DVD Extra: 'Throne of Blood'

Criterion drops Kurosawa's Japanized 'Macbeth' on Blu-ray

DVD Extra: 'Throne of Blood'

Superstitious theatre types refer to it as “the Scottish play” and dare not speak its name aloud; however, once you watch Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, you may begin to think about Shakespeare’s Macbeth as “that Japanese play.”

So thoroughly does Kurosawa “Japanize” Shakespeare’s play, you’ll find you only recognize the bare outline and some narrative elements of Shakespeare’s classic in Throne of Blood. Yet Kurosawa saw corollaries between the medieval Scottish warriors and their power grabs and the warring shoguns and their samurai in feudal-era Japan. Swapping Mount Fuji for the Scottish Highlands, Kurosawa’s film is replete with fog and horses and portents but uses them to concoct an interpretation that’s all his own.

Often referred to as the most Western of the Japanese directors, Kurosawa often found his inspiration in Western writers. Dostoyevsky was the source for Kurosawa’s The Idiot in 1950, and the filmmaker returned to Shakespeare in 1985’s Ran – his interpretation of King Lear. In addition to releasing Throne of Blood in 1957, Kurosawa also released The Lower Depths – his rendering of Maxim Gorky’s play – the same year.

The Throne of Blood screenplay is written anew, using Shakespeare’s general outline and characters but little of the Bard’s actual language. English-speaking viewers, in fact, can opt between two separate sets of subtitles – one by Japanese film scholar Donald Richie and another by Japanese-film translator Linda Hoaglund. Each subtitler contributes an essay to the DVD’s accompanying booklet; together, they illuminate the vagaries of translating Japanese to English as well as the oddities of language in Throne of Blood, which we’re told is a blend of medieval and more formal Japanese expression.

The most noticeable divergence in Kurosawa’s interpretation is the introduction of elements common to Noh theatre, which dates back to the 14th and 15th centuries in which Throne of Blood is set. The theatrical form of Noh theatre is recognized by its use of masks, stark sets, distinctive music, and deliberate movement and body language meant to convey emotional subtexts. In later centuries, Noh theatre evolved into the kabuki style that’s more widely known today. The Lady Macbeth character – here known as Lady Osaji and played by Isuzu Yamada – best illustrates the Noh aspects of the film. She moves with a silky flutter that disguises her deceit, and her face can be as indecipherably fixed as a Noh mask.

Kurosawa’s most frequent leading man, Toshiro Mifune, stars as Washizu, the Macbeth character, and other roles are played by Kurosawa’s stock company of actors. Kurosawa filmed scenes with a multicamera technique which, though unusual for the time, allowed him to create dynamic sequences that use very little close-up work. Most famous is the closing sequence of a shower of arrows besieging Washizu up in the castle’s parapet – a sequence that’s inspired many an homage.

This new Criterion Collection package is essentially the same as the edition the company released a decade ago, but for the new digital film transfer with uncompressed audio. It’s a two-disc set that contains a Blu-ray and regular DVD. The commentary by Michael Jeck and the accompanying short film “Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create” appears on both discs. The imagery on the Blu-ray remains crisp amid the fog and Kurosawa’s penchant for telephoto shots – and it’s the way this film should be seen when watching at home.

Criterion presents Throne of Blood in a two-disc Blu-ray and DVD combo for $39.95.

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DVD Watch, Criterion Collection, Akira Kurosawa, Throne of Blood, Macbeth, Japan, Toshiro Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, kabuki, Noh theatre

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