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DVD Review: Throne of Blood/Ran

By Glenn Abel

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photo Hearts of darkness provide the lifeblood of two of Akira Kurosawa's greatest films, "Throne of Blood" and "Ran," both returning in worthy DVD editions.

The films, separated by three decades, share a royal lineage: They're blood--soaked tragedies adapted from Shakespeare and set in feudal Japan of the 16th century. The many Kurosawa fans who love these works will be well served by the new DVDs, both bearing incisive commentaries. Those who know Kurosawa's work only from his heroic samurai adventures will find the films a revelation.

"Throne of Blood" (1957), loosely based on "Macbeth," is widely regarded as one of the most successful film adaptations of a Bard play. "Ran" (1985) continues many of the same nihilistic themes, this time following the "King Lear" plot. Kurosawa dares to edit Shakespeare's story lines, adding back stories and deleting major characters, but the motivations and emotions remain true.

The works contain a half--dozen of Kurosawa's strongest scenes, shot and acted with a force that continues to astound and influence contemporary filmmakers. The impact is magnified in both films by significant audio and video restorations and high--definition transfers.

The black--and--white "Throne of Blood" (Criterion Collection, retail $39.95) retains some speckling and a few jumpy transitions but looks considerably better than in previous videos. The film comes in its original widescreen (1.33:1) aspect ratio. Considerable work was done on the (mono) audio as well, benefiting the movie's haunting score.

"Ran" (Wellspring, $34.98.)in the 1.85:1 ratio that Kurosawa adopted in his later years, also posts improvements in image quality, as demonstrated on a restoration--comparison feature. Still, the film quality has suffered during the past 18 years, with a fair amount of speckling and instability evident. Even stationary objects seem to quiver at times. The 5.1 surround mix sounds terrific, elevating the experience without calling attention to itself. The music of Tori Takemitsu is in full force during the famous battle scenes.

In a wildly unorthodox piece of packaging, the "Throne of Blood" DVD offers two separate sets of subtitles, dramatically different in tone and text. The authors explain their philosophies in the DVD's handsome booklet.

The first (default) subtitles come from Linda Hoaglund, who admits that she "brazenly strays from literal translations" in an effort to spare Western audiences exposure to confusing and outdated traditions. The second subtitler, Donald Richie, says he aspires to create transparent translations, with a "scrupulously anonymous kind of English." (His subtitles were rejected by the Japanese producers when the film was released.)

"In this degenerate age, one must kill so as not to be killed," Kurosawa's Lady Macbeth counsels her husband in Hoaglund's translation.

Richie hears it as: "This is a wretched world. To save yourself, you often first must kill."

The startling differences continue throughout the film, offering a rare perspective into a craft that would seem to be literal and straightforward.

The academic approach continues in the commentary by Japanese film expert Michael Jeck, recorded in the fall. Jeck's voice sounds like a cross between Casey Kasem's and Mister Rogers', taking quite a while to get used to but well worth the effort.

In "Throne of Blood," "Kurosawa even makes the elements act," Jeck observes. The black--and--white film is full of fog, wind, rain and lightning -- sound and fury, indeed -- reflecting the descent into madness of the film's Macbeth, Lord Washizu (Toshiro Mifune). It was the closest Kurosawa came to a horror film, Jeck says.

Of Kurosawa and his longtime star Mifune, Jeck notes, "Both were great, but together they were even greater." A match for Mifune is the veteran actress Isuzu Yamada, arguably the most chilling Lady Macbeth of them all.

Jeck explores the film's unusual circular, time--based structure, noting that it was an experiment that deviated widely from Kurosawa's other work of the time. Kurosawa presented parts of his murderous tale as Noh theater, with Mifune and Yamada often made up in imitation of traditional masks.

"Throne of Blood" never lacks for action, however, as its warlords play out their unhappy fates. In the film's famous final scene, in which Mifune's evildoing ends in a hail of arrows, the actor insisted on real arrows and real archers. When complimented on his acting, Mifune responded that he was, in fact, terrified by the barrage of wood and steel. (Mifune was protected only by wood concealed under his armor.)

Of course, "Nobody does action like Kurosawa," says Stephen Prince, one of two commentators on "Ran."

The film shows that the master had lost none of his appetite for destruction as he aged into his mid--70s. "Ran's" battle sequences were so convincing that Japanese press reports claimed he used as many as 120,000 extras as soldiers (really about 1,400).

Prince, author of the Kurosawa book "The Warrior's Camera," devotes much of his talk to the director's signature techniques, like shooting scenes from afar with multiple cameras fitted with telephoto lenses.

"His long lenses transform space, completely changing realities as they existed in front of the camera," Prince notes.

"Ran," perhaps even more than "Throne of Blood," is filled with amazing performances. Tatsuya Nakadai plays the pathetic Lord Hidetora (King Lear), whose three sons turn into blood rivals as they battle for his kingdom. Mieko Harada plays his vengeful daughter--in--law Kaede, one of Kurosawa's most powerful characters, male or female.

A second commentary, by Japanese culture expert Peter Grilli, is largely anecdotal, telling of the difficulty Kurosawa had in raising funds for the film. Grilli's talk is interesting but offputting when he settles for extended silences.

Grilli, who knew Kurosawa fairly well, points out that the master "didn't suffer fools gladly. Fools were in the way" of his moviemaking -- all that mattered to the master.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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