Criterion // 1957 // 106 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // January 13th, 2014
Even the birds cry ominously.
There are plenty of great cinematic stagings of Shakespeare's work out there, but I find the really faithful adaptations work better on the stage than on film. More enjoyable are those that take the themes and structure and make something completely unique. It doesn't always work, of course; there will always be the "Macbeth in Gangland Chicago" garbage to contend with, but done right can make for some of the most compelling movies you'll see. At the top of the list is Throne of Blood, in which Akira Kurosawa (Ran) takes Macbeth and turns it into a Noh theater-inspired exploration of greed and power in Feudal Japan.
After amazing success on the battlefield, warrior Washizu (Toshiro Mifune, Rashomon) and his childhood friend, Miki (Akira Kubo, Sanjuro) get lost in the forest on the way back to report at the castle. Deep in the woods, they come upon a ghostly witch, who delivers a bizarre prophecy about Washizu's bloody rise to power. He doesn't take it seriously, but needs to keep it quiet so the Lord Tsuzuki (Takamaru Sasaki (Hiroshi Tachikawa, Yojimbo) doesn't believe him a threat. Instead, he is rewarded as commander of the North Garrison, which Washizu is shocked to realize this was exactly what the prophecy predicted. When he tells his wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada, The Lower Depths) about all of this, she takes it very seriously and advises him to start killing his peers to protect himself. As he does, he rises in power to become the Lord Washizu, but soon becomes mad with power and destroys all that he's built.
There are few stories more uniquely satisfying than a good Shakespeare adaptation, and even fewer films of any kind are as entertaining as Throne of Blood. With its thick atmosphere that feels more horror than history and its excellent, if sparse, action scenes, it's one of Akira Kurosawa's most entertaining films, as well as his one of his most artistic.
Kurosawa's use Noh theater tradition in the telling lends the movie an off-putting weirdness that works really well. Both appearances of the demon (played brilliantly by Cheiko Naniwa, Sansho the Bailiff), who is terribly unsettling) are as creepy as you could want, serving as striking benchmarks in the film as well as great set pieces that show off both her and Mifune's intensity. He's phenomenal throughout the movie, more confused and less evil than the traditional Macbeth, but just as strong. Isuzu Yamada may put in the best performance as Lady Washizu. She puts the bug in her husband's ear, making her much more the impetus for his turn, and her descent into madness is the most compelling thing in the film.
Kurosawa includes all the big moments from Shakespeare: the prophecy, regicide, blood that won't wash off, walking trees, all the bits that you sign up for with Macbeth, but it never feels European for a moment. Kurosawa has everything firmly rooted in feudal Japan, with no indication (for Japanese audiences, at least) that this was anything but a Japanese story. The Noh influences, including the musical score, which is straight from the tradition, really come to the forefront here and, though it doesn't feel stagey, there is, sometimes, a sense of static action. This is further heightened by the fog that looms everywhere in the film. It makes the situation feel stagnant, though the movie never does. Instead, it's supremely entertaining and one of the stranger films he made in his career. If it's not my favorite of his work, it's very close; nonetheless, I'm thrilled every time I get to watch it.
Throne of Blood returns on the Criterion Collection in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack that serves as a nice upgrade over its previous release. The new 2k transfer is excellent, breathing new life into the 1.37:1/1080p image. I never had any objection to their original release, as it was the best the film could look at the time, but is improved in every way here. Detail is brilliant and present even in the dense fogs that snake through the film. Contrast is nearly perfect, with bright whites and deep blacks that are strong and consistent throughout. The grain structure is strong and there are no digital errors at all; I don't really see how much nicer it could look.
Audio is an even bigger improvement. The single channel lossless PCM mix is now totally free of background noise and the dynamic range is about as strong as it could be. The score sounds crisp and sharp, while all the dialog is perfectly clear. Interestingly, there are two subtitle options. The first, by Japanese film translator Linda Hoaglund, is my preferred of the two, because it tries to keep in tune with the theatricality of the original language. The other, by Kurosawa scholar Donald Richie, is more American colloquial and perfectly fine; I just prefer the former.
There's only one new extra on the disc and none have been eliminated, but it's still not the largest group they've ever put forth. The commentary with Japanese cinema expert Michael Jeck is very good; he has a strong handle on all aspects of the movie and does a good job in giving context to the history and to the theatrical tradition the adaptation was based around. Akira Kurosawa: It's Wonderful to Create is an episode of the Japanese Toho Masterworks series, runs half an hour and is a look at the making of the film that is worth watching, but nothing special. The trailer and the customary text essays close out the disc.
Kurosawa has managed to do in Throne of Blood what seems impossible. Not only does he perfectly adapt Macbeth, he does it while making an exciting movie about feudal Japan and creating a nearly proper Noh play in the process. It's a fantastic movie that everybody should check out and, with this Blu-ray upgrade, there's no better place to look.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (Japanese)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1957
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* DVD Copy