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3 Films Based on William Shakespeare by Akira Kurosawa

From the likes of Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles to Roman Polanski and Kenneth Branagh, film history is littered with directors who consider themselves the definitive cinematic overseers of William Shakespeare’s works.

While certain adaptations have had their ups and downs over the years, perhaps no auteur has understood the task of reinterpreting Shakespeare on the silver screen better than master Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa.

Basic classical puppeteers like Rashman (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), and Hidden Fortress (1958), Kurosawa made a name for himself by grappling with the harsh realities of the samurai code. Unlike the above-mentioned masterpieces of the famous British playwright, Kurosawa strives to see outdated stories as a sandbox in which he can explore themes and dynamics that interest him.

This led to the production of three films over a span of three decades; an adaptation of Macbeth which is set among the misty moor of feudal Japan entitled Blood Throne (1957), a corporate crime noir derived from Hamlet which are called Bad Sleep (1960), and the dazzling samurai epic in style King Lear title Ran (1985).

Each of these are not only among the most acclaimed works of Kurosawa’s illustrious career, but also consider themselves to be some of the most gripping Shakespearean translations in Cinema history.

1. Throne of Blood (1957)

With the release of Joel Coen entitled Macbeth’s Tragedy (2021), the mythical tale of honor and ambition once again finds itself at the forefront of film discourse.

Shakespeare’s seminal tragedy was first adapted all the way back in 1908, and by the next millennium, the play had seen nearly 50 major film interpretations. Kurosawa wanted to pick up the Macbeth adaptation since the early days of his filmmaking career, deciding on the project to be next after finishing Rashman. These plans had to be put on hold after word got out that the aforementioned Orson Welles would be directing his own rendition which was set to hit theaters in 1948.

Want to give the director Kane residents (1941) as large as possible, Kurosawa didn’t want to start working on his Macbeth until nearly a decade had elapsed between his project and Welles. Kurosawa often cites the unusual societal symmetry between Scotland and Japan during the Middle Ages as the main reason he was so eager to bring the play to life with new perspectives from Noh-style drama.

In Blood Throne Kurosawa, the legendary inspiration of director Toshiro Mifune plays the titular tragic hero, here known as Taketori Washizu. Washizu and fellow samurai general Miki serve under Lord Tsuzuki; supervisor of the mystical Spider-web Forest.

While returning from battle, the pair encounter an evil spirit who informs them that Washizu is destined to overthrow Tsuzuki, and Miki’s son, in turn, will be crowned the new guardian of the Cobwebs fortress. After telling his wife Asaji, played by the actress Tokyo Twilight (1957) Isuzu Yamada’s prophecy, she manipulates her husband to kill Tsuzuki leaving the warrior on a fatal path of death and destruction, proving ambition can sometimes be the worst of sins.

Also read: 20 Best Films of the Golden Age of Japanese Cinema

2. Bad Sleep (1960)

Akira Kurosawa

Kurosawa’s next reimagining of Shakespeare will leap forward several centuries, swapping ancient Japan’s filthy swamps for the high-rise megapolises that now stretch between its shores.

In another loose adaptation, Kurosawa takes on Hamlet under the guise of a very stylish corporate noir in Bad Sleep.

For those who are narratively unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the derided prince’s quest for revenge on those who killed his father, the story also served as inspiration for the Disney animated film, Lion King (1994).

However, in Kurosawa’s view of the events, the character Hamlet (or Simba for all the Disney fans out there), here named Koichi Nishi and once again played by Mifune, is a young businessman who climbs the corporate ladder of a Japanese conglomerate to find people. who is responsible for the murder of his father and considers it a suicide.

Nishi is forced into the dark as he draws closer to discovering the truth behind his father’s death and begins to unravel the vast web of conspiracies at the heart of a major corporation. Many find fault in the film’s largely anticlimactic conclusion, but this potentially irritating boredom is actually an integral formulaic formula for the revisionist noir movement and ultimately delivers Bad Sleep the inconclusivity necessary to reflect the endless cycle of corporate wrongdoing that lies at the heart of the film.

3. Ran (1985)

Ran (1985) Akira Kurosawa film

Kurosawa’s latest adaptation of Shakespeare is coming in the form of one of the most effective and visually stunning films in Cinema history: Ran.

One would never guess that Kurosawa was 75 years old when he composed this astonishing epic while watching it, youthful vibrancy and delightful spontaneity burst out of every frame.

Ran serves as a monolithic blend of family intrigue and politics from the HBO series Success (2018-) and otherworldly battle choreography from the saga Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) all caught with tantalizing floridity Hero (2002).

Also read: 10 Influences of Akira Kurosawa in Hollywood Movies

Film Ran this is adapting drama King Learcentered around the Sengoku period warlord Tatsuya Nakadi Hidetora Nakadai who chose to divide his kingdom among his three sons rather than sow his throne.

His eldest son Taro will receive the precious “First Castle”, Jiro the “Second”, and Saburo the “Third”. Saburo protested his father’s proposal and was expelled from the kingdom, sparking a deadly civil war between the brothers as each competed for power and attempted to ascend to their father’s throne.

Each sibling is denoted by their own specific color and as such, this film palette is among the richest of all time.

The cinematography never goes out of style, taking audiences from windswept mountain peaks to volcanic ash plains. While routinely lauded as Kurosawa’s final masterpiece, it is also perhaps the director’s greatest creation, perfectly embellishing Shakespeare’s elemental tale of greed and disgrace and crafting an epic that is near-perfect in every sense of the word.


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