The Film (4.5/5)
I have long been a fan of the work of William Shakespeare both on the page, stage, and on the screen. I've read many of his plays, and watched a good many of the cinematic adaptations of them. Of course, being a fan of horror in cinema, art, and literature I tend to find myself being drawn toward the more thrilling or supernatural tales the bard created including Hamlet, and of course, the Scottish play Macbeth.
Macbeth, may actually be my favorite of all of Shakespeare's work. I have watched a good number of adaptations of the work, with my favorite of the traditional versions being Polanski's 1971 version produced by Playboy Magazine and featuring over the top violence. This version of the tale was allegedly Polanski's coping mechanism for the Sharon Tate murder. The absolute worst version of the story that I can recall viewing was one I viewed during an English literature class during my final semester of college called Men of Respect starring John Turturro. This version shoehorns the story of Macbeth into the world of the world of the Mafia with terrible, and occasionally unintentionally humorous results.
Men of Respect, showed a version outside of the traditional play format that did not work. It was badly written, unfortunately acted by a fantastic cast. However, Macbeth had been taken outside of it's original structure previously by the legendary director Akira Kurosawa in his film Throne of Blood. Throne of Blood takes the world most commonly seen in Kurosawa's samurai cinema, and infuses it with Shakespeare for the first time (His later film Ran would also successfully adapt King Lear). Kurosawa's version takes the story beats of the original Macbeth tale, but blends it successfully into a new situation creating something that is true to Shakespeare and Kurosawa, and is unique and beautiful in it's own right.
The film stars Toshiro Mifune as Washizu, after an epic battle he and his best friend the warrior Miki make their way to Spiders Web Castle to discuss the victory with the Great Lord. While traveling to the castle the pair get lost in Spiders Web Forest, and find themselves in the presence of a spirit for foresees great things for the two of them. Both of them will be granted promotions in their military, and Washizu will one day be Great Lord of Spiders Web Castle. Miki's son, is also predicted to one day be the Great Lord of Spiders Web Castle guaranteeing that Washizu's reign will only be for one generation.
Upon arriving at the castle the duo find the first part of the prophecy accurate, as they are both granted promotions as commanders of different fortresses. This immediately begins to effect the mind of Washizu, however, he at least at first attempts to remain happy within his new command position. However, under the influence of his wife Asaji he begins to plan the assassination of the Great Lord which comes to fruition while the Great Lord is on a hunting trip causing him to stay the night at Washizu's fortress. Washizu after some struggle then takes command of Spiders Web Castle, but all is not well, and knowing of the short term of his rule attempts to overcome the prophecy by ruling over his subjects with an iron fist. As time passes both he and Asaji begin to lose their minds, as they begin to kill those closest to them while revolution begins forming in the horizon.
Although the characters names are changed, Toshiro Mifune played one of the finest Macbeth's to ever grace the screen. His always intense screen presence that he seemed to carry into every role made him a perfect candidate for the twisted dynamic character of Macbeth. His performance, both physically and verbally is one of the most deeply committed versions of the role ever committed to film, it's as if every molecule of his being were able to shift into this character. This is assisted by a further excellent performance Isuzu Yamada as Asaji the Lady Macbeth of Throne of Blood. Lady Macbeth, is certainly one of the finest parts any actress could ever play, and Yamada is seemingly perfect in this role. She is cold, and calculated, sinister, and seductive everything the character of Lady Macbeth should be, but also determined, mad, and fiercely independent. Her performance is so three dimensional and dynamic, it is near impossible to keep ones eyes off her when she is on screen.
Kurosawa in keeping with the atmospheric nature of the piece creates a beautifully fog enshrouded Japanese landscape. He films this with epic views of his locations, and the surrounding nature. While simple camera moves allowing the drama and the characters to keep the action moving forward. Throne of Blood may not be a verbatim adaptation of the Bard's most supernatural tale, but it is certainly one of the finest versions of the story ever crafted.
Throne of Blood is presented by Criterion in an absolutely splendid 1:37:1 1080p MPEG-4 transfer. I will admit this is my extremely belated first time seeing Throne of Blood, however I would imagine that this transfer would be an improvement in every single way from prior versions. The detail present in this transfer is excellent, contrast is stable throughout the film, and shadow detail is fantastic. The only minor issues I could find where some scratch fields that obviously could not be fixed and a few water spots.
The audio is presented in an excellent LPCM 1.0 Japanese Mono track. The film has two options of English subtitles. The reasoning for this is simply that due to the very nature of the film a Shakespeare adaptation in Japanese Criterion wanted the subtitles to either reflect a more traditional Japanese, or something akin to Shakespeare, and have provided to subtitle variations depending on viewer preference. The dialogue comes through nice and clear, as does music and sound effects.
Criterion have put together a wonderful slate of extras with their release of Throne of Blood. We have a commentary by Japanese film historian Michael Jecks that was included with the 2002 DVD release of the film. There is also a Japanese TV documentary running 23 minutes about the film entitled Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. The disc content is rounded off by the original Japanese trailer for the film. We also get a book of liner notes with an essay about the film by Stephen Prince and notes on the subs by their creators Linda Hoaglund and the late Donald Richie.
Criterion's new Blu-ray release of Throne of Blood takes Kurosawa's Macbeth, and gives it a stunning Blu-ray upgrade. The extras are quite nice as well, and the subtitles options are a great addition. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.