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DVD Pick: Throne of Blood (Criterion Collection)

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A Classic English Play Transformed Into a Great Japanese Film

The plot of Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (1957) is a streamlined and tweaked version of the one in Shakespeare's Macbeth, but the two works are otherwise markedly dissimilar. One striking difference is that Kurosawa discards virtually all of the Bard's poetic language. For example, Macbeth's celebrated "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" soliloquy is reduced to having the film's protagonist call himself a fool. On the other hand, the movie contains a stunning combination of music, sound effects and richly textured visual imagery.

In the film the story takes place in Japan circa 1500, and the set for the main castle was built on Mount Fuji. The characters speak Japanese and have Japanese names. For example, the movie's protagonist, a rough equivalent to the title character in Shakespeare's play, is called Washizu and is played by the famous actor Toshiro Mifune in one of the best performances of his long and distinguished career.

The brilliance of the film is that Kurosawa thoroughly Japanized the story and made it his own. Some of the ways he did this are obvious, such as including elements of the Noh theater. But he made many changes that may not be readily apparent. For example, he eliminated the Macduff character altogether. This leads to an ending in the movie that is quite different from and much more downbeat than the one in Shakespeare's play.

Kurosawa and Shakespeare

Throne of Blood takes place during the unstable Sengoku period when Japan has no central authority and is under the rule of regional warlords. Sovereign over one of the domains is a Great Lord (the counterpart of Shakespeare's Duncan), and under him are Washizu (the counterpart of Macbeth), portrayed by Toshiro Mifune, and Miki (the counterpart of Banquo), played by Kurosawa regular Minoru Chiaki. As in Shakespeare, Miki's ghost haunts Washizu at a banquet.

The other key character is Asaji (the counterpart of Lady Macbeth), portrayed by noted actress Isuzu Yamada. As in the play, Asaji is shown trying to wash imaginary blood off her hands. But Kurosawa throws in a plot twist of his own by having Asaji announce to Washizu that she is pregnant.

In Shakespeare, witches tell Macbeth he will "never vanquish'd be until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill shall come." In the film, a forest spirit tells Washizu, "Until the very trees of Spider's Web Forest rise against Spider's Web Castle, you will not be defeated in battle."

But Kurosawa uses visually arresting locations, sets, props and costumes, as well as the evocative sounds of flute and percussion to tell the story. He varies the camerawork, sometimes kinetic, sometimes static, as befits the scene. He also adds sequences, such as a large number of birds flying around inside a castle and a riderless white horse wildly galloping in circles. Furthermore, Kurosawa changes the Bard's ending, and in the film's climax he has archers shooting real arrows dangerously close to Japan's most celebrated actor.

Audio Commentary by Michael Jeck

The Criterion Collection DVD containing Throne of Blood provides a lively and informative audio commentary by Japanese-film expert Michael Jeck, which he recorded in 2002. Jeck breaks the movie down into four acts, and he is especially good at elucidating the story's timeline. He also explains Kurosawa's use of wipes and cuts in the film. Jeck indicates some of the differences between Throne of Blood and Macbeth, and he points out the influence of Noh, which he likens to ancient Greek drama. He gives background information on many of the actors who appear in the movie, and he discusses how this film fits into Kurosawa's body of work.

Booklet With Stephen Prince Essay

Packaged with the DVD is a 24-page booklet, which includes an excellent essay by Stephen Prince, author of the outstanding book The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa. He makes the insightful observation that Shakespeare's Macbeth has a "reassuring conclusion … in which a just political authority triumphs." But as Prince points out, the ending in Throne of Blood offers no such comfort, and the movie's circular motifs communicate a drastically different message: "In Kurosawa's film and worldview, the cycle of human violence never ends."

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