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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Throne of Blood (Blu-ray)
Throne of Blood (Blu-ray)
Criterion // Unrated // August 25, 2015 // Region A
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Ian Jane | posted August 27, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
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The Movie:

Directed by Akira Kurosawa in 1957, Throne Of Blood basically takes the plot of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, inserts it into Feudal Japan and adds culturally significant doses of Japanese Noh theater to give the production its own merits. This makes it more than just a Shakespeare adaptation, it stands as a truly original work of art.

The film begins when two samurai generals, Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) and Miki (Akira Kubo) leave the battlefield after a massive fray to return to the home of Lord Tsuzuki (Takamaru Sasaki), Spider's Web Castle. Along the way, they travel through a forest where they encounter an older woman (Chieko Naniwa) whose body has been possessed by a spirit. She offers them three predictions: Washizu will go to command the North Garrison and take Spider's Web Castle; Miki will go to command the First Fortress; Miki's son will grow to eventually take Spider's Web Castle from Washizu.

When the two men arrive at Tsuzuki's castle, the spirit's predictions ring true. Washizu is indeed put in charge of the North Garrison and Mike the First Fortress. When Washizu informs his wife, Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), about all that has happened she urges him to assassinate Tsuzuki, fearing that if he gets word of the prophecy he will no doubt have him put to death. He dismisses this idea until he gets word sometime later that Tsuzuki has strategically placed some of his soldiers outside the castle to deal with this. Fearing for his life, Washizu kills Lord Tsuzuki. After this happens, Tsuzuki's son, Kuhimaru (Hiroshi Tachikawa), warns Miki about Washizu, but the bond between the two friends is strong enough that Miki doesn't want to believe what has happened. Now in command of the castle, Washizu plans to officially announce that Miki's son is his official heir… until he finds out that Asaji is pregnant with his own child.

Throne Of Blood offers up all of the epic set pieces you'd expect from a Kurosawa/Mifune samurai film but the emphasis here is just as much on mood, tone and atmosphere as it is on action and swordplay. The black and white cinematography is gorgeous, it captures the sets and locations where all of the drama unfolds perfectly. The Noh influences give the film a distinctly Japanese look and seeing the director weave a cinematic tapestry out of his Shakespearean source material through those influences is nothing short of amazing. The costume work is equally impressive, showing strong attention to period detail not just in the battle scenes (where scores of armored samurai prepare for war) but also in the quieter, more dramatic moments. The film also tends to stay close to its roots, in that a lot of the camerawork is static, giving us the feeling of a stage play during these moments.

The primary castle location is also really well captured here. We get a great sense as to the size of the place but once the intrigue and deception start up, the interior of this massive structure start to somehow feel very claustrophobic. Also noteworthy is the scene that takes place in the forest where our two samurai friends encounter the spirit. This segment is as eerie and ominous as anything you're likely to see, and Kurosawa takes us pretty much straight on into horror movie territory for a little while here. Masaru Sato's score compliments all of this perfectly.

As visually impressive and rich in tone as the film is, the real stand out here is the lead performance from Toshiro Mifune. Always known for delivering top notch work, here we see an actor with such commitment and with such a natural intensity to his performance that it's impossible not to get pulled into his plight. Here Mifune shows amazing range, communicating everything from pain to pleasure to hubris to regret with a conviction that is as admirable and impressive as anything he did before or after. This is truly one of his best roles, and the fact that he's surrounded by such a talented supporting cast only helps the film.

The Blu-ray:

Video:

Throne Of Blood arrives on Blu-ray in an excellent 1.33.1 AVC encoded 1080p anamorphic widescreen transfer. The black and white image is incredibly crisp and shows far more detail than was present on the previous standard definition releases that Criterion has released over the years. Clarity is striking while contrast looks to be set properly. Fine detail and texture is always strong, you'll really notice it in the facial close ups where you can make out every little hair and all of the grit on the cast members faces. There aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts or edge enhancement and while a welcome and natural looking amount of grain is evident throughout, there are only the mildest instances of print damage to note. There are a few instances where you might notice a bit of flickering but Kurosawa fans can rest assured that this is a big step up from the standard definition releases and a completely worthwhile upgrade in the visuals department.

Sound:

Audio options are supplied in Japanese language LPCM Mono with two sets of optional subtitles provided in English (one translated from Japanese by Linda Hoaglundand the other by Akira Kurosawa expert Donald Richie). This tracks sounds quite good. There's a really tiny bit of background hiss present in some scenes that might notice if you strain to listen for it but aside from that, there isn't much to complain about here. Dialogue is clean and clear and the levels are well balanced. Criterion's subtitles are clean and easy to read and the levels are properly balanced ensuring that as dramatic as the score can get in spots that it never buries the performers.

Extras:

The supplements on this disc start off with a commentary track from Japanese film expert Michael Jeck. Originally recorded for the DVD release that Criterion issued for Throne Of Blood, it's a pretty comprehensive track. Jeck gives us plenty of insight into the history of the film, a lot of interesting facts about the different participants involved in the movie, how this particular entry in the respective filmographies of Kurosawa and Mifune differs from their other collaborations and quite a bit more.

The other impressive extra on this disc (also carried over from the last SD release) is Akira Kurosawa: It's Wonderful To Create, which is a twenty-two minute long featurette that covers the making of Throne Of Blood in quite a bit of detail. Taken from the Toho documentary on Kurosawa, it contains some excellent interviews not only with the director himself but with production designer Yoshiro Muraki, Konparu School Noh performer Mitsuhiro Honda and actress Isuzu Yamada. It's a pretty interesting segment that gives us some welcome insight into Kurosawa's creative process and the importance and significance of this particular film.

Rounding out the extras on the disc are the film's original theatrical trailer, menus and chapter selection. All of the extras on the disc are presented in high definition. As is the norm with Criterion releases, there is a booklet inside the keepcase containing an essay on the film by Stephen Prince entitled Shakespeare Transposed, some notes on the subtitles created for the film, film credits and disc production credits. The reverse side of the cover art for this release features the chapter listing (and as the case is transparent it's easy enough to see it when you open the package up.

Overall:

Throne Of Blood is one of those rare perfect films. Everything here works incredibly well: the look of the picture, the score, the settings, the atmosphere and of course, the acting. You don't have to be a Shakespeare aficionado to appreciate this, you need only to have an appreciation of filmmaking. While more extras would have been welcome, what's here (carried over from the DVD) is good while the transfer and the lossless audio options are also impressive. Highly recommended.

Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.

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