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page added: 2/8/10
updated: 3/19/10




The Films of Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa - Review Index

Akira Kurosawa - Page Eight

Ran (Criterion)

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Ran (Criterion)
1985 (2005) - Toho/Nippon Herald (Criterion)
Released on DVD on November 22nd, 2005 (Spine #316).

Film Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/A


I would recommend that one not choose Ran to be one's first Kurosawa experience for it would be easy to be put off by the stylized and at times static approach to the material. Ran is a film that can only be truly appreciated after one has first seen a number of Kurosawa's earlier films. Films such as The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Kagemusha provide film-making context that allows one to understand the acting styles and tradition of Japanese theatre that inform much of Kurosawa's work.

That said, Ran is one of Kurosawa's epic masterpieces, released some 13 years before his death. He made a few other films during those last years, but none captured the imagination or spectacle of Ran's King Lear-like tale of power, greed, and revenge set in feudal Japan.

It begins with aging ruler Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) turning over his kingdom's leadership to his three sons, hoping to live out his remaining years in comfort and dignity while still maintaining a level of control himself. Predictably, his plan runs awry as his youngest son Saburo (Daisuke Ryu) rebels against the arrangement. Saburo is banished from the clan and ends up with a rival kingdom as the other two sons Taro (Akira Terao) and Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) vie with their father to assume total control.

The complex plot has many elements that beg attention, as anyone familiar with King Lear might expect and the convoluted twists are as interesting for the observation of their planning as their actual execution. There is, however, so much going on in Ran that it's impossible to do justice to everything in a single viewing. Following the machinations of eldest son Taro's wife is a particularly fruitful exercise, and requires close attention to see the whole pattern of her actions. But it is a focus on Hidetora himself, a man who seemingly expects that no bill for his past sins will ever be submitted, that intrigues the most. The bill comes in the form of the actions of his sons who are essentially chips off the old block. The result is an effective exile from his kingdom for Hidetora rather than the comfortable retirement he had anticipated and the unexpectedness of it all slowly drives Hidetora mad.

As was common with Kurosawa's final films, he had difficulties with financing and in Ran's case, the solution was a jointly financed French/Japanese production with some $12 million to work with. Kurosawa's typically thorough preparation allowed him to eke out every cent and the results are very evident on the screen. Costuming is lavishly detailed and colourful, and the action sequences are nicely choreographed and delivered on an epic scale. The characters are well-fleshed out for the most part with the best portrayals coming from Nezu as second son Jiro and Mieko Harada as first son Taro's scheming wife. Nakadai's handling of the Hidetora character is effective, although it flirts with excess as the character's madness accelerates.

The film won numerous awards around the world including an Oscar for Best Costume Design and Oscar nominations for director, cinematography, and art direction-set decoration.

Criterion's newer anamorphic widescreen transfer (presented in the film's proper 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio) is far superior to the Wellspring offering in every way. Colour timing has been improved and is now accurate to Kurosawa's original intent, with vibrant hues apparent in banners and costumes, and moody atmospheric tones in clouds and landscapes. Contrast is deep, yet shadows exhibit abundant detail. Overall image detail is now much more refined and film-like, with light grain apparent and subtle textures of fabric and wood visible. The original Japanese audio is offered in a very good Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix, that offers significantly improved clarity and fidelity over the Wellspring disc. Technically, this is a fine DVD presentation.

This 2-disc set also offers an excellent assortment of supplements on the film, beginning with another enlightening audio commentary by Kurosawa expert Stephen Prince. This track combines some of the comments originally recorded for the Wellspring DVD, along with newly-recorded material as well. Also included on Disc One is a short video appreciation of the film by director Sidney Lumet, along with a set of 4 trailers for the film. Disc Two adds A.K. - filmmaker Chris Marker's feature-length documentary on Kurosawa, his work and his methods. It's sometimes methodical in its approach, but the content is always interesting and informative. A second documentary is included as well, from Toho's Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create series. More interesting is a third piece, created as part of the Image: Kurosawa's Continuity series, that reconstructs Ran through the use of film audio and Kurosawa own paintings and sketches. Also included is a video interview with Tatsuya Nakadai and a 28-page booklet with liner notes by film critic Michael Wilmington and interviews with Kurosawa and composer Toru Takemitsu.

