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Throne of Blood: The Criterion Collection

While Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth hasn't been filmed as many times as the more popular Hamlet, it has had its cinematic supporters over the years. Among the most famous renditions is Orson Welles' 1948 film with its black-and-white mix of gothicism and surrealism. Laurence Olivier mounted a much-praised theater production in the 1950s and was fully intent on creating his own picture, but had to abandon the project due to lack of funding. And Roman Polanski's 1971 version was notable for its dark brutality (it was the first film from the director after the murder of his wife Sharon Tate). However, Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (1957) is often regarded as the finest Macbeth picture; some critics even insist its the best adaptation of Shakespeare to be found on celluloid — any play, any language. Kurosawa noted that "the Scottish play" was his favorite of the Bard's works, but he originally did not intend to film Macbeth, abandoning earlier plans after Welles' film got underway, later submitting a script to Toho studios with the expectation another director would be located. It was only when Toho realized how much the film would cost that they asked Kurosawa to accept the project.

Throne of Blood (or "Cobweb Castle" in the Japanese translation) follows the plot of Macbeth in most details, with only a few minor additions or alterations. Toshiro Mifune stars in the Macbeth role as Washizu, a warrior who is promoted after a great battle and then urged by his wife Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) to seize further power by murderous means. It's a remarkable entry into the Kurosawa oeuvre, in part because of its unusual style compared to his other films at the time. Most noticeably, Kurosawa interpreted Macbeth as a fatalistic play that exists in a universe where people's choices are limited or illusory — thus, the interior scenes are performed in the style of the Japanese Noh theater, a spare form that predates the Kabuki and is not as well known to Japanese audiences. The Noh is minimal and very formalistic, a style Kurosawa complemented by shooting in bare rooms with low ceilings. He also avoided close-ups during much of the film and only utilized flat-cuts and wipes for editing, never allowing the story to rest. Kurosawa's script builds from these visual elements, intoning repetition and futility: the story begins and ends at the same place, with a similar conflict; the "Cobweb Forest" around the castle is renowned for its labyrinthine quality, and even sends our experienced samurais in circles; small shots of a horse running around a courtyard, or Mifune's pacing feet, or the centipede on his flag, suggest repetition and redundancy, and thus the inevitability of fate. Does all of this make Throne of Blood a "cold" film, as some detractors have insisted? At times, perhaps — but it does have its classic Kurosawa touches as well. The director — notorious for his perfectionism — asked that an entire castle be built on Mt. Fuji for location shooting. Unhappy with the results, it was torn down and a second, larger one was built from scratch. For shooting back at Toho studios, the director also had black volcanic ash brought back from the mountain, and the ceramics seen in the film were hand-crafted, with museum pieces used as guides. And it's impossible to forget the final scene, Throne of Blood's most exciting sequence, as Washizu is assaulted by scores of arrows. It's a remarkable piece of choreography and editing, made all the more remarkable because Kurosawa insisted on using real arrows. To add realism to the scene, the director was planning to have a contest to learn which of the film's extras were the best marksmen; legend has it the object of the exercise (Mifune) convinced Kurosawa to go with professional archers instead.

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Criterion's DVD release of Throne of Blood features a solid transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a very good black-and-white source print, with the original monaural audio on a DD 1.0 track. Both audio and video have undergone digital restoration, to great benefit. Supplements are headlined by a commentary from Japanese film expert Michael Jeck, who previously graced Criterion's Seven Samurai Laserdisc and DVD — this new track, recorded in 2002, features plenty of insights and behind-the-scenes details, all shared in Jeck's good-natured, avuncular style. Also on board are two sets of English subtitles from translators Linda Hoaglund and Donald Richie. Both discuss their translation techniques in essays that can be found in the enclosed booklet; also there is an essay by Kurosawa scholar Steven Prince. Keep-case.
—JJB



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