The Criterion Collection / 1957 / 110 Minutes / Rated R
Street Date: May 27, 2003
They say that all productions of Shakespeare's "Scottish Play" are cursed to failure, but that certainly hasn't stopped any number of filmmakers from trying to adapt it for the screen anyway. Akira Kurosawa found that his best approach was to simply remove the story from Scotland and transplant it into feudal Japan. The result is perhaps one of the best adaptations of Macbeth put to film, not because it is the most faithful (Shakespeare certainly never imagined his characters played as samurai), but because Kurosawa gives the material a life of its own and makes the best movie out of it.
Throne of Blood faces criticism on two fronts, both as an adaptation of Shakespeare and in comparison to Kurosawa's own Seven Samurai, released just three years prior. Yet the director chose to incorporate neither the lyrical language of the former nor the sweeping action spectacle of the latter. Instead, he imposes the conventions of Noh drama onto the story, a decidedly Japanese dramatic format known for its stylized theatrics. Superstar actor Toshiro Mifune stars as Washizu (the Macbeth stand-in) and is directed into a very reserved, formalized performance that often calls for him to hold facial expressions in imitation of common Noh character masks. His wife Asaji (actress Isuzu Yamada) remains almost totally still and expressionless throughout, delivering one of the most chilling and intense female performances ever captured on film.
All of the basic plotting and themes of Shakespeare's play are here, stripped down to the bare essentials. We have the betrayal, the paranoia, the madness and the scheming. Lady Washizu's cunning manipulations of her husband's emotions are everything the Bard himself could have wanted from the role. Perhaps some elements have been a bit too much compressed, and the film works best when one already has at least a basic understanding of the workings of Macbeth. But the overall result, when combined with the director's use of stark imagery and dense symbolism, is a fascinating, compellingly watchable blend that is distinctively the work of Kurosawa and yet stands its own ground aside from his other famous samurai pictures. The film's climax, with its striking death scene, will long be remembered as one of the most indelible images in film history. Kurosawa isn't known as the greatest Japanese filmmaker for nothing. Throne of Blood is essential viewing for fans of his work and lovers of all great cinema.
Video: How Does The Disc Look?
Throne of Blood was released in 1957 and, as is unfortunately common for Japanese films from that time period, was never properly stored or preserved. Criterion has done their best to give the movie a sparkling digital overhaul, but there is no denying that it still looks like an old film.
Presented in the original 1.33:1 black & white, there are many sections of the video transfer that look amazingly crisp and clean. There are also many parts that are noticeably worn down or damaged. The opening scenes have a thick layer of grain that has not interacted well with the need for digital compression, resulting in uncomfortable patterns of noise in the image. Other scenes in the movie exhibit visible film damage such as scratches, dirt, or the rare splice. On the other hand, gray scale is perfectly rendered and the picture has an excellent sense of detail with no artificial edge enhancement. The contrast range looks good for a film of this age, although it never hits the deep, rich blacks we might see in a more recent production.
It is obvious that much dirt and damage has been cleaned up, and the overall impression is of an admirable presentation for the movie. When projected on a large screen, what it looks like is the type of well-kept film print you might see in a better repertory theater. This is certainly the best that I've seen the movie look, either on video or on film, but due to the inherent limitations of the source material it may never be perfect.
Audio: How Does The Disc Sound?
This is as good as it's going to get, folks. The Dolby 1.0 mono track is perfectly faithful to its source recording, which is to say that it has all of the limitations of a Japanese film from the 50's. Dialogue sounds very flat and compressed, and dynamic range is quite constrained. The drum beat during the opening credits is as deep as the bass will ever extend and the high end often sounds quite shrill, especially the flutes on the soundtrack. The audio has been cleansed of all hiss and pops, thankfully, and this is most evident during the movie's many periods of eerie silences, which require such precision in the audio restoration. Despite the drawbacks of its age, the movie should be watched at a fairly loud volume in order to best appreciate the nuances of Lady Washizu's whispered dialogue and its effect on her husband's decisions.
Two different English subtitle tracks have been provided, each from a different translation. In the accompanying booklet, translators Linda Hoaglund and Donald Richie explain their rationale for the choices they have made. The two tracks are vastly different from one another, both in the style of language and occasionally in the information actually being conveyed. Of the two, I much preferred Richie's translation, although he does have a frustrating habit of leaving some incidental lines of dialogue untranslated. Hoaglund is more consistent in this respect, but she has chosen a style of language using modern slang that feels inappropriate to the material.
Supplements: What Goodies Are There?
The audio commentary by Japanese film expert (and Criterion regular) Michael Jeck is a riot. I love this guy; he is knowledgeable, informative and has a witty sense of humor. Among the topics discussed are the film's influences, Japanese cultural references, and Kurosawa's method of adapting and changing Shakespeare. The track is a great listen and will surely enhance one's appreciation for the film.
The only other video supplement is a battered theatrical trailer that reminds us of just how good a job Criterion has done with the video transfer for the movie. Included in the disc case is a booklet with a nice essay about the film by Stephen Prince and, as mentioned earlier, notes on the two different subtitle translations.
DVD-ROM Exclusives: What do you get when you pop the disc in your PC?
No ROM extras have been included.
Another deserving classic gets the Criterion treatment, and they rarely disappoint. Supplemental content may be a bit thin this time around, but the video transfer looks about as good as a film of this vintage probably ever will. The commentary is also worth a listen. This disc is an excellent candidate for purchase.