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Throne of Blood

Throne of Blood
Criterion 190
1957 / b&w / 1:37 flat full frame / 109 min. / Kumunoso Jo, The Castle of the Spider's Web, Cobweb Castle, The Hidden Forest, Macbeth, Spider Web Castle / Street Date May 27, 2003 / 29.95
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Takashi Shimura, Akira Kubo, Hiroshi Tachikawa, Minoru Chiaki, Takamaru Sasaki, Kokuten Kodo, Kichijiro Ueda, Eiko Miyoshi, Chieko Naniwa
Cinematography Asakazu Nakai
Art Direction Yoshiro Muraki
Film Editor Akira Kurosawa
Original Music Masaru Sato
Written by Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni
Produced by Akira Kurosawa, Sojiro Motoki
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Criterion adds to its growing list of Akira Kurosawa classics with his acclaimed reworking of Macbeth. One of Kurosawa's last flat films before he switched over to Tohoscope with The Hidden Fortress, Throne of Blood is so stylized, it looks like it should come earlier in his filmography. It's almost perfectly directed, and as essayist Stephen Prince remarks, Shakespeare's play hasn't been so much adapted, as reconceived in cinematic terms.


An upstart threatens the Lord of a kingdom, but loyal vassals Taketori Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and Yoshiteru Miki (Akira Kubo) valiantly put down the rebellion. On their way to receive their reward, the two commanders meet an evil spirit in the Spider Forest (Cheiko Naniwa) who prophesizes that both will be given castles, that Washizu will become lord, and that Miki's son Yoshiaki (Minoru Chiaki) will eventually succeed him. The first part of the spirit's prediction becomes true, bringing peace for all but Lady Asaji Washizu (Isuzu Yamada), who becomes obsessed with her husband's rise to success. Convincing Taketori that people are scheming against him, she goads him into pre-emptively murdering the Lord. The Lord's son flee with his highest advisor (Takashi Shimura), as does Yoshiaki Miki when Taketori has his father murdered. Rumors spread that Taketori may be the guilty party, and an army is said to be on the way to destroy him, but the Spider Forest spirit assures the usurper that he cannot be vanquished in battle.

I believe Throne of Blood was the first Akira Kurosawa film I saw as a kid, and from it I assumed that all Japanese rooms were empty chambers with bare floors, and that all Japanese conversations were conducted while holding rigid poses and avoiding eye contact. The extensive essays accompanying the disc are an education in Kurosawa's approach: he reset the Scottish tale in a certain era of Japanese history, and then opted for a style partially influenced by a theatrical tradition called Noh, which dates from the same period.

The film is engagingly intense. Washizu's climb to power is not just a story of personal ambition, but a meditation about violent regime change as a historical constant. The idea that a demon inflames Washizu (or his wife) with murderous ambition is almost unnecessary. The creepy episode in the haunted forest adds flavor and variety to the tale, just as in the Scottish-set versions.

Lady Washizu's rationales for murder are legion. Miki is being favored over Taketori. Maybe the Lord is aware of the prophecy too, and will strike at Taketori first. Silence always indicates conspiracy. The Lord won his position by murder, too, so toppling him is not dishonorable. By the time she's finished with him, Washizu is committing multiple bloody murders, and framing innocent parties for them. Unlike Roman Polanski's MacBeth, here Lady Washizu is handed the majority of the blame.

More murders follow. The pressure on Taketori has him visited by accusatory hallucinations right away, whereas Lady Washizu flips out later, after their plans have gone awry. The most interesting shift adapts the final action to the Japanese setting. Unlike the Scottish feudal system in MacBeth, honor forbids Washizu's various retainers and footsoldiers to sneak away in the night or arbitrarily change their allegiance. When they realize he's a murderous usurper (and the fool to his own bragging prophecy about the moving trees), Washizu's own men instead turn on him, which apparently is honorable. The celebrated scene where Washizu is assailed by showers of arrows is still one of the more violent moments in cinema history - we can almost feel Mifune being turned into a human pincushion.

Most of Throne of Blood is non-violent and static, but intense just the same. The dark castles are huge, wet prisons. Taketori's actions (and inadvertent confessions when out of his head) turn his guilt into something almost visible. The rain and fog are oppressive, like a gloomy sickness on the human soul. It's a great example of literature-as-film.

Criterion's Throne of Blood brings yet another Kurosawa classic up to tip-top DVD presentation standards. The restoration is good, and only a few stubborn scratches remain in the print.

For extras, there's an audio commentary by Michael Jeck, that's a little jokey and on the light side compared to other Criterion tracks I've audited. Stephen Prince's short but educational essay starts off a thick and beautifully-designed insert booklet. A new idea to this disc is the inclusion of two English subtitle choices by both Linda Hoaglund and Donald Richie, and the booklet includes essays from both of them about their subtitling methods. Specific linguistic problems going from Japanese to English are analyzed, as well as more generalized thoughts about imposing text over movies. As their subtitle streams are so different, this should be of interest to anyone who deals with foreign-language films.

An original Toho trailer is included as well.

One of the essays on subtitles, by the way, drops the hint that Kurosawa's Ikiru, Stray Dog, Drunken Angel, The Bad Sleep Well and I Live in Fear may be in the works soon from Criterion. I hope the cooperation between Criterion and Toho continues, and that the previously released High and Low and Yojimbo are revisited for better transfers sometime in the future.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Throne of Blood rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Essays, commentary, trailer, 2 separate English subtitle translations
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 29, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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