I have always admired directors that have "dared" to take on Shakespeare in an attempt to render films that are as recognizable to the original work(s) as they are to their own particular concerns. My main reasons are thus: for one, it tends to annoy purists in the academe and others in positions of cultural influence who believe that any addition, deletion, liberty taken, etc., is somehow anathema to the "purity" of the work; and, perhaps more importantly, because the results can be – and often are – so completely stunning. Even if not altogether successful, the films are usually (if not always) interesting. Since Shakespeare's collected works so successfully encompass all of the joys, foibles, tragedies, follies, etc., of human existence, they are never truly in jeopardy of being usurped by another's imprint - they are ultimately resilient. However, in the right set of hands, they can be complemented, reinterpreted, and reconnoitered to exhilarating effect.
Orson Welles, perhaps the greatest exponent of such endeavor, was certainly not averse to taking huge risks with Shakespeare's works on both stage and screen. His production of Macbeth in 1936, staged in Harlem with an entirely African-American cast, was lauded and decried, but certainly discussed – no small victory in and of itself. Some of his screen adaptations, including Othello and the later, brilliant Chimes at Midnight (which focused on the character of Falstaff, who appeared in five of the Bard's works) were inspired, bold, and uniquely his. Succinctly put, Welles' filmic and stage "adaptations" were - well, unmistakably Wellsian. By refusing to always slavishly yield to the text itself and placing a distinct, pronounced sensibility upon the plays, Welles illustrated that it was entirely possible to render Shakespeare's works – though indisputably timeless – once again immediate and vital. He also ably demonstrated that a Shakespearean text could also be truly cinematic, and not merely a play to be filmed in a straightforwardly banal manner.
Akira Kurosawa, three years after his international success with Seven Samurai (1954) and the earlier Rashomon (1950), decided to adapt Macbeth in a similarly bold manner. (Interestingly, he was going to film it earlier, but when he received word that Welles was already working on a version of Macbeth himself, he decided to delay the project.) The eventual result, Throne of Blood (Kumonosu jo), is also intensely cinematic, and there is nothing remotely banal about it. Kurosawa, like Welles, decided to fuse elements – that may have seemed disparate at the time – in an attempt to render it not only his own in terms of cinematic sensibility, but, with the addition of a cross-cultural dimension, also uniquely and utterly Japanese.
To that end, Kurosawa decided to imbue the film with elements of Noh theater, an austere stage style that was historically presented for the Japanese upper class. Noh traditionally relies upon a strict formalism consisting of masks as signifiers, a chorus, minimalist music (most prominently a flute), and an extremely bare stage with a minimum of props. Kurosawa also decided to set Throne of Blood in feudal Japan, a time of great civil unrest and strife (Throne is generally considered to take place in or about the 15th century). Lastly, he also elected to omit certain chunks of the narrative, certain characters entirely, and added exposition and motivations. The result – a loosely based "adaptation," which also happened to be a bit of a deviation from his previous style – is largely regarded to be one of the greatest of Shakespearean works ever placed upon celluloid.
Kurosawa regular Toshirô Mifune plays Washizu (the Macbeth character) and is first seen returning from a triumphant battle with Miki (Minoru Chiaki). Kurosawa's tone is established from the outset – not only does a chorus somberly introduce the film, but also a thick, foreboding fog, which soon ensconces the riders (and at times wholly permeates the frame). The travelers quickly happen upon a singularly disorienting, likely evil spirit (her surroundings are littered with skeletal remains), who provides the prophecy that will act as the catalyst for Washizu's fate. Upon his return to the fortress, the words of the specter rapidly begin to be realized, as does the calculation of his wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) in forcing the issue, including the murder of his lord and violent ascent to - and defense of - the throne.
