The Criterion Collection 190
Format: Blu-ray and DVD
Criterion gives us two for one twice over with the release of Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood. First, they've stopped doing double inventory by putting both the Blu-ray and DVD versions in the same package. Judging by the press announcements for future 2014 releases, dual-format editions are to become a standard feature. Second, and probably not to become standard, is that Throne of Blood includes two different sets of subtitles, one by Japanese-film translator Linda Hoaglund and the other by Kurosawa expert Donald Richie.
The movie itself, for those not in the know, is the Japanese director's 1957 masterpiece based on Macbeth. In moving the setting from Scotland to 16th-century feudal Japan, Kurosawa made several changes, eliminating some characters and expanding others, but it's still the same basic story. While riding through the woods adjacent to Spider's Web Castle, Taketoki Washizu (Toshirô Mifune) and Yoshiaki Miki (Minoru Chiaki) encounter the Old Ghost Woman (Chieko Naniwa), who tells them that Washizu will become a high lord, but it is Miki's sons who will become rulers.
Washizu becomes a greedy man driven by his fate and his murderous wife, Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), who's more evil than any Lady Macbeth on stage or film. She prods him to kill the ruler, who has conveniently stopped by for a visit, and plants a seed that he must murder Miki as well. Thus, Washizu's throne is built on blood.
Because Kurosawa was very keen on Japanese history, Throne of Blood is much more than just a Japanese retelling of the story. The great director was also fond of Noh theater, which had come about in the 14th century, and uses many of its elements in his movie. For instance, he instructed Mifune and Yamada to act as if they had Noh masks on their faces. Yamada is especially adept at this, betraying her moods not with her frozen countenance but with motion.
As expected, Criterion's black-and-white transfer is outstanding. Important details are never vague, and costumes and facial expressions emerge with great clarity. Some of the fog scenes look a little washed out, but I've a feeling that was intentional, a Kurosawa thing. The monaural soundtrack is quite robust, especially considering that it was made from an optical print track.
As for extras, there's an enthusiastic commentary from Japanese-film expert Michael Jeck. Not at all dry, he makes learning more about the movie and its director an exciting process. There is a segment on Throne of Blood from the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. The booklet that accompanies the two discs includes an essay by film historian Stephen Prince and essays from Hoaglund and Richie in which they each discuss and justify their subtitle translations.
Criterion's release of Throne of Blood is quite welcome. It's a movie that you can view time and again, picking out different details on each subsequent viewing. And thanks to Criterion's double pack, you can watch even if you just have a DVD player and be ready with a Blu-ray copy when you upgrade.
Be sure to watch for: It's no spoiler to tell you that Washizu dies at the end. But whereas a single man killed Macbeth, flights of arrows kill Washizu in one of the most impressive scenes in cinema. The DVD is excellent here, but the Blu-ray nails every arrow in flight.
. . . Rad Bennett