To say that "Throne of Blood" is Akira Kurosawa's Japanese adaptation of William Shakespeare's "Macbeth" is to say that George Orwell's "Animal Farm" is about pigs who lead a revolt against cruel human masters. Sure, those statements are correct, but they only scratch the surfaces of what "Throne of Blood" and "Animal Farm" really are. Like "Ran" (Kurosawa's take on "King Lear"), "Throne of Blood" also functions as a study of Japanese artistic forms, a study of Japanese history, and a study of the universality of narrative molds.
The movie begins and ends with cameras panning across a foggy, barren wasteland set to ominous chanting by a chorus of men. These bookends set the tone for "Throne of Blood"; like with "Ran", we see the fruits of years of labor utterly destroyed in a matter of moments. Actions and events hurtle characters towards nothing-ness. The film's bleakness and pessimism direct our attention to the circularity of violence--of how humans engage in destructive behavior repeatedly as if we enjoy wreaking pain and sorrow on ourselves.
In "Throne of Blood", Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) becomes his warlord master's right-hand man when he successfully defends the master's territories against hostile forces. While on the way to a reception in their honor, Washizu and Miki (Minoru Chiaki) get lost in a forest in which they meet a witch (Chieko Naniwa). The witch prophesizes that Washizu will become the lord of Spider's Web Castle and that Miki will become the commander of the Castle's First Fortress. These are promotions that hint that Washizu will betray his master and give Miki his own post in return for the latter's silence.
As is the case so often in literature when characters have knowledge about future events (i.e. Oedipus's father), Washizu and Miki are disturbed by rather than happy with the news of their future success. Indeed, the knowledge that he will one day rule Spider's Web Castle compels Washizu and Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), his wife, to plot the assassination of their master. When Washizu becomes the lord of Spider's Web Castle, he begins to suspect Miki's loyalty. After all, Washizu and Asaji don't have children of their own, and the witch in the forest also foretold that Miki's son would become the eventual lord of Spider's Web Castle. Therefore, Washizu turns on Miki, and his increasingly violent and erratic actions results in civil war.
Yes, "Throne of Blood" is unmistakably an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Macbeth". Yet, Kurosawa was able to make the story his own. For example, several of the film's qualities remind viewers of the Japanese Noh drama form. The actors' faces seem to be frozen in particular exaggerated expressions, as if they were wearing masks like Noh performers. In one dinner scene, one of Washizu's guests even does a traditional Japanese slow song-and-dance act. (Washizu ends up silencing the poor fellow because his song is about a warrior who betrays his master; the performer doesn't know that his song hits too close to home for Washizu and Asaji.) Another Asian element in "Throne of Blood" is the conflation of sexual identity. For example, we can't tell if the witch is a man or a woman. Likewise, Asaji challenges Washizu's masculinity when she calls him a coward and a lackey when he hesitates to kill his master. Asaji then assumes the role of the man (in terms of traditional Japanese cultural values) by becoming the aggressor and killing Washizu's master. In a sense, then, Washizu becomes less of a man than his wife because he is unable to kill given a moment of self-doubt (something that men aren't supposed to do in Asian societies).
Throughout his career, Kurosawa made movies that are highly-accessible by non-Japanese audiences. For example, "Yojimbo" became the inspiration for Sergio Leone's "The Man With No Name" films starring Clint Eastwood (and even the Bruce Willis vehicle "Last Man Standing"), and "The Seven Samurai" was adapted as "The Magnificent Seven". Believe it or not, "The Hidden Fortress", set in 16th-Century Japan, was the inspiration for George Lucas's "Star Wars: Episode IV--A New Hope". Of course, there are the Shakespeare adaptations, "Throne of Blood" and "Ran". Both are excellent examples of how general themes and ideas develop along similar lines all over the world. For example, both films' examinations of the feudal system in medieval Japan reveal how similar socio-political systems developed on different continents.
The greatness of "Throne of Blood" lies in its complex, multi-faceted approach to telling its story. If you think about it, Washizu's tale can be described in a paragraph-length summary. However, Akira Kurosawa uses Japanese artistic styles to comment on Japanese history and culture. Therefore, the film isn't just a tale of usurpation and violence set against a despairing backdrop--it's also a meditation on human folly and incorrect assumptions about what people are capable of doing.
While the 1.33:1 (full-frame on 4:3 monitors) black-and-white video transfer betrays the film's age, it looks decent. There are the expected specks and dust particles, and grain runs amok in a few places. Lighting is a bit unstable in some parts, but that could be an intentional effect (or an inherently uncontrollable situation given the visual effects capabilities of the time). We have a stable transfer, though, so the picture never jumps erratically the way that "Ran" does with Wellspring's second DVD go at the movie (which was made in the 1980s!).
The Dolby Digital 1.0 Japanese audio track behaves the way you would expect a mono audio track from the 1950s to act. Everything sounds a bit thin given the era's limited capacity to capture dynamic ranges, and the only directionality that you're going to notice comes courtesy of sound effects getting louder or softer to hint at objects being near or far away. However, given what it is, the audio is pretty good. I heard only a few physical defects (such as pops and drop-outs), and hissing has been kept to a bare minimum. Music cues are fairly strong even though they come from only the center channel, and dialogue is always clear and distinct.
There are two optional English subtitle streams. Linda Hoaglund and Donald Richie have different approaches towards translating Japanese into English for film subtitles. Watching the film with either stream will give you the same substantive experience. However, the streams provide different artistic flavorings depending on the use of language, so you gain different cultural nuances after viewing the film with both subtitle streams.
Aside from the two English subtitle streams (which provide glimpses of different ways of reading a film), there aren't that many disc-based extras to accompany "Throne of Blood". Still, I'd rather get substantive fews rather than fluffy manys.
There's an excellent audio commentary by Japanese-film expert Michael Jeck. Mr. Jeck places the film in the context of Japanese cinema history as well as within Kurosawa's career. He also discusses how "Throne of Blood" is more than an adaptation of a Shakespearean text--that the movie is as much a Japanese period film (thus, a meditation on Japanese history by Kurosawa) as it is anything else.
You also get the film's original theatrical trailer as well as color bars for calibrating monitors to proper viewing levels.
A detailed booklet provides chapter listings, film credits, an informative essay written by Stephen Price (author of "The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa") about the Kurosawa's method of integrating Shakespeare into the Japanese tradition, essays by Linda Hoaglund and Donald Richie about their approaches to translating Japanese into English, and DVD production credits. Unlike the inserts or booklets from just about any other DVD-making company, Criterion's booklets usually influence how highly I rate a DVD's Extras score.
Ultimately, I find "Throne of Blood" to be strange and distancing enough to rate it a bit lower than Kurosawa's "Ran". Of course, I understand that it's appropriate that a movie filled with so many mystical elements should feel so weird. The film--filled with powerful visuals and moody atmospherics--is a great experience largely because Kurosawa manages to make very-Japanese elements accessible to an international audience. In a sense, the heavily-stylized filmmaking is what makes "Throne of Blood" so unique.