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Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Minoru Chiaki, Akira Kubo, Takamaru Sasaki, Yoichi Tachikawa, Takashi Shimura, Chieko Naniwa
Length: 109 min
Release Date: Aug 25, 2015
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Type: Black and White
Audio: Japanese: Mono LPCM
- Audio commentary featuring Japanese-film expert Michael Jeck
- Documentary on the making of the film, created as part of the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create
- Two alternate subtitle translations, by Japanese-film translator Linda Hoaglund and Kurosawa expert Donald Richie
- A booklet featuring an essay by film historian Stephen Prince and notes on the subtitling by Hoaglund and Richie
Does Throne of Blood—pantheon director Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth—qualify as a genuine horror movie? Set in a perpetually fogbound and windswept landscape on the slopes of Japan’s Mount Fuji, Throne of Blood is the nearest thing to a horror picture in Kurosawa’s entire body of work.
Shot in superb high-contrast black-and-white, Throne of Blood opens on a bleak volcanic mountaintop shrouded in mist. No music plays and only howling winds are heard, before a chorus chants: “A proud castle stood in this desolate place, Its destiny wedded to a mortal’s lust for power.” The thick fog settles over the wide, squat castle, which vanishes, leaving behind only a column, with a message inscribed upon it: “Here Stood Spider’s Web Castle.”
Much of Throne of Blood (Criterion’s new single-disk Kurosawa release) takes place at Spider’s Web Castle on the edge of the labyrinthine Spider’s Web Forest.Commanders Taketori Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and Yoshiteru Miki (Minoru Chiaki) rescue Lord Kunimaru Tsuzuki of Spider’s Web Castle from traitorous forces during the Japanese civil wars of the 16th century. As Washizu and Miki make their way to the castle, they must pass through the dense maze of Spider’s Web Forest. The warriors encounter a pale, androgynous sorceress—an old woman with flowing white hair, who recites ominous lyrics in a deep, almost masculine voice. The witch lives in a hut, behind which lie the remains of dead samurai warriors. Before vanishing as suddenly as she appeared, the ghost woman foretells Washizu’s future: he will someday be Lord of Spider’s Web Castle!
And so Washizu is dragged into savage, blood-soaked power struggles to establish his control over the Lord’s castle, spurred on by dreams of becoming the Supreme Ruler of Japan. Even when Washizu’s fortunes decline, he believes his position is secure; as the fates turn against him, Washizu seeks out the sorceress a second time. The witch predicts he cannot be defeated until Spider’s Web Forest uproots itself to attack him—and forests don’t go out for walks, now do they? (Actually, the slow-motion advance of the forest amid dense fog is the best depiction of “Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane Castle” ever committed to film—so frighteningly rendered as to elicit gasps of admiration).Throne of Blood is no mere retelling of Macbeth but a reimagining of Shakespeare’s play that makes it fully Japanese. Macbeth, with its story of ambition and betrayal among the Scottish clans, translates well to the period of Japan’s civil wars.
A fundamental revision that Kurosawa makes to the story is the difference between the Scottish nobleman Macbeth and his Japanese counterpart, Washizu. Macbeth is ruthless and ambitious and has his eye on King Duncan’s throne from the very first scene; Lady Macbeth only boosts his resolve when he is crippled by fear and self-doubt. However, Lady Macbeth unwittingly creates a monster of evil whose barbarism even she finds appalling.
At first Washizu is a tough, loyal and charismatic samurai who harbors no such powerful ambitions; Lady Asaji must provide logical reasons for her husband to eliminate friend and foe in his quest to seize control of Spider’s Web Castle from Lord Tsuzuki. Compared to Lady Macbeth, Lady Asaji is much more manipulative and sinister with her aging doll-like face and unblinking eyes. In fact, her presence is so unsettling that I thought the same actress might be playing Lady Asaji and the old sorceress!
Much formalized mayhem ensues until Washizu is brought down by his predetermined fate. Washizu may not be evil by nature, but like Macbeth, he becomes increasingly savage and animalistic as the tale progresses towards its horrifying finale.
Since the negative no longer exists, Criterion’s new 2K restoration of Throne of Blood was struck from the original 35mm fine-grain master positive. The results are predictably very fine—in keeping with Criterion’s usual attention to detail. The HD improvement on the older DVD release is dramatic. On that older release, some machines had trouble rendering the many subtle gradations of fog (which dominates the texture of many scenes). This has now been entirely resolved and the image looks very natural and filmic, with mostly unobtrusive film grain underpinning the texture. The image has gained in depth and overall richness of tone from the darkest blacks to the lightest whites. Of course, being a Japanese film from 1957 there is some very minor damage to the print which could not be removed without compromising the integrity of the image, but this is immaterial to anyone who is used to watching films of this vintage.
Like the video, the single mono audio track sees quite an improvement on the old DVD release. The music score has more depth and is better balanced across the full spectrum. The bass drum now sounds less distorted, and the dialog comes over with better fidelity.
In a rare move, two alternate sets of English subtitles are included on this disc, courtesy of Japanese-film translator Linda Hoaglund and Kurosawa expert Donald Richie. Each set of subtitles is as formal and literal as the other. Best to check them both out. The disc also features audio commentary recorded in 2002 by the well-spoken Japanese film expert Michael Jeck, who claims that Throne of Blood is probably the single greatest Shakespearean film ever made, incorporating the themes of Macbeth while creating a fully cinematic experience. Next is a Toho-produced documentary on the making of the film, created as part of Toho’s Masterworks series “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create.” It’s a short but informative documentary in which Kurosawa and some of the members of the cast go into some detail on the influences of Noh Theater on Kurosawa’s film. The only other extra is a three-minute-and-43 second trailer that gives away most of the plot.
Throne of Blood is certainly one of the most atmospheric adaptations of Macbeth, saturated in a pervasive miasma of doom. Although much of the savagery happens offscreen, Throne of Blood could be considered Akira Kurosawa’s only horror movie, with its mad scenes, a blood-splattered “forbidden room” in which seppuku (ritual suicide) is committed, ghostly apparitions, and an old witch as chilling as any macabre being from the classic supernatural film Kwaidan (1964). Kurosawa had such a knack for this genre that it’s a pity he chose not to direct other horror films. So, if you missed Criterion’s earlier dual-disk release, which included both a BD and a DVD, here is your chance to acquire Throne of Blood just on BD. It could not be more highly recommended!