Kurosawa Says Noh to Shakespeare: My Blu-ray review of Throne of Blood

Akira Kurosawa went out on a limb when he made his loose Macbeth adaptation, Throne of Blood. Highly stylized and heavily influenced by Japan’s noh theater, the picture holds you emotionally at an arm’s length. You’re never invited to identify with or even empathize with the characters. This is Kurosawa at his coldest, as if Stanley Kubrick had crawled into his soul.

And yet, it’s also Kurosawa at his most atmospheric, and–at least amongst his black-and-white films–his most visually exciting. It creates a sense of doom and destiny, and of the inevitability of evil, that is hard to shake after the fade-out. As you watch Toshiro Mifune’s Macbeth character step deeper into regicide, murder, paranoia, and hopelessness, you understand that everything that happens to him is pre-ordained. And yet the film’s clearly-spelled-out message, that violence begets violence, comes out strong and clear.

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If you’ve ever fallen in love with Shakespeare, you know the basic story. Egged on by his evil and ambitious wife, a nobleman and great warrior murders his king (or great lord in this version), and takes the throne as his own. But one murder is never enough. And the more he kills, the more enemies rise up against him.

Macbeth hardly counts as naturalistic theater. The supernatural plays a heavy role, and  the bulk of the dialog is not prose but poetry. When Lady Macbeth talks in her sleep, she does so in iambic pentameter.

So it’s befitting that in adapting Macbeth, Kurosawa selected a Noh-like approach every bit as stylized as Shakespeare’s technique, and far more Japanese.image Also far more cinematic. Noh traditions allowed Kurosawa to use exaggerated makeup and strange, ritualized movements–especially with Isuzu Yamada as Mifune’s evil wife. Thick fog covers much of the landscape, and one particular forest seems downright evil. (If you know Macbeth, you know where this forest is going.) Even animals get into the act, helping to warn the thick-headed humans of the horrors to come.

But Kurosawa’s Noh can’t capture the complexities of human nature so beautifully displayed in Shakespeare’s poetry–and in much of Kurosawa’s best work. For that reason, I can’t quite put Throne of Blood amongst his very best work. But second-tier Kurosawa is still compelling filmmaking..

Throne of Blood contains some amazing sequences, including one of cinema’s greatest endings. I won’t spoil it, but I will tell you that Kurosawa departs greatly from Shakespeare’s original climax. In Shakespeare’s time, before the American, French, and Russian Revolutions, Kurosawa’s ending was probably unimaginable.

For more on the subject, see Kurosawa Diary, Part 12: Throne of Blood.

First Impression

Like so many Criterion titles, Throne of Blood comes in a clear, plastic case with an illustrated cover. Inside you’ll find two discs, a Blu-ray and a DVD–one set on top of the other. The movie and the complete extras are on both discs.

When you insert the Blu-ray for the first time, the main menu comes up almost immediately. After that, inserting the disc will offer you options of going to that menu or returning to where you left off.

In addition to the discs, the case contains a 24-page booklet with an article by Stephen Prince called "Shakespeare Transposed." Also here you’ll find essays on subtitle translation by Linda Hoaglund and the late, great Donald Richie. More on subtitling below.

How It Looks

If I wanted to show off what Blu-ray can do with a black-and-white, narrow-screen film, I’d use this disc. In a film filled with grotesque images, thick fog, pouring rain, terrified horses, angry birds, and deadly arrows, everything is highly-detailed and cinematic. The grain is there but not distracting. The gray tones are magnificent.

Just one complaint: A couple of bright daylight exterior long shots looked a bit washed out. I don’t think they totaled more than 15 seconds of screen time, and I’m not entirely sure they’re errors. Kurosawa loved extreme weather,  and more so here than in any other film. If you’re going to film thick fog and torrential rain, why not burning-hot sunlight?

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How It Sounds

As is Criterion’s standard procedure for mono films on Blu-ray, Throne of Blood reproduces the original soundtrack in a mono 2.0 uncompressed PCM. It sounded great, and is probably very close to what Kurosawa heard before okaying the mix.

And the Extras

All of these were also on the 2003 DVD release.

  • Choice of subtitles: Criterion includes two sets of English subtitles, each with a different translation. That’s a great idea, and it reminds us that if we don’t understand a film’s original language, we are always missing something. Before watching the entire film, I tried two scenes with each translation, and settled for Linda Hoaglund’s over Donald Richie’s. Her language was slightly archaic–although in no way Shakespearean. For instance, where Richie translates an exchange as "Was there a hut here before?"->"No, not that I know of," Hoaglund uses "Do you recall such a hovel?"->"No, the sight is new to my eyes."
  • Commentary by Michael Jeck: At first, I found Jeck’s voice irritating, as if he was trying too hard to be interesting. But I soon got used to it. The talk is educational, informative, and entertaining.
  • Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create: 23 minutes. Every Criterion Kurosawa disc contains the appropriate section from this Japanese TV documentary series. This is one of the best, concentrating primarily on Noh Theater and how it influenced this film. It also has Kurosawa talking about the time he met his idle, John Ford.
  • original Japanese trailer

Throne of Blood goes on sale January 7.

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