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January 26, 2005

Review: Throne of Blood

Over the past few years, the Criterion Collection has been quietly reissuing restored DVDs of (mostly foreign) classics; I had the pleasure of taking in their Rashomon and Ran last year, and I intend to watch Ikiru and Les Enfants du Paradis as well some time this year. The remastering in this case is pretty good -- I imagine it's difficult to find really clean copies of forty-some-odd-year-old movies, so I forgive them the rare stutter or bit of dirt. Overall, it's very clear, and the subtitling is solid.

Now, to the film itself. This is Akira Kurosawa's Macbeth, just as Ran is his King Lear. The staging, cinematography, and overall direction of this black-and-white samurai adaptation is wonderful. Consider in particular the slightly off-kilter filming of a mad Toshiro Mifune when he encounters a ghost. Kurosawa was a master.

All of the elements of Shakespeare's original play are here, though made appropriate to the time and place (and dropping the iambic pentameter, of course¹). I was particularly surprised to see the "moving forest" towards the end of the movie -- the filming here was particularly interesting, allowing us to see through Mifune's restricted viewpoint, before later revealing what's really going on. Terrific stuff.

Mifune's performance is extraordinarily expressive -- he carries himself as we imagine a samurai might, and his face is drawn out in amazing grimaces that make us think of some sort of primitive masks, fierce revelations of his bottom teeth, or long, drawn out snarls. A lot of the filming of his character is at mid- or far- distance, typically taking in more than half of his body, and the way he clearly conveys his emotions in that framing is truly remarkable, and not something you see much in modern Hollywood cinema, with its constant close-ups. You feel his shock when his friend's head is brought to him -- and yet, you still feel the ambiguity that perhaps he knew it was coming. A great, great performance.

Also of special note, though she has relatively few lines, is the portrayal of the Lady Macbeth character by Isuzu Yamada. It's been a long time since I've seen Yojimbo, the only other movie I've seen in which she appears. Here she plays the role very subtly, and yet she really puts across the scheming nature of the character. Even not understanding Japanese, the intonation in her words comes across well, and you feel that she is filled with greed and ambition, but doesn't want to display those emotions to baldly in front of her husband.

All in all, a superb film from a superb director and cast.

**** (out of four)

¹Although, I confess it might be interesting to subtitle it using the lines from the play. Some would necessarily be left out, and the names are changed, but it might be an interesting experiment. It hews closely to the original.

Posted by Brett Douville at January 26, 2005 09:57 PM