In an early scene two opportunist samurais are introduced and both of them are wearing flags that identify who they are and what clan they come from. Mifune, who plays Taektoki Wahsizu, has a caterpillar on his flag and his samurai partner Miki (played by Minoru Chiaki) has a rabbit. These symbols seem innocuous enough, but if you had a choice, who would you trust: a creepy crawly caterpillar or a soft bunny rabbit?
Unfortunately, the top legion warriors of the area trust Wahsizu and grant him the power to become Lord of Spider Web Castle. And sure enough, Wahsizu proves to be an opportunist samurai who begins to plan a megalomaniacal triumph over all the rivals in the area.
Since the film is based on Macbeth there is a Lady Macbeth - here named Asaji (played by Isuzu Yamada, who doesn't blink once on screen) - who convinces Wahsizu, in conniving fashion, to take more power.
Wahsizu plans and succeeds in betraying and defeating his one time friend Miki and carving out a larger section of the empire. But, as the saying goes, "Live by the sword, die by the sword." And thus the story marches on.
As in many other of Kurosawa's films - Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Ran - Throne of Blood takes place in 16th century Japan when feudal lords and samurais dominated the political climate. Like those films, this one has very dynamic shots, expressive acting, lots of crazy weather (and fog), and splendid fight scenes. But it is also a bit more restrained in some scenes too, which are staged like Japanese Noh theatre; a tradition known for minimalist sets and straightforward plots.
Throne of Blood is one of Kurosawa's most tightly structured films with regards to cinematic form and content. If you watch the film closely you'll note that many camera angles, camera movements and individual shots illustrate the film's overall circular structure. One example comes when Wahsizu is talking to Asaji, and in the background we see that there is a horse running in circles. And indeed, Mifune himself walks in circles quite often both as a way of showing us that he is thinking and as a way to signal to the audience that he has no way out of his little world; his fate is sealed.
Unlike the other samurai films, Throne of Blood has many quiet moments that seem to be the calm before the inevitable storm of violence. Besides this, the film has many scripted scenes that - although not as verbose as Shakespeare - take patience for viewers who expect all action.
Criterion Collection has done a fabulous transfer of the full frame image that showcases the beautiful, sparkling black and white cinematography by Asakazu Nakai - who shot more than a dozen of Kurosawa's films. There isn't much in the way of extras but the few are good. The best is a commentary by Michael Jeck, who is scholarly, refreshingly humorous, and nonchalant.
The DVD also has two subtitle options one by Linda Hoagland which is a contemporary English translation and one by Donald Ritchie that is closer to the style of Shakespeare and Jacobean playwrights. The two subtitle choices are also sometimes radically different. One good example comes when a Forest Demon is found by the two samurais in the beginning. She sings about man's fate.
In the first subtitle option her words are translated as:All that awaits man / at the end / of his travails / is the stench of rotting flesh / that will yet blossom into flowers / its foul odor rendered / into sweet perfume / oh fascinating the life of man.
In the second subtitle option (over the exact same scene selection) her words are translated as:Only evil may maintain / an afterlife for those who will / who love this world, who have no son / to whom ambition falls / death will reign; man dies in vain.
If you don't speak Japanese (and I don't) it makes you wonder what is specifically being said. Obviously, these are not happy affirmations about man and death. Nonetheless the film's images speak for themselves and this is another Kurosawa masterpiece as well as another fine DVD from the folks at Criterion.
Aka Kumonosu jo.
Run time: 110 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 22nd November 1961
Distributed by: Media Home Entertainment
Production compaines: Toho Company
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 98%
Fresh: 41 Rotten: 1
IMDB: 8.2 / 10
Director: Akira Kurosawa
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