THRONE OF BLOOD
Review by Michael Jacobson
Toshiro Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Minoru Chiaki
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.37:1
Features: See Review
Length: 109 Minutes
Release Date: August 25, 2015
ambition, a man is not a man.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
presentation of Throne of Blood is quite stunning, and one of the best
black and white high definition 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.
was a great director for sound, and even a simple uncompressed 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!
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.
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 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.
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.
There is also the segment from "It Is Wonderful to Create" about Kurosawa and the film, which is a terrific piece with plenty of good information.
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 Blu-ray heaven with this quality release.