Blu-ray review: “Throne of Blood: The Criterion Collection”

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In the essay accompanying the new DVD/Blu-ray release of Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood,” Stephen Prince seems demur a little on the idea that the film is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” “While the description is certainly not untrue, the film is much more than a direct cinematic translation of a literary text.”

True, but then the best adaptations aren’t mere translations anyway, but embrace the new medium in exciting and unexpected ways. And “Throne of Blood” certainly has the backbone of Macbeth — the tale of a warrior who, blinded by a supernatural prophecy and urged by his scheming wife, betrays his friends and superiors in a bid for the throne.

And Prince is right — aside from an “Out damned spot!” I didn’t catch a line of “Macbeth” anywhere in “Throne of Blood” (in fact, it’s said Kurosawa never consulted the original text while making the film.) Instead, the 1957 film is a brilliant mix of historical epic and stage drama, at times putting the two genres side by side to great effect.

The great Toshiro Mifune is Washiku, a samurai general who serves under the Great Lord in the Spider Web’s Castle. While on patrol, Washiku and his comrade Miki are visited by a ghost, who prophesizes that both will rise in the ranks and eventually, Miki’s son will be Lord.

Washiku is happy by the prophecy, but his wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) begins planting seeds of doubt. What if Miki reveals the prophecy to the Lord, who perceives Washiku as a threat? I always pictured Lady Macbeth as a physically domineering figure, but Yamada is so effective because she is so still and demure, her head bowed as she plants seed after seed of mistrust in her husband’s mind. When the Lord does give Miki and Washiku the honors laid out in the ghost’s prophecy, Asaji is even more convinced that a massive plot against her husband is in the works. “One must kill so that one is not to be killed,” Asaji advises, the slogan of preemptive strikes down through the ages.

Washiku takes her advice, of course, and what follows is a bloody fight for power. What’s striking about “Throne of Blood” is the mix of styles — there are battle scenes familiar to Kurosawa fans, of great armies assembling for battle, of horses charging and arrows flying. But the interior scenes are filmed as if on a Japanese Noh stage, on bare floorboards with little props, the camera often at a distance, shooting straight-on, as if in the audience.

The result is a film that’s more chilly and distancing than “Seven Samurai” or “Ran”; we don’t identify with these characters, and are probably not meant to. Ultimately, “Throne of Blood” is about the folly of man, a point driven home in the beautifully grim final shot. All the graspings and jealousies of man, which mean so much to him in his lifetime, get wiped away by time.

The new Blu-ray edition includes all the special features from the original DVD, including a documentary on the making of “Throne of Blood,” as well as a commentary track by Michael Jeck. Perhaps most interestingly, viewers can choose between two different English subtitle translations, and translators Donald Richie and Linda Hoaglund both provide fascinating essays on how their approached their respective translations.

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