"Vaulting ambition that doth o'erleap itself" was Shakespeare's chilling judgement of Macbeth, the man who murdered his way to the top, losing his sanity on the way. Kurosawa's version has a similar crazy ambition: the story is transposed to Mount Fuji, made into a hyper-stylised Noh drama. Thankfully, Kurosawa crafts these conceits into a visceral, bloody supernatural drama devoid of creative hubris and breathtaking in its beauty, cruelty and virtuosic screen storytelling.
An ambitious samurai warlord Washizu (Mifune) follows a supernatural tip-off about his imminent elevation, and murders his master. The morality is as black-and-white as the cinematography - indeed, this is a film structured around savage contrasts: Mifune snapping and blustering with a helpless, wrong-headed aggression, while Asaji (Yamada), as his Lady Macbeth and malign inspiration, remains as impassive as sculpted ice. Eerie silence reigns in Cobweb Castle, while bloody fury rages on the battlefield.
It's hardly giving the story away to say that Washizu comes to a spectacularly bloody end - in one of the most memorable, fitting slayings ever shown on the big screen. Kurosawa has taken the essence of Shakespeare's story - murder, madness, betrayal - and made a loose adaptation. The final bloody point is that these "values" are universal, whether in a blasted Scottish castle or an embattled Japanese hill fortress. But in this story at least, all that results is death, damnation and torment.