Throne of Blood

Year: 1957. Running time: 110 minutes. Black & white. Monaural. In Japanese with optional English subtitles. 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Starring Toshiro Mifune and Isuzu Yamada. From The Criterion Collection.

Review by Derek Hill

By the time that director Akira Kurosawa was ready to helm his long-delayed adaptation of Shakespeare's play Macbeth (he had first wanted to make the picture in the late 1940s but held off due to Orson Welles's own production), it had been two years since his epic Seven Samurai (1954) had been released to popular and critical success and a year since his cautionary anti-nuclear film, Record of a Living Being (1955), had met with critical and popular indifference (and in fact was not screened in the United States until 1963).

Throne of Blood, luckily, did not meet the same unfortunate fate as the latter film, but neither was it the overall critical or financial success of the former. Although superb in many aspects -- art direction, cinematography, and acting (most notably Isuzu Yamada's subtle and distressing Noh-influenced Lady Macbeth) -- Throne of Blood has two different creative lives. As an adaptation of Shakespeare's play, it is without a doubt one of the most creative interpretations ever put to film; as a Kurosawa film, it seems more like an interim project, an experiment of sound and vision that, although fully realized, comes off as perhaps too emotionally hollow and withdrawn -- especially in contrast to Seven Samurai and much of his later work of distinction, such as High and Low (1963), Red Beard (1965), Dersu Uzala (1975), Kagemusha (1980), and his devastating adaptation of King Lear, Ran (1985).

Perhaps this distance stems from the actors' performances being so influenced by the formal stylization of the Noh Theater. That's not to say that Throne of Blood doesn't have its emotional moments, though. The scene where the increasingly insane General Washizu (Macbeth), played to the hilt by the great Toshiro Mifune, and Lady Asaji (Lady Macbeth) are hosting other lords for dinner, not long after Washizu had murdered his friend Lord Miki (Minoru Chiaki) in the same room, is chilling and subtly poignant. Washizu continually looks at the empty space to his left where Miki would normally be seated, a bowl of steamy rice and food awaiting Miki's arrival. That such a mundane detail as the food being left for Miki should garner such emotional weight is credit to Kurosawa's (and fellow screenwriters, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Hideo Oguni) sensitivity toward the characters and the scene.

But regardless of its emotional austerity, Throne of Blood is bravura filmmaking. Never has a filmed adaptation of the play felt so claustrophobic, savage, and supernaturally mechanistic. The film also contains one of cinema's greatest death scenes, despite what then New York Times critic Bosley Crowther had to say about it (he thought it was funny).

The Criterion Collection DVD is superb and should more than please Kurosawa fans. The high contrast black-and-white picture is stunning and the sound is fine as well. The audio commentary by Japanese-film scholar Michael Jeck is informative and breezy, although one wishes that he would elaborate on some of the anecdotes that he tosses off. Nevertheless, the commentary track is fascinating and adds depth to the film. The disc has also been given two new subtitle translations by renowned Japanese film experts, Linda Hoaglund and Donald Richie. A new essay on the film by Stephen Prince, author of the book The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, is also included.

Throne of Blood is now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection in a new high-definition digital transfer. Special features: audio commentary by Japanese-film expert Michael Jeck; an original theatrical trailer; a new essay by Stephen Prince; two alternative subtitle translations (a new version from renowned Japanese-film translator Linda Hoagland and Kurosawa expert Donald Richie's subtitles utilizing Jacobean diction; and notes on subtitling by Linda Hoagland. Suggested retail price: $39.95. For more information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site.