Throne of Blood (Kumonosu jo)

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni (based on the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare)
Stars: Toshirô Mifune (Taketori Washizu), Isuzu Yamada (Lady Asaji Washizu), Takashi Shimura (Noriyasu Odagura), Akira Kubo (Yoshiteru Miki), Hiroshi Tachikawa (Kunimaru Tsuzuki), Minoru Chiaki (Yoshiaki Miki), Takamaru Sasaki (Kuniharu Tsuzuki), Kokuten Kodo (Military Commander), Kichijiro Ueda (Washizu’s workman), Eiko Miyoshi (Old Woman at castle), Chieko Naniwa (Old Ghost Woman)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1957
Country: Japan
Throne of Blood Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Throne of BloodAkira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, a re-envisioning of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth through the historical lens of feudal Japan and the aesthetic conventions of the Noh Theater, is a masterpiece of expressive imagery. Heady, violent, and intensely melodramatic, it filters themes of greed and power and lust through visuals that are so rich and densely textured that they take on a life of their own. The natural elements of fog, rain, and the impenetrable tangles of a spirit-infested forest become characters that mediate the story of a warrior who loses his humanity in his quest for power.

The story of Macbeth is, of course, well known in the West, and it fits quite well with Kurosawa’s thematic interests. Greed and egoism were important elements of his breakthrough film, Rashomon (1950), but here they take on an even darker tone, verging on the brink of nihilism. A blanket of fate hangs heavy over everything that happens in Throne of Blood, and the characters appear in the end like so many puppets, their strings plucked and pulled exactly as prophesized, their feeble attempts to guide their lives as illusive and fleeting as the perpetual fog that haunts the bleak, volcanic landscape.

The story is set sometime in the 15th century, an era in which feudal Japan was divided by rival clans that were constantly crumbling beneath power struggles and treason. When the film opens, two warriors, Washizu (Toshirô Mifune, Kurosawa’s favorite actor, playing the Macbeth character) and Miki (Akira Kubo, playing the Banquo character), have just shown great bravery in battle. While riding through the knotted labyrinth of the Spider’s Web Forest on their way back to their lord’s castle, they come upon an old witch (Chieko Naniwa) who tells them they will both rise to prominence.

The witch’s prophecy indeed comes true that very night, as both Washizu and Miki are promoted and made lords of two important castles. Washizu’s wife (Isuzu Yamada), whose physical appearance and mannerisms are frighteningly similar to those of the witch, convinces him that he needs to continue to consolidate power, which eventually entails him murdering the lord of his clan and assuming full power. With each step Washizu takes, he becomes less and less human, eventually convincing himself (with the help of another prophecy that he fatally misunderstands) that he is, in fact, invincible.

In adapting Macbeth, Kurosawa kept the broad parameters of Shakespeare’s story and most of the major characters, but what he was primarily interested in were the themes about the persistence of human nature. The fact that the same human foibles can characterize a Scottish king and a feudal Japanese warrior from different eras says much about the universality of humanity and its weaknesses. Washizu is, like Macbeth, a good, but weak-minded and easily manipulated man who allows his greed to consume him, and he pays the ultimate price at the end. It is, of course, a tragedy, one that resonates through the ages because of the basic truths it evokes about human desire and its consequences.

However, what makes Throne of Blood such a great film is the way in which Kurosawa invokes these themes visually. It has often been hailed as one of the greatest filmic adaptations of Shakespeare because Kurosawa finds such a thoroughly cinematic voice to express Shakespeare’s narrative. He eschews the attention-grabbing Shakespearean dialogue, instead using a slightly poetic version of Japanese that never detracts from the film’s grandiose visuals. He works on scales that are both large (the ghostly forest that seems to run in circles) and small (the spare interior of Washizu’s room), but it is always with deep-felt purpose.

Kurosawa’s actors work in a grandiose style that has the tendency to strike some as unintentionally humorous (Mifune’s facial contortions are reminiscent of bizarre masks), but given the film’s lavish visual design, the performances couldn’t be better suited. Mifune, in particular, channels all of Washizu’s lust and aggression, his behavior becoming more and more outlandish as the film wears on, so that by the time he comes to his grueling death scene, it is not surprising that he refuses to go down, even when pierced by dozens of arrows. It’s a fitting end to a character who is both great and pathetic.

Throne of Blood Criterion Collection Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio1.37:1
AudioJapanese Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • Audio commentary by Japanese-film expert Michael Jeck
  • Documentary on the making of the film, created as part of the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create
  • Two alternate subtitle translations, by Japanese-film translator Linda Hoaglund and Kurosawa expert Donald Richie
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by film historian Stephen Prince and notes on the subtitling by Hoaglund and Richie
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJanuary 7, 2014

    Criterion’s new 2K transfer of Throne of Blood was made from the original 35mm fine-grain master positive, the closest surviving film element to the now-lost original negative. It is a solid improvement over the 2003 DVD, which looked very good for its time. The strong contrast in the black-and-white cinematography is striking, and the detail level is absolutely breathtaking throughout (witness the minute details of the lavish costumes and the grains of volcanic dirt that cover the ground), as is the celluloid texture. Multiple software packages were used to digitally clean up the image, removing almost all imperfections and giving us a presentation of the film that looks virtually pristine. The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from an optical print track, is very good, although a tad muffled at times (which is most likely what the film has always sounded like). The environmental sound effects are effectively conveyed, as are the harsh voices of the characters.
    The only new supplement is a 22-minute documentary on the making of the film, which was originally created as part of the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. It is a thorough and entertaining look back at the film’s production, with interviews with Kurosawa and his collaborators. All of the supplements that were previously available on Criterion’s 2003 DVD are also included here. Along with a theatrical trailer, Japanese-film expert Michael Jeck offers his thoughts and insights on a highly enjoyable audio commentary. Jeck has a great deal of knowledge about the film—everything from how special effects were created, to the historical background of the film’s setting, to the biographical details of the actors—and he conveys it in a tone that is scholarly, but not dull. In the nicely designed insert booklet, film scholar Stephen Prince contributes an intriguing essay about the film. However, what is of most interest are two essays written by Linda Hoaglund and Donald Richie, each of whom translated subtitles for the film and explains her or his philosophy of translation and the unique challenges posed by a film like Throne of Blood. It’s things like this that really put Criterion head and shoulders above so many other distributors: They draw our attention to the aspects of filmmaking and presentation that are all-too-easy to overlook.

    Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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