NOTE: Your Humble Reviewer, who has been known to waste thousands of words on awful movies, is about to dismiss a true masterpiece in a few paragraphs.
Kumo no Su Jô / Throne of Blood often pops up on "best-of" lists. Some critics refer to it as director Kurosawa Akira's best film; others may not go quite so far as to say it's his best, but include it among his best. Others put it near the top in lists of the best Japanese movies ever made. Still others list it as one of the finest adaptations of Shakespeare's Macbeth, while there are those who rate it as one of the finest Shakespeare adaptations of any kind in any country. But I have never seen it listed as one of the best horror films of all time.
Sure, there are understandable reasons for this. Most people are hesitant to use the term "horror film" in reference to a movie by Kurosawa. Generally, if a scary movie aspires to be something more than merely frightening, it ceases to be considered a "horror movie", as though that term could never be applied to a movie that succeeds on its own terms1. Also, Throne of Blood is based on Macbeth, and most people would argue that there's a world of difference between Shakespeare and Stephen King. These people forget that horror was very popular on the Elizabethan stage, and that Shakespeare's first extant play, Titus Andronicus, is nothing if not a horror show. Yet here we have a play and a film which revolve around witches, ghosts and violent death, presented with utter conviction and tremendous atmopshere: it's a great film, yes, but it's also a horror movie.
The film begins at the end. A male chorus intones a solemn chant about the futility of ambition, and the ruin of earthly desire. Gradually, through the mist-shrouded landscape, a deserted tomb becomes visible. The camera pans slowly down the obelisk, revealing the name WASHIZU. The camera pulls back to reveal the entire valley, as the mist again swirls in and obscures everything. When the mist begins to clear, a castle stands on the spot where the tomb had been.
The great Mifune Toshiro plays Captain Washizu. When we first meet him, he has just won a major victory for his Lord, against an overwhelming invasion force. Washizu and his comrade, Miki (Chiaki Minoru of 1955's Godzilla's Counterattack), are traveling through the Kumo no Su Mori, or Spiderweb Forest, on their way to be rewarded for their heroism.
The Spiderweb Forest is a strange and dangerous place. There are clearly marked trails, but these trails never seem to lead where they promise. Kurosawa uses the Forest as a metaphor for the human heart, with its hidden desires and traps for the unwary. Washizu and Miki become lost in this forest; their bravery and skill are useless to them there.
Shadows and strange laughter lead the pair to a desolate hut. An unearthly light bathes an old woman who sits spinning a thread within. The thread she is spinning suggests both the Spiderwebs in the forest's name, and the sticky entanglements of desire, and the idea of the thread of a person's life. As she spins, the old woman sings to herself in an unnaturally low, soft voice. "There is no peace in this life," she sings, "nor in the next life, for there is none." The old woman greets the two warriors by name, and proceeds to tell their futures, just as the three Scottish witches do in Macbeth: Washizu will be made the ruler of a great castle, and will become the Lord of Spiderweb Castle thereafter. Miki will not become Lord, but his children will inherit the title.
Anyone who knows the story of Macbeth will be familiar with what happens thereafter. In place of Shakespeare's verse, Kurosawa creates his poetry through beautifully-composed images. There's quite a bit of overt symbolism, too: for instance, when the Lord comes to visit Washizu in his castle, the unexpectedness of the visit forces Washizu and his wife to move to the room where the traitor Fujimaki had killed himself. The indelible bloodstain on the wall of the room provides a chilling backdrop for the murderous plan Washizu and his wife discuss. Toward the end of the film, when Washizu, his life falling to pieces around him, goes back to the witch, the old woman reveals to him that her hut is built on an ancient battlefield, strewn with the bones of soldiers; by appearing in the shapes of the dead warriors, the witch goads Washizu into a bloodthirsty frenzy, which helps bring about his downfall. Then, as the noble General Odagura (Shimura Takashi, my favorite actor) leads his troops into the Spiderweb Forest to depose Washizu, he advises them not to trust the clear paths through the woods: they must always go straight ahead, without distraction.
The supernatural elements of the film are absolutely terrifying, from the uncanny appearance of the witch, to the strange apparitions in the forest, to the ghost of Captain Miki which appears at Washizu's banquet and frightens him out of his dignity. The scenes of the moving forest, when Birnam-mori comes to Dunsanine-jo, are also unnerving, though we know there's a rational explanation for it. But many of the more realistic scenes are equally horrifying. For instance, when Washizu murders the assassin who let Miki's son (Kubo Akira, a regular in Toho monster flicks of the 60's) get away, it takes the man a very long time to die. Audiences who are used to people dying cleanly in films are likely to find this scene hard to watch. Then there's Lady Asaji's "mad scene": her body fatally poisoned by infection after carrying a dead child in her womb, and her conscience poisoned by murder and treason, she sits behind a screen, compulsively washing her hands to remove some unseen stains. Seeing this icy Lady Macbeth reduced to a fragile, dying wreck is almost as much of a shock for the viewer as is is for Washizu, who comes almost completely unhinged.
And then, of course, there's Washizu's long, painful and unpleasant death. It's got to be one of the longest, most uncompromisingly brutal, and ingeniously shot death scenes in history. Still, at no point in the film, particularly not in the death of the anti-hero, is violence glorified (another point which separates Throne of Blood from other "horror films"). But make no mistake: this is a genuine horror movie, and one which balances its ghost story and human drama like few other films before or since.
Kobayashi's Kwaidan is a rare example of a horror film which is clearly intended as an "art film", and which is accepted as both by the critics. But that's the opposite of the situation with Kurosawa's film, in that Kurosawa's is an art film which functions as a horror film... not that you'll ever catch a mainstream critic calling it that.