This Criterion DVD is arguably the best overall release of the film available on disc. Certainly, it offers the best special edition treatment of Ran in the available versions. While the new Lionsgate/StudioCanal Blu-ray does offer improved high-definition video and lossless audio quality, it's best considered as a companion disc to this Criterion DVD and not a true replacement. Unfortunately, Criterion recently lost the distribution rights to Ran (to Lionsgate in the U.S.), so this 2-disc set is now out of print and highly coveted by Kurosawa fans. (It's still available both new and used on Amazon, but it's not cheap.) Ran isn't included in Criterion's AK100 box set for this reason.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com



Ran: Masterworks Edition (Wellspring)

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Ran: Masterworks Edition (Wellspring)
1985 (2003) - Toho/Nippon Herald (Wellspring)
Released on DVD on April 15th, 2003.

Film Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C-/C/C+


In 2002, the U.S. video release rights for Ran were owned by Wellspring, formerly known as Fox Lorber. Fox Lorber had released a previous DVD version of the film in the States (in 1998), but the video quality was absolutely abysmal. The image was muddy-looking and non-anamorphic - so bad in fact that it's not even worth reviewing here (though the cover can still be seen on Amazon). Aware of the disc's deficiencies, Wellspring undertook an effort to create a new Masterworks Edition DVD, featuring a then-new anamorphic widescreen transfer of the film and all-new special features. This was made available on DVD (in September 2002) in the Amazon-exclusive Kurosawa DVD Collection, and was finally released in a standalone version in April of the following year.

The video and audio quality was quite good at the time (and vastly improved over the previous Fox Lorber DVD), though much less so by today's standards. While the video was anamorphic widescreen, the color-timing was overly warm and inaccurate. Blacks were also crushed, with very little detail visible in the shadows, and there was much compression artifacting. The audio was presented in the original Japanese 2.0 stereo and also a new 5.1 remix, though neither was particularly noteworthy.

The extras were actually fairly decent for the time, including a then-newly recorded audio commentary with Kurosawa historian Stephen Prince, and a second commentary by Peter Grilli, an expert on Japanese culture. This was rounded out by the film's European theatrical trailer (16x9) and U.S. video release trailer (4x3), text production notes and a 4-minute video comparison of the Masterworks transfer to the previous Fox Lorber disc. (Rest assured, a quick viewing of this is more enough to remind you of just how awful that first disc looked. It may as well have been VHS.) It's worth noting that the only feature of value available exclusively on this DVD is the Grilli commentary, so unless you really want that for completeness sake, we recommend you skip this disc and find a copy of the far superior Criterion release instead.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com



Ran (Lionsgate Blu-ray Disc)

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Ran (Lionsgate - Blu-ray Disc)
1985 (2010) - Toho/Nippon Herald (StudioCanal/Lionsgate)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on February 16th, 2010.

Film Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): 13/15/B-


For a short time, Criterion planned (and briefly announced) their own Blu-ray edition of Ran - one that would presumably have been an upgrade of their previous DVD special edition. Unfortunately, Criterion's distribution rights expired before it could be released.

Subsequently, Ran is now available on Blu-ray from Lionsgate, as part of its StudioCanal Collection. For a Blu-ray, the 1.85:1 image is a little underwhelming. The chief issue is the clarity. At times, the image looks nicely detailed but there is little consistency to it. It can vary between and within sequences, and that is characteristic of the entire length of the film. Film grain is fairly evident throughout.

There is also some quite obvious edge sharpening that jumps out at one in various scenes throughout the film, sometimes jarringly so. Colour brightness and fidelity seem on the other hand quite impressive with some costume details looking quite striking at times. Overall, the impression is more of a strong DVD than the enhanced presence of a good Blu-ray presentation.

The 5.1 Japanese DTS-HD Master audio offers a good surround experience with clear dialogue and some modest LFE. The battle scenes provide some impressive moments, but it is the quieter sequences with ambient effects that register most strongly (although it must be admitted that a couple of them seem overdone somewhat).