To spell out the rest of the plot here would not prove wise – although most are probably familiar with Macbeth (or at least its basic thrust), I do not wish to go into a too detailed analysis of the alterations made by Kurosawa and company, as it would unavoidably bring me to spoiler territory for those unacquainted. In short, even if one knows Macbeth, it will not fully prepare the viewer for what Kurosawa has in mind. Suffice it to say that as the film moves forward its hold becomes tighter and stranger, aided greatly by Mifune's tormented Washizu and Yamada's spare, effective performance as Lady Asaji. Although some have opined that the performances are overly mannered and stylized, the acting serves Kurosawa's formal execution well – Throne of Blood is a marked, calculated departure from his at-times warm humanity. His mode of analysis – and critique – appears more far concerned with the human condition in this feudal setting (as opposed to these particular humans), and individual choice is not of primary concern. As Throne reaches its inevitable conclusion with sinister moving forests and an orgiastic hail of arrows, Kurosawa's command of the medium has never been rendered more apparent.
Video: Throne of Blood, although not pristine, is presented in an excellent high-definition digital transfer by Criterion. There are some moments of graininess and shimmering at the film's beginning, but they quickly pass and do not reappear in any significant manner throughout the duration of the film. Black levels are deep, and the grays and whites of the foggy exteriors lend a deeply disquieting (and at times disorienting) tone. Kurosawa's use of the telephoto lens creates images which possess a startling, remarkable clarity, and Asaji's makeup (as well as the spirit's, mimicking the use of the Noh masks) are effectively striking. For a film of its age, there are understandable instances of source print damage and debris that appear sporadically, but this edition far surpasses any other I have seen, as well as Criterion's earlier Kurosawa releases (with the exception of the most recent Red Beard and Rashomon). Extremely well done.
Audio: Presented in DD 1.0 mono, Throne of Blood sounds quite good. There are virtually no discernable levels of background noise, such as hissing or crackling, and dialogue proves strong and easy to hear. There is a certain hollowness to aspects of the soundtrack, but portions are probably intentional given the sound of the Noh flute itself; other instances prove (deliberately) quite jarring. Overall, Throne's audio is very well rendered.
Extras: Throne of Blood includes a feature length commentary track by Japanese film expert Michael Jeck. The inexhaustible Mr. Jeck (who also lent his considerable skills to Criterion's Seven Samurai release) provides, not surprisingly, a wealth of information here. Again, he does so in a conversational, entertaining manner (his diction is sometimes quite funny – he clearly enjoys providing these commentaries), and if you feel the need to brush up on your Shakespeare and contrast the treatments of Macbeth, Jeck provides a summary, on-point analysis. Also to be found are two separate subtitle tracks (a novel addition for Criterion, and probably not the last) by Linda Hoaglund and Donald Richie, as well as essays regarding translation by each. Also on board are the film's original trailer (3:43) and an essay by Stephen Prince; I would not recommend partaking in either if you have not seen Throne of Blood before.
Final Thoughts: Considered one the most successful translations of Shakespeare to the screen (as is the case with Ran, Kurosawa's later reworking of King Lear), Throne of Blood is also certainly one of the most stylized and unrelentingly bleak. Adding to the narrative's uneasy, almost queasy quality, Kurosawa typically employs the elements to comment upon and enrich the proceedings – his customary harsh rains and winds appear throughout, as does the all-encompassing fog, which has never appeared more effectively sinister. A sense of doom and dread saturates the entire picture, as does the notion of individual futility in the face of fate / destiny, both appropriate and entirely transfixing. By refusing to devote himself entirely to Shakespeare's text, Kurosawa has liberated it from the confines of the stage and has wholly succeeded in transposing it to the realm of cinema. The beauty of the prose may be missing, but the promise of the cinema is certainly not. Throne of Blood is one of Kurosawa's greatest accomplishments (and that is saying something), and is given a fine treatment by Criterion. Most highly recommended for fans of Kurosawa, Shakespeare, Mifune, and just plain evocative, riveting cinema. Plus, that DVD cover is just killer.