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Throne of Blood: Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // Unrated // January 7, 2014
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted December 29, 2013 | E-mail the Author

Most fans of Akira Kurosawa, when asked to pick a favorite of his films, would probably choose Rashomon, Ikiru, Seven Samurai, or Yojimbo (and rightly so, of course). Yet no Kurosawa collection would be complete without Throne of Blood (1957), the late director's very loose adaptation of William Shakespeare's Macbeth. Trading foggy Scotland for the equally foggy landscape of feudal Japan, this violent, haunting tragedy simmers steadily before boiling over during one of film history's most potent and arresting sequences. It's a memorable film made all the better by terrific performances, a deliberate pace and plenty of scenes that might make your skin crawl. Simply put, Throne of Blood offers plenty of proof that the most successful book-to-film adaptations don't necessarily have to follow source material to the letter.

Produced directly after the halfway point of Kurosawa's professional collaboration with leading man Toshiro Mifune, Throne of Blood stars the fierce actor as Macbeth's equivalent, General Taketoki Washizu. Mifune's commanding presence pairs nicely with Minoru Chiaki (as General Miki, who serves with Washizu under Lord Tsuzuki), another long-time Kurosawa collaborator who worked alongside Mifune in eight other films. Together, Washizu and Miki encounter a spirit with news of good fortune: both the Generals and certain family members will eventually be given command of surrounding castles and forts. Unfortunately, the knowledge of such power brings out the worst in General Washizu and his wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), who resort to murder and deceit to ensure that his predicted future becomes a reality.

Of course [SPOILER ALERT], any tragedy wouldn't be complete without a large dose of karma, and Throne of Blood contains perhaps one of the most electrifying, well-deserved deaths in the history of cinema. As General Washizu is smothered with volley after volley of arrows, waving frantically in an attempt to escape his own men, it's at once a memorable death scene and a remarkable bit of cinematic trickery. The only arrow shot that isn't genuine is the one that kills Washizu, thanks to a bit of editing genius and, of course, the magnetic distraction of Mifune's horrified face, frozen in terror. Without question, first-time viewers will likely have a similar expression as well. [END SPOILERS]

Originally released by Criterion ten years ago on DVD, Throne of Blood reappears on Region 1 home video as a "Dual-Format Edition" (read: "Combo Pack"), headlined by a reference quality A/V presentation and a small but worthwhile collection of bonus features available on both format. It's a solid effort overall, offering plenty of support for a film that certainly deserves the extra attention. Die-hard disciples of Throne of Blood and/or Kurosawa will enjoy every last detail, although anyone new to the film should at least be passively familiar with Shakespeare's Macbeth to appreciate everything that Throne of Blood brings to the table. If you're in the right mood, there's simply nothing else like it.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Throne of Blood features a brand new digital transfer from a recent 2K restoration and the effort clearly shows. Image detail and textures are uniformly strong in most cases, while the film's heavy use of fog doesn't pose much of a problem. Black levels are fairly consistent, no flagrant digital imperfections were spotted and a pleasing layer of film grain is also visible from start to finish. The source material obviously wasn't in perfect condition but fans should be quite pleased with Throne of Blood's strong and stable appearance on Blu-ray, especially compared to Criterion's 2003 standard definition release (and just for the record, the DVD included in this "Dual-Format Edition" is an updated version).

DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p image resolution.

The Japanese LPCM 1.0 mono track sounds very impressive for a film of this age; in direct comparison with Criterion's own 2003 DVD, the sonic improvements are obvious. Neither the dialogue nor Masaru Sato's original music fights for attention, while the film's overall dynamic range and its subtler moments sound much smoother and more natural overall. Two sets of optional English subtitles are presented during the main feature; one by Japanese-film translator Linda Hoaglund, the other by late Kurosawa expert Donald Richie with essays that detail each author's different approach.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

As usual, Criterion's menu interface is smooth and easy to navigate on both formats. This two-disc set is locked for Region A/1 players only; it's packaged in their typical "stocky" Blu-ray case with overlapping hubs and adorned with attractive two-sided artwork. The accompanying Booklet features a reprinted essay by film historian Stephen Prince.

Bonus Features

One "new" extra, plus all of the older ones. Another film-themed clip from Toho's "Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create" (23 minutes, above right) is included here for the first time; like the similar segments from Criterion's other Kurosawa releases, this features archival footage of the late director, as well as key cast and crew interviews, artwork and more. Recycled supplements included a feature-length Audio Commentary with Japanese film expert Michael Jeck, two Alternate Subtitle Tracks mentioned above, the Theatrical Trailer (4 minutes) and a DVD Copy of the movie and extras. This is a short but sweet collection of bonus features overall, though die-hard fans may be left wanting more.

Final Thoughts

Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood may not be the director's most accessible film, but this atmospheric reworking of Shakespeare's Macbeth remains potent and dynamic almost 60 years later. Not surprisingly, Toshiro Mifune steals the show as the fierce General Washizu, whose traitorous actions lead to one of the most memorable endings in film history. Criterion's new "Dual-Format Edition" offers a nice upgrade from their 2003 DVD, including a sterling A/V presentation and a new vintage featurette to go along with the older material. It's a modest to substantial upgrade in every department, which makes Throne of Blood Highly Recommended for Kurosawa fans and curious newcomers alike.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.
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