Lai, the director “suggests through his use of Noh that images are just as powerful as words in their ability to express ideas and emotions.”
The drama of cross-cultural tensions
Another component of the film which divided critics is what Crowther considered “an odd amalgamation of cultural contrasts.” However, for champions of Throne of Blood, this dichotomy is an integral part of Kurosawa’s storytelling and fueled the unusual energy of the film.
According to literary critic Robert Watson5, the director’s use of “Japanese Noh techniques to transmit Shakespearean themes, creat[ed] an innovative blend of Eastern and Western cultures that infused an exciting tension in his drama.”
“That tension is reinforced by the juxtaposition, in the style of the film’s performances and storytelling, of modern western psychological realism on one hand, and on the other hand the traditional Noh masks and movements,” he continued.
For Watson, this dramatic tension not only served the film’s stylized sense of drama, but also worked to underscore the story’s themes and setting. Critical to both versions of the tragedy is the strained dichotomy between will and submission. Watson noted, “as in Macbeth, the deeper tragedy in Throne of Blood depends on recognizing that complete individual freedom is no less dangerous than complete control by higher powers.”
He continued, “The tension between traditional authority and individual self-assertion would have been extremely important during the years Macbeth was produced (because of the late Renaissance upheaval of socio-economic order and the uncertain launch of the Stuart dynasty in England).”
In setting his adaptation of Macbeth in 16th-century Japan, Kurosawa was able to draw a parallel between the two times and places. As Watson noted, a similar tension “would have been important in the Sengoku period depicted in this film.” He explained: “Roughly the century preceding the birth of Shakespeare and half a world away, this was an era agonized by warring samurai factions and multiple phases of gekokujo: the overthrow of leaders by their supposed subordinates.”
Such a setting certainly seems like an appropriate atmosphere for a tale of a general who murders his sovereign in order to claim higher authority for himself.
Watson concluded, “Like many other great works of art, Throne of Blood is a profoundly ambivalent exploration of human morality that is at once intensely localized and transhistorical.” In other words, it’s a story intentionally set in a particular time and place, within the conventions of a particular culture, which also demonstrates the universality of struggles endured by humans regardless of time, place or culture.
Perhaps this is the true beauty of Kurosawa’s version of Shakespeare’s play. Whether you prefer a version of Macbeth that remains loyal to the Bard’s original language, or you champion the director’s more experimental take on the classic tale, Throne of Blood offers a unique invitation to more deeply consider various modes of storytelling. The film presents compelling ways to explore how different dramatic conventions from different cultures can serve to contradict as well as enhance each other, resulting in a truly original work of art.
For further research
Learn more about Macbeth and compare different versions of the play through the product links below):
Macbeth. Doran, G. (Director). (2001, Jan 01). [Video/DVD] Illuminations. Television adaptation of Macbeth featuring the Royal Shakespeare Company. Available from Theatre in Video, ProQuest One Academic and Academic Video Online.
Macbeth, in Stratford Festival HD 2016 Film, 1 of 13. O'Brien, S. (Director). (2016, Jan 01). [Video/DVD] Stratford Festival. Available from ProQuest One Academic and Academic Video Online.
Macbeth. Lloyd, P. (Director). (2012, Jan 01). [Video/DVD] Opus Arte. Black, red, cream and gold are the colours that define Phyllida Lloyd's Royal Opera House staging of Verdi's robust, yet penetrating setting of Shakespeare's Scottish play. Available from ProQuest One Academic and Academic Video Online.
Macbeth with Ethan Hawke, in Shakespeare Uncovered. Stockley, N. (Director). (2013, Jan 01). [Video/DVD] Public Broadcasting Service. Ethan Hawke takes you along as he researches the part of Shakespeare's murderous Macbeth. Available from ProQuest One Academic and Academic Video Online.
McKellen, I. (Producer), & Browning, K. (Director). Ian McKellen: Acting Shakespeare. [Video/DVD] Entertainment One Ltd. This documentary features Sir Ian McKellen on acting in the plays of Shakespeare. Available from Academic Video Online.
- Ben Kubasik Newsday, E. E. (1961, Nov 24). 'Throne of Blood' Is a Royal Bore. Newsday (1940-1990). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- By, B. C. (1961, Nov 23). Screen: Change in scene: Japanese Production of 'Macbeth' Opens. New York Times (1923-Current File). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- Our London, F. C. (1957, Oct 18). MACBETH IN OLD JAPAN: " THRONE OF BLOOD.” The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- Lai, M. L. (1993). Akira Kurosawa's Use of Noh in "The Throne of Blood", His Film Adaptation of William Shakespeare's "Macbeth" (Order No. 1354810). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global and ProQuest One Academic.
- Watson, R. N. (2014). Throne of Blood. London, England: British Film Institute. Available from Film Scripts Online Series.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu