Our review of Throne of Blood (1957) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published January 13th, 2014, is also available.
This is a wicked world. To save yourself you often first must kill.
The impact of Akira Kurosawa on western artists who chose to emulate him is well-known. His works have inspired countless imitations the world over. The west also had a big impact on Kurosawa as a filmmaker. While the great mass of the Japanese public enjoyed his films, critics and other cultural elitists sniffed that he was too western in his orientation, and not Japanese enough. In cinematic taste he was heavily influenced by John Ford, the great American director of Westerns. In literature and philosophy, he was heavily influenced by such varied sources as pulp detective stories, the novels of Dostoyevsky, and the plays of William Shakespeare.
Facts of the Case
In a time of civil war, Lord Tsuzuki (Takamaru Sasaki) of Spider's Web Castle is under attack. Fujimaki, the hand-picked commander of his North Garrison, has betrayed him, and has joined forces with rival Lord Inui. As the combined forces of Fujimaki and Inui conquer Tsuzuki's outposts one by one, all hope seems lost—until two of Tsuzuki's loyal outpost commanders come to the rescue. Commanders Washizu (Toshirô Mifune) and Miki (Minoru Chiaki) fight fiercely and win the day against the traitorous forces.
As Washizu and Miki make their way to Spider's Web Castle, they must pass through the dense maze that is Spider's Web Forest. In the forest they stumble onto a mysterious woman, an evil spirit who knows the men by name. Before vanishing into thin air, she tells the men that each of them has a great destiny. Washizu is to be named commander of the North Garrison, while Miki is to take his place as commander of the first fortress. However, even greater glories lie ahead of them: Washizu will one day be the lord of Spider's Web Castle, and later, so will Miki's heirs. The two men are shaken up by the spirit's predictions, but laugh off the incident—for the present. However, when Lord Tsuzuki honors them both at a victory celebration, promoting Washizu to command of the North Garrison and Miki to command of the first fortress, it seems that perhaps the spirit knew something of their destinies after all.
Washizu is surprised when Tsuzuki comes to the North Garrison on an unannounced visit to plot further strategy against Inui. Washizu's wife Lady Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) decides that this is the time for Washizu to take destiny into his own hands. He must kill Tsuzuki, she reasons, because if Miki takes action first or if Lord Tsuzuki learns of the forest spirit's prophecy, Washizu will certainly be destroyed.
And so Washizu throws himself into the tumult of succession politics and power struggles in an attempt to solidify his control over Spider's Web Castle. He thinks for a while that his position is secure; after all, when he consults again with the forest spirit, she tells him that he will never be defeated until Spider's Web Forest itself rises up to attack him.
Throne of Blood is Kurosawa's adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, but that description oversimplifies the scope and the dramatic accomplishments of this film. This is no mere translation, no mere retelling, of Shakespeare's story but a reconception that makes it fully Japanese, and fully Kurosawa. Macbeth, with its story of ambition, betrayal, and power struggle is a story that translates particularly well to the sengoku-jidai, or period of civil wars, in Japanese history.
One particular change that Kurosawa makes to the story is the difference between Macbeth and his Japanese counterpart, Washizu. Macbeth is ruthless and ambitious from the outset, and has designs on Duncan's throne all along; Lady Macbeth only strengthens his resolve at those key moments when it seems he might falter. Washizu harbors no such powerful ambitions, apart from an occasional grandiose daydream; it seems in his case that Lady Asaji must plant ideas of ambition in his head and hatch the plans for carrying them out. As such, she is a much stronger character here than in the Elizabethan version, much more manipulative and sinister.
This difference in the characters of Washizu and Macbeth leads to probably the greatest difference between Shakespeare's play and Kurosawa's film. Macbeth is a schemer and plotter who is eventually undone by his own misdeeds. Washizu, by contrast, seems like a man in over his head, forced into his situations by fate and circumstance. Where Shakespeare sees the unfolding tragedy as a result of character actions and decisions, Kurosawa sees the characters more as cogs in a machine, working out the fate that destiny has decreed for them. As a result, the film takes on a bleak and pessimistic tone that is unusual for Kurosawa's films of the 1950s, but fits in very well with his darker films of the 1970s and beyond.
Kurosawa further distances himself from the humanity of Shakespeare's work by creating a very stylized setting. This film is heavily influenced by the sparse sets and rigid character archetypes found in Japanese Noh theater. Noh is a fairly rigid art form, using masks to represent characters as generalized types rather than individuals, and using a very bare stage. Movements of actors in Noh productions are dictated by the conventions of the art form and are of necessity highly precise. Kurosawa uses touches like the distinctive, simple Noh flute and drum music to further evoke this connection. He never goes so far as to make his actors wear masks, but he does cause them to operate in the context of characters more as types than individuals. This is particularly true of Isuzu Yamada's performance as Lady Asaji; through carefully designed makeup and tightly controlled actions she is the most obviously Noh-influenced character in the film.
The actors inhabiting the characters will be quite familiar to aficionados of Kurosawa or of Japanese cinema in general. Leading the cast, as one might expect, is the great Toshirô Mifune, the explosive, athletic leading man with whom Kurosawa collaborated on seventeen of his most memorable films, including Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. The great Isuzu Yamada plays Lady Asaji; her name is probably less well-known to western audiences than Mifune's but she was one of Japan's leading female stars for a long period beginning in the mid-1930s. Throne of Blood was her film with Kurosawa; she went on to roles in The Lower Depths and Yojimbo. She is greatly respected for a body of work that also includes many collaborations with other great Japanese directors such as Inagaki and Mizoguchi. The challenge of acting through her stylized makeup and within the narrow Noh-driven parameters of her character is probably the greatest challenge faced by any actor in this film, and she succeeds marvelously.
Several other Kurosawa regulars appear in this film. Miki (the Banquo character) is portrayed by Minoru Chiaki, a face familiar as both the "wood-cutting" samurai in Seven Samurai and one of the bickering peasants in The Hidden Fortress. Perhaps more important to the Kurosawa mythos is Takeshi Shimura, loyal retainer of Lord Tsuzuki, an amalgamation of Macduff and Ross from the original play. Shimura was Kurosawa's main leading man until Mifune exploded on the scene; in pictures prior to Throne of Blood they appeared together as characters of equal status or with Shimura as more prominent; a prime example is Seven Samurai, where Shimura plays the noble leader of the samurai. Throne of Blood marks a turning point, as Shimura takes a clearly subordinate role, and is relegated to smaller and smaller parts in Kurosawa's films hereafter.
As usual, Criterion put a lot of work into the restoration of Throne of Blood for this release. The high-definition digital transfer looks great for the most part, with sharp contrasts, solid blacks, brilliant whites, and fine gradations in between. The picture is mostly free of any digitally-generated defects, although there does appear to be a bit of aliasing from time to time. However, there are a lot of scenes in this movie that are shot in dense fog, and these perhaps show some more artifacting than we are accustomed to seeing on Criterion discs; there are some looks and textures that the DVD format still seems to have a bit of trouble with, and fog seems to be one of those. For the most part, however, any defects in the image appear to be related to the condition of the original source material. There are pronounced scratches in some scenes which surprise me that they made it through Criterion's digital restoration process. Some picture grain is to be expected in a film of this age, and for the most part it is minimal, but there are some scenes that are noticeably grainier and softer than the rest of the film. There are also some scenes where the blacks are a bit dark and oversaturated, leading to an inkiness and loss of definition in some scenes. Whether these are problems of the transfer, the source print, or the original cinematography is hard to determine; in any case, these flawed scenes are few and far between, and should not detract from anyone's overall enjoyment of the film.
The audio has been digitally restored as well, and is presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 in the original Japanese. It lacks the scratches and hiss that one might expect from such a source, but it does tend to sound a bit hollow and distorted. This is particularly noticeable on the low end of the register, where blaring bass tones are a bit overmixed and tend to distort and make one's speakers vibrate weirdly. Part of this is due to the unique sound environment Kurosawa tried to construct for this film, but it also seems to be a bit of a flaw in the DVD audio treatment. Overall the audio does not seem as sharp and clear as on other Criterion Kurosawa releases such as The Hidden Fortress. This seems particularly true of dialogue, which comes across at times as muffled or hollow. Mifune's famously bad enunciation seems to suffer in particular.
