..

THRONE OF BLOOD

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Toshiro Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Minoru Chiaki
Director:  Akira Kurosawa
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  109 Minutes
Release Date:  April 27, 2003

“Without ambition, a man is not a man.”

Film ****

Akira Kurosawa proved once again with Throne of Blood that he was both master of story and technique.  Like all of his pictures, it can be enjoyed entirely on two levels.  For someone with no appreciation for the art of cinema, he or she will still find a solid two hour’s worth of fantastic screen entertainment.  For those who look more closely, there are untold treasures just waiting to be collected.

Some critics have called this film the best filmed adaptation of Shakespeare ever made…a curious compliment, considering Throne of Blood is the Bard’s Scottish tale of Macbeth reworked into an early Japanese feudal setting.  Gone is the poetic text that most actors wear like costume jewelry.

But it’s also an appropriate compliment, because under the supervision of Kurosawa, the text of Shakespeare explodes into sweeping spectacle that rarely sits still within the aperture.  The heart of the English playwright’s work is still there, but the soul is purely Kurosawa.

As the picture opens with scenes of impenetrable fog and a mournful chorus’ lament, we enter into a world of feudal wars, and learn that the tide of one has just been turned thanks to the bravery of Washizu (the always superb Mifune) and Miki (Chiaki).  But on their return to their lord at his Spider’s Web Castle (so named because the brush leading to it is a confusing labyrinth), the heroes get lost in the assaulting weather.

Instead of the castle, they come upon a strange hut with a ghostly figure of a witch, who spins silk and a tale of prophecy about the rewards awaiting the men both that day and farther down the line…namely, that Washizu will eventually become lord of Spider’s Web Castle, but that Miki’s son would inherit it someday.

As the men reap their rewards of battle, Washizu seems satisfied.  But his wife, Asaji (Yamada) thinks her husband should take manners into his own hands to fulfill the prophecy.  Sitting respectfully and keeping her head bowed like a good Japanese wife of the time, she quietly but devilishly begins planting the seeds of doubt and insecurity into the brave but possibly not-too-bright Washizu.  She even sees the lord’s placement of trust in him to lead an important upcoming battle as a way of getting rid of him.  Arrows will come from the front and the rear, she warns.  She was right, but only for the more distant future.

Washizu commits the ultimate unforgivable treason in slaying his lord.  Though he and his wife plot to make it look like disloyal guards, he doesn’t seem to fool many.  Like the witch predicted, he takes his place as lord of Spider’s Web Castle.  But all is not well.  Soon, his wife and his own doubts begin to turn to Miki and his son…if the boy is meant to inherit the castle, as predicted, is his friend Miki his next big threat?

Though based on a very famous play, one most of us probably read in high school, I feel the need to cease with story outlining at this point.  Washizu’s unraveling descent into madness needs to be experienced first hand, as is his eventual undoing when the witch promises he will never lose a battle until the forest itself rises up and attacks him.

I will say that Washizu’s final stand is filled with images you’ll never forget.  Having always respected Toshiro Mifune as a tremendous actor, I must also now applaud his courage as well.  You’ll understand why when you watch the picture.

The story is enthralling and absorbing from start to finish, but Kurosawa, the master filmmaker that he is, isn’t content to just put a story on celluloid.  His take on Macbeth would not be the stagy, dialogue driven movies almost connected to their theatrical roots by umbilical cords.  With fluidity in camera movement, expressive lighting, making the most of both sets and locations, and a keen sense of focal point, Throne of Blood is enriched by his touches and transformed into an experience that no stage could ever match. 

Always adept at keeping action going in three dimensions, he tracks the returning warriors at full speed as they gallop through the forest.  Trees make up the foreground and background, compressing the actors into a small space that adds an element of danger.  When the fog rolls in, it only rolls on a flat axis for so long, until Kurosawa’s camera angles so that it comes toward the audience in a diagonal fashion, enveloping the scenery and making us part of the action.  Even in interiors, his cameras move with such effortless fluidity that it’s easy to take them for granted and not appreciated how much work went into the crafting of these scenes until you really start to piece them together in your mind later on.

As mentioned, this is a film anyone can enjoy, regardless of their passion for the cinematic arts.  Watch Throne of Blood for the sheer entertainment value…but then look again to find how the poetry was taken out of the words and put on to screen.  Like with any Kurosawa picture, this one is a bottomless treasure chest.

Video ***1/2

Criterion’s presentation of Throne of Blood is quite stunning, and one of the best black and white transfers I’ve seen in a while.  Despite the age of the picture, the images ring out with clarity and quality, with a full range of clean whites and deep blacks and every shade of grayscale in between.  Everything is sharp and beautifully detailed, with no softness or distortions.  The print itself is quite clean, with only minor instances of dirt or marks here and there…well within acceptable range.  High marks.

Audio ***

Kurosawa was a great director for sound, and even a simple mono soundtrack like this one gives you your money’s worth.  The startling music score and the frequent lively battles give this track surprising dynamic range against the quieter, more dialogue oriented moments.  I found it very easy to forget there was only one channel of live sound while watching the movie…nicely done!

Features **1/2

The main feature is a terrific commentary track by Michael Jeck, who also voiced commentary for Criterion’s release of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.  Jeck is an enthusiastic speaker with plenty of intricate knowledge, including the actors, the crew, the locations, historical significance and cultural references.  This is a great place to start for the student just learning to appreciate the Japanese master’s works.

The disc also includes a trailer and two sets of subtitles, one by Linda Hoaglund and one by Donald Richie.  Each of them includes a brief essay in the DVD booklet explaining their takes on the art (and compromise) of film translation.  I watched the film with both, and found them both effective…Hoaglund’s may be a bit more generalized for Western audiences, while Richie’s is more compacted and unafraid to keep Eastern manners.  For example, in Hoaglund’s translation, a defeated warrior asks for peace, while in Richie’s, his offer is to shave his head.  They are roughly equal in meaning, but the former might make more immediate sense to those unfamiliar with Japanese customs, while the latter, for those who understand that for a warrior to shave his head was the ultimate disgrace, the phrase has more power.

Donald Richie’s translation fits a little better with Michael Jeck’s commentary, too…you might want to keep that in mind when you go to listen to it.

Summary:

Throne of Blood is yet another masterpiece from one of cinema’s most prolific masters.  By turning a famous play into a culturally indigenous and purely cinematic experience, Akira Kurosawa made Macbeth move in ways the Bard never could have dreamed possible.  Kurosawa and Criterion continue to be a marriage made in DVD heaven with this quality release.