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Full Review
Akira meets Bill: Throne of Blood
by Jürgen Fauth

Guide Rating -  

You come to a film like "Throne of Blood" slightly cowed. The names Akira Kurosawa and William Shakespeare are enough to make the most pompous film buff swoon. After all, how could you not acknowledge this duo's supreme reign over the worlds of foreign film and drama? It simply has to be stunning, right?

And, in fact, it is. Even when you strip away everything you know about the director of "The Seven Samurai" and the author of "Macbeth," you're still left with a thrilling epic about ambition and murder, shot in crisp, memorable images with intense actors (one of which, of course, is famous enough in his own right to have an obscure Swedish comedy named for him: the incomparable Toshirô Mifune).

Kurosawa's take on the timeless Shakespeare drama, easily transplanted into feudal Japan, is supremely stylized. Wildly exaggerated faces and gestures in the tradition of Japanese Noh theater create a purified reality, as if the film was looking for the distilled essence of the drama.

Shot in 1957, the film alters moody castles, stark interiors, and the forest where the spirits stir Lord Washizu's desires. In one famous sequence, the samurai ride in and out of a never-lifting fog again and again. Lady Macbeth, here known as Lady Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), is wicked cold and manipulative. Her alien makeup only increases the uncanny sense that her desires are all too familiar.

With one or two brief exceptions, "Throne of Blood" doesn't offer the extended battle scenes fans of Kurosawa's 1988 "Ran" might expect. That movie, an adaptation of "King Lear," remains the benchmark for bloody Shakespearean samurai slaughter. Here, the director's attention is focused closer on the characters, and the film's rhythm alternates dreamy long takes with furious fast-cutting action.

"Throne of Blood" also features the most evocative approach of Great Birnam wood on Dunsinane -- here Mount Fuji -- that I have seen in any adaptation of "Macbeth." As Michael Jeck points out on the fine commentary track, Kurosawa even one-ups Shakespeare as a writer when he provides motivation and ties the noose of ill fate ever tighter around Macbeth/Washizu's neck.

The restored Criterion release of "Throne of Blood" comes with two different subtitle translations, commentary by film scholar Michael Jeck, and a booklet with an essay by Stephen Price.

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• Before You Buy
• Akira Kurosawa
• The Films of Akira Kurosawa
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• Japanese Film

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