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Studio: Criterion
Release Year: 1957
Runtime: 109 Min.
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Sound: Mono
Black & White

Special Features:
Audio commentary
Theatrical trailer
Two sets of subtitles
24-page booklet

DVD reviewed by Donald Melanson

July 12, 2004 | There have been over three hundred screen adaptations of Shakespeare's plays and, while I'm partial to Forbidden Planet, one can easily make an argument that no one did it better than the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Although "adaptation" does not begin to describe what Kurosawa did with the material.

Based on Macbeth, Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-jo) was Kurosawa's first attempt at adapting Shakespeare to the screen and, to many, it remains his best. As you might guess, this is not your traditional interpretation of Shakespeare. The play's original Scottish setting is replaced with feudal Japan, and the traditional Shakespearean style of acting and staging is replaced with elements of the 'Noh' theatre, characterized by exaggerated performances and sparse sets.

It is simply a remarkable film to behold. Whereas many screen adaptations of Shakespeare (even lavishly produced ones) still have the feel of a filmed stage play, Throne of Blood is an extraordinarily cinematic film. Shooting with a telephoto lens, Kurosawa obtained an incredibly sharp but flat image, lacking depth but adding a great deal of texture to each scene.

As Steven Price notes in his insightful essay included with the DVD, weather plays a central role in the film, in a real sense becoming an embodiment of the characters' psychology. "The bleached skies, the fog, the barren plains, and characters going adrift against and within these spaces -- this is where the emotion of the film resides."

Kurosawa's longtime collaborator Toshiro Mifune gives a wonderfully frenetic performance in the Macbeth role, here called Washizu. I don't think it's spoiling anything to say he has one of the most incredible death sequences ever filmed. Also outstanding in a very subtle performance is Isuzu Yamada as Asaji (otherwise known as Lady Macbeth).

The picture and sound quality of the DVD are both good, although scenes with a lot of fog (and there are quite a few of them) exhibit a lot more grain than is noticeable in the rest of the film.

Compared to other Criterion Collection releases, there are relatively few special features. The centerpiece is an intelligent and entertaining commentary track by Japanese film expert Michael Jeck. Also notable is the inclusion of two very different sets of subtitles, one by Linda Hoaglund and one by Donald Ritchie. Each provides a rationale for their interpretation in the 24-page booklet that comes with the DVD.

Criterion discs don't come cheap, but as they've proven again here with Throne of Blood, you're usually richly rewarded for spending the extra bucks.

Donald Melanson is the founder and editor-in-chief of Mindjack. He also writes about movies on his film blog.

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