“Throne of Blood” may not be mentioned as often as some of Akira Kurosawa’s other classic samurai films, but it’s certainly worthy of the honor. Its heavy use of elements from traditional Noh theater – a sensible choice, since Kurosawa was loosely adapting a classic Western play, “Macbeth,” and giving it an Eastern sensibility – is probably a stumbling block for many viewers who just want to watch samurai fighting each other while Toshiro Mifune seethes. As a result, it’s not as accessible as movies like “Seven Samurai” and “Yojimbo,” but it’s a film that any Kurosawa fan should dig into at least once.
At the very least, watch it for Mifune’s stunning performance as Washizu, a samurai who at the beginning of the story is returning to Lord Tsuzuki’s castle with his companion Miki. Tsuzuki’s seven fortresses have been attacked, but word has reached him that Washizu engaged in a valiant defense of one of them, prompting him to summon the samurai before him.
On the way to the castle, known as Spider’s Web Castle, Washizu and Miki become lost in the murky Spider’s Web Forest. They stumble across a spirit, here replacing Shakespeare’s three witches, who foretells that Washizu will eventually supplant Tsuzuki as Lord while Miki will become commander of the First Fortress. The spirit also proclaims that Miki’s son will succeed Washizu as Lord of the castle.
When Washizu finds his way to the castle and tells his wife Asaji what he was told, she encourages him to kill Tsuzuki before the Lord learns what the spirit said and has Washizu killed out of fear that the prophecy will come true. Washizu at first resists and then relents. After he kills Tsuzuki, he plans to announce at a banquet that Miki’s son will be his heir, but before the event, Asaji tells him that she’s pregnant, setting in motion a sequence of events that can only end in tragedy. Come for the samurai, stay for a lesson about the hubris of men.
This release is a Blu-ray + DVD combo pack, which Criterion is starting to do more often now. It’s handy for those who haven’t upgraded to Blu-ray but plan to eventually, or who want a DVD hanging around for use in their laptop or other places.
If you have Criterion’s previous DVD release, you can safely get rid of it when you upgrade to this one, since all the bonus features were ported over, as was the booklet, which includes an essay by film historian Stephen Price and two short pieces about subtitling by Linda Hoaglund and Donald Richie.
In fact, there’s only one new bonus feature, “Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create,” a 23-minute piece extracted from a Toho Masterworks series about all of the director’s major films. It has plenty of archival interviews and offers some nice insight into the making of the film, but if it’s not that important to you, you may want to hold onto your old DVD and pass up this release, assuming the Blu-ray’s upgraded video and sound aren’t key selling points for you.
The other bonus features include the original Japanese trailer, a 2002 commentary track by Japanese film expert Michael Jeck, and two options for the subtitles, which were assembled by the aforementioned Hoaglund and Richie.