Fifty years after the film was released, it still enthralls the viewer with its moody atmosphere, spare sets, and powerful performances. The setting of the story has been moved to feudal Japan, and there are subtle differences in the plot and characters, but Kurosawa is otherwise faithful to the cautionary spirit of the bard's work.
It's a movie well-suited for the current Halloween season populated as it is with evil spirits, lurking apparitions, entangling forest, malevolent mist, heaped skeletons, ill omens, benighted treachery, and murders most foul. After opening with a choral description of an empty landscape once drenched in blood and piled with corpses, a curtain of fog rolls back to reveal the ghostly presence of Spider's Web Castle reborn for the tale's full retelling.
Washizu plays the tragic lead in this version, led astray by the fortune-telling of a single mischievous spirit rather than the three hags of the original. We first encounter him accompanied by his childhood friend and brother-at-arms Miki as they ride toward the castle on the heels of a victory in battle over their ruler's enemies.
Lost in the tangled wood of Spider's Web Forest as the sky thunders ominously, they happen upon a white-haired soothsayer singing of the folly of Man while spinning thread on a loom, as if in the midst of weaving the very fabric of the two men's lives. Baited by the prophecy of their soon-to-be-bestowed new titles, the Samurai are told that Washizu will ascend to the throne followed by Miki's heirs.
At first hearing, the prospect seems far fetched, but as they look deeply into their hearts they recognize the forecast's appeal to their unvoiced ambitions. The story unfolds and an opportunity avails itself, wherein Washizu finds that the most direct route to his desires will require ruthless acts of bloodshed and treachery. With each step he takes down that path, his tragic end looms inescapably.
Just like Shakespeare's play, the film delves into the classic themes of fate and human free will. Are the actors locked into their foretold parts, or are they tricked into a destiny defined by their self-limiting choices? Kurosawa's piece also share's the playwright's warning against misplaced trust, casting a knowing glance at the potentially nefarious ability of storytellers to deceive their listeners into a warped world view.
As in several of Shakespeare's other plays, MacBeth portrays the potency of words, which can bewitch the audience into believing in a self-defeating reality when just enough truth is thrown into the potion pot. Kurosawa's spirit puts such a spell on Washizu, convincing him he has no choice but to embrace the role of a murderer, but his wife is an equal accomplice. Asaji, as rutlhlessly greedy for her husband's promised power as Lady MacBeth was, exhibits a control over Washizu befitting a movie director.
Not only does she interpret the motivations of the players surrounding him — filling his mind with suspicion, doubt and fear of those once trusted — but she imbues every sight and sound he experiences with altered meanings — transforming the foreboding shriek of a bird into a beckoning call to greatness. She masterfully stages the murder scene: cuing Washizu's lines, handing him his props, arranging the sets. In one of the movies more visually interesting scenes, Asaji is swallowed up by the darkness of a blackened room as she slithers through its doorway to retrieve a pot of drugged sake.
Beyond this fatal flaw of allowing himself to see the world through others' eyes, Washizu makes the tragic misstep of pursuing power through bloodshed. He feeds a cycle of violence that unavoidably comes back to haunt him. It's a fate foreshadowed early in the play:
We still have judgment here; that we but teachNear the film's end, in one of its most chilling scenes, the spirit reappears to goad Washizu into a full and final embrace of his foolish pride, which goeth before his fall. Shape-shifting into the guise of different warriors, the spirit exhorts him that if he is to choose the path of bloodshed he must climb to the very pinnacle of evil. It's a last appeal to the samurai's vanity.
Bloody instructions, which being taught, return
To plague th' inventor. This even handed justice
Commends th' ingredients of our poison'd chalice
To our own lips.
In our modern world where too much blood is still being spilled by the various misleaders struggling for power, and where those battles are justified by the most preposterous twisting of truth to shape a self serving reality, the story's lessons are ever worth heeding.