Of particular interest on this disc is the inclusion of two separate sets of English subtitles. In brief essays in the liner notes, Linda Hoaglund and Donald Richie explain their approaches to translating Japanese films for English-speaking audiences. Neither translation is completely literal; each one attempts in a different way to translate Kurosawa's film in language that will be accessible to audiences and still maintain some level of artistry and the formalized language used both in the film and, to a lesser extent, the original Shakespearean source. Richie is well-known to Kurosawa enthusiasts, having written extensively on his films and having provided commentary tracks for other DVD releases, notably Rashomon. He also has the distinction of having been acquainted with Kurosawa, even having the good fortune to be present at the filming of certain scenes from Throne of Blood. Hoaglund grew up in Japan as the daughter of American missionaries; she explains that she was fully immersed in both languages from a young age. Each of these experts have extensive experience in writing subtitles for Japanese films. Of the two I tended to prefer the Richie subtitles, as they seemed to be closer to a literal interpretation of the dialogue. This was reinforced by comments made by Michael Jeck during his commentary track. Jeck makes reference to specific bits of dialogue that take on an increased significance in the context of Japanese culture; Hoaglund's subtitles, while capturing the right feel and a more poetic flow, sometimes tend to gloss over these elements. For example, early in the film, Lord Tsuzuki receives word that Fujimaki's rebel faction has been defeated. Hoaglund translates his message as simply an offer to surrender; Richie captures the fact that he actually offers to shave his head. For those familiar with Japanese samurai culture, shaving one's head (as Jeck notes here and in his Seven Samurai commentary) is more than just a sign of surrender. It means that one must renounce the world entirely, and has little choice but to become a monk. This is surely more significant than just an offer to surrender; it indicates cowardice, since the rebel leader is willing to sacrifice his identity, his honor, and his stature as a samurai in order to save his life. This is just once instance, but an important one, that leads me to prefer Richie's subtitles to Hoaglund's. On the other hand, she uses the highly preferable literal translation "Spider's Web Castle" as opposed to Richie's vague "Forest Castle." Anyone wanting a fuller perspective on the film will want to watch it at least once with each set of subtitles.
Printed materials and liner notes rarely count as extra features; Criterion Collection discs are the great exception to this rule. Included with this disc is a thick booklet of information, including an essay by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince, whom readers might recognize from his commentary tracks on the Red Beard: Criterion Collection and Ran: Masterworks Edition DVDs. Prince discusses Kurosawa's adaptation of the Bard's work, and how Throne of Blood is more than just a simple adaptation and translation of the Scottish play. Also included, apropos of the subtitle discussion, are two short essays by the translators, explaining their individual philosophies and approaches in adapting Japanese dialogue for English-speaking audiences. Of the process, Richie writes, "I suppose the way one ought to think of this enterprise is not with chagrin that so much gets lost, but with surprise that so much gets through."
As alluded to earlier, this disc also contains a commentary track by Japanese film expert Michael Jeck. Jeck also provided the excellent commentary track for Criterion's Seven Samurai disc. Jeck does not disappoint here, providing insightful comments on both the making of this film and the culture it portrays. He moves with ease from technical comments about Kurosawa's filmmaking methods and style to deeper comments about the film's structure and meaning. He also makes the point that this is probably the single greatest Shakespeare film ever made, fully incorporating the heart of Macbeth while creating a fully cinematic experience. With his inclusion, this disc therefore has contributions from three of the most well-known Kurosawa experts in America: an essay by Prince, subtitles and explanatory notes by Richie, and commentary by Jeck. This is an excellent collection of supplementary material by any standards. Rounding out the extra material is the original theatrical trailer for Throne of Blood.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The selection of extra material provided here is of excellent quality, but I always wish for more, especially with these Criterion titles. The DVD could have been even better with, for instance, an interview—or even a full-blown second commentary track—featuring a noted Shakespeare scholar discussing Macbeth and evaluating the Japanese version. There are many other things that could have been done, but I guess we can't complain too much about the information we have here.
Not many people would presume to rewrite Shakespeare; it's hard to imagine anyone but Kurosawa actually improving on the original. After seeing Throne of Blood and Ran (based on King Lear), one almost wishes that he had tackled other Shakespearean projects. In particular, it is tantalizing to wonder what he or one of the other Japanese masters could have done with Titus Andronicus, a play that is clearly not one of the Bard's best and almost begs to be transported into a Japanese milieu, where it would probably make quite a bit more sense.
Not guilty! Another gripping, beautiful film from the greatest director who ever lived.
Criterion is acquitted as well, and released with the thanks of the court for their usual excellent work.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Feature Commentary by Michael Jeck
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