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The Criterion Collection presents
"Ambition makes the man."
DVD ReviewLust for power isn't the exclusive province of Scottish thanes, or samurai warriors, or even of former Bavarian weightlifters turned actors with a desire to get into politics, and in Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa has made one of the great cross-cultural films, borrowing his story from Shakespeare and refracting it through a particularly Japanese lens. This is a fairly straightforward adaptation of Macbeth, in which Shakespeare's ambitious Scotsman and his wife have been transposed to medieval Japan; much of the poetry is gone, and in its stead Kurosawa has made what's essentially the best Jacobean action picture of all time.
The director's on-screen alter ego, Toshiro Mifune, plays Washizu, a chief lieutenant of a great lord; spurred on by a bizarre prophet he stumbles on in a forest, and even more so by his ruthless wife, Asaji, Washizu begins his bloody ascent to the throne, killing or ordering the killings of whomever stands in his way. There's not much time to enjoy life at the top, of course, as the very things that led Washizu to the top of the pyramid conspire to bring him right back down again. What's especially admirable about Mifune's work here is that we get the keen sense that Washizu is conflicted; he knows better, and though he doesn't say as much, the pangs of guilt practically sweat out of his pores. (The menace that he displays in Rashomon, for instance, is much more straightforward.)
Kurosawa has frequently been branded with charges of misogyny, and Asaji could be Exhibit A for either the prosecution or the defense—as played by Isuzu Yamada, her face is almost always still to the point of being hypnotic, but her intentions are absolutely clear. She wants to be mistress of all she surveys, and if her husband must lose his soul in fetching this for her, well, too bad, honey. She doesn't have all that much screen time, in fact, which makes her that much more of a monster, and when she comes undone in Kurosawa's equivalent of the "Out damn spot" scene, it's that much more rough and pathetic.
The technical elements of the filmmaking display much virtuoso technique as well. As in almost all Kurosawa pictures, the weather is extreme—the many forest scenes are shot in the mist, which lend an ethereal quality without compromising the extraordinary depth of field that is established in so many shots here. Kurosawa's trademark techniques are on display, of course—almost all of the scenes were shot with telephoto lenses, constricting the space and making things feel that much more claustrophobic; and he loves using wipes as transitions, which have a decidedly (and deliberately) old-fashioned feel, especially for twenty-first century audiences.
Kurosawa isn't slavishly devoted to Shakespeare, a technique that has sunk later screen incarnations of the Scottish play (cf., Men of Respect), and in fact, some of his additions make the work here even more cinematic—Asaji gives birth to a stillborn baby, for instance, the perfect metaphor for the corruption at the heart of this marriage, and early on, much of the violence is off-screen, reported to us or announced with Noh-like musical cues.
There's something decidedly clinical about the approach here, though—as an audience, we're actively discouraged from empathizing with Washizu, which, despite some of the later onscreen violence, can make this at times an arid, rather bloodless emotional affair. Kurosawa seems to be looking at them with us from a distance, and commenting on the foolishness at the heart of so much of human nature: see what these people do, how they sow the seeds of their own destruction. It's a rather pitiless view of humanity, mitigated only slightly by Washizu's painful and protracted death scene, which starts with a sort of realism and reaches a frenzied climax in which Mifune is so full of arrows shot at him by his own men that he looks like a mad samurai porcupine. Actors would kill for this kind of stuff, and Mifune makes the most of it.
Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: The film has been given a pretty fair cleanup—compare it with the unrestored original trailer on the disc for a sense of how bad it must have looked—but occasional scratches are still evident. The resolution and saturation are high, happily, and show off the stunning images and compositions to especially fine advantage.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: The mono track is largely free of hiss and pop, though the dynamics are limited, and the Noh chanting at the beginning and end of the film are cranked up unreasonably high.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in (two sets—see below) with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Michael Jeck
Asaji: Is your heart resolved?
Washizu: No. I dreamt an evil dream. Beguiled by a wicked spirit. But I no longer waver. Preposterous, to wish I were Lord of Spider's Web Castle.
Asaji: Do not call your dream preposterous. Any man who takes a bow in hand would dream of such a fate.
And now Richie:
Asaji: Have you decided, my lord?
Washizu: It was only a nightmare caused by evil spirits. I will consider it no more! To rule over Forest Castle! I cannot dream of such a...
Asaji: Why not, my lord? It is not beyond your power. What warrior would not want to be lord of a mighty castle?
The former gives a better sense of scale of their ambitions, I think; the latter strikes me as more conversational. Each translator has contributed thoughtful notes to the accompanying booklet, as well.
As he did for Criterion's Seven Samurai, Michael Jeck contributes a rich commentary track loaded with information; his tone can be jokey, almost bordering on goofy, but he knows and loves his Kurosawa, and is happy to share. Particularly useful for English-speaking audiences are his discussions of Macbeth in Japan—only a fraction of the audience would be familiar with it, and in fact, two of the four credited screenwriters on the project hadn't read the Shakespeare. Similarly, his discussion of Kurosawa's use of Noh theater techniques are especially interesting; Kabuki came later and was better known to Kurosawa's audience, helping to make this film feel like "contemporary Japanese, somewhat formalized." Jeck is also up on Kurosawa's filmmaking techniques, his telephoto lenses and multicamera shoots, and his leaving himself open to the happy accident. One such instance is when a wild horse ran over an extra; it's a great shot, but I bet that the accident wasn't so happy for the guy getting trampled.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsOne of the great achievements of Kurosawa's early period, Throne of Blood is bewitchingly decked out in this handsome and rewarding disc. Highly recommended.
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