The release contains no audio commentary, but like the Criterion DVD it does sport A.K. - filmmaker Chris Marker's 74-minute documentary on Kurosawa, his work and his methods. Again, it's sometimes methodical in its approach, but the content is always interesting and informative. Akira Kurosawa: The Epic and the Intimate is a 41-minute French documentary mainly focused on the production of Ran from the viewpoint of some of the film's crew. In French with English subtitles, it is somewhat static, but it does provide a basic overview. Also included are a lengthy piece on Samurai culture that's worth viewing, a rather dry featurette on the art of the Samurai, the film's theatrical trailer, and a 20-page booklet that features an article on Ran by Time Out London writer David Jenkins.

Ran is a title that any serious film enthusiast should have on their shelf, and this Blu-ray version of it is probably the best-looking and sounding one available despite its shortcomings. In that respect, it is recommended. But the disc's supplements are serviceable at best and certainly won't make you want to ditch your Criterion standard DVD version in that regard.

[Editor's Note: The StudioCanal U.K. import version of this Blu-ray - which also works in Region A - includes an additional featurette called Portrait of Akira Kurosawa. It's a 14-minute clip of a French expert on Japanese cinema, Catherine Cadou, talking about her experiences working as an interpreter for Kurosawa on his visits to France. Why Lionsgate chose to omit it from their U.S. version is unknown. The U.K. version also comes in book-like packaging, while the U.S. comes in a standard plastic BD case. Both include nearly identical insert booklets.]

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com



Dreams

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Dreams
1990 (2003) - Kurosawa U.S.A./Warner Bros. (Warner)
Released on DVD on March 18th, 2003.

Film Rating: B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/None Available


Almost any way you approach it, Dreams is a singularly unusual film in Kurosawa's overall body of work. Composed of a series of ten visually and thematically lyrical vignettes, it lacks a narrative in the traditional sense. Instead, each vignette is presented as an individual "dream" and all are, in fact, based upon Kurosawa's own dreams. As such, the film is arguably his most personal work, serving as his own unique examination of specific human issues of concern to the filmmaker, including the purpose of the individual, the nature of life and death, our relationship with the natural world, the roots and unthinkable costs of warfare, and the dangers of out-of-control technology (specifically, nuclear power).

The film could easily seem self-indulgent, but its power arises from both its poetic presentation and stunning artistry. Simply put, Dreams is a pure visual marvel from start to finish. Whereas many of his earlier films were shot in the wider scope (2.35:1) ratio, Kurosawa chose to use the more intimate 1.85:1 format for this film. Yet every inch of the widescreen frame is used to full advantage. The film's stunning landscape photography combine with special effects by George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic to produce a visual symphony of light, color and movement. Case in point: At one point, a young Japanese artist (who is clearly a surrogate for Kurosawa himself) stares in awe at a series of Picasso paintings in a museum gallery... and walks straight into them! Wandering through these vibrantly-rendered landscapes, he eventually encounters the master himself, curiously played by no less than director Martin Scorsese, who was a friend of personal admirer of Kurosawa.

The only available U.S. DVD release of the film came to us in 2003 from Warner Home Video, as it was Warner that provided the film's original financing. Strangely, the packaging is the old-style DVD Snapper case. (We checked with the studio and confirmed that the film hasn't yet been re-issued in a more traditional keep case.) The anamorphic widescreen video quality is still quite nice, with excellent contrast, good detail and vibrant color. The mastering quality isn't quite up to the level of more recent DVD releases, but there's little to complain about. We do, however, wish Warner would consider releasing Dreams on Blu-ray Disc, as it's hard to image a title in their catalog that's more perfectly-suited for the high-definition format. Audio is presented in the original Japanese, in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, with optional English subtitles. There are no extras.

Drawing upon aspects from theatre, art, literature, classical music and more, Akira Kurosawa's Dreams is an uneven - but utterly fascinating - film. Its vignettes range in tone from the curious and introspective, into sheer wonder, anguish, outrage and horror, and finally to peaceful and wise, taking the audience on a complete intellectual and emotional journey. While it's certainly not a film to be watched casually, Dreams is a dazzling experience and remains the single most personally-revealing work of Kurosawa's career.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com



Rhapsody in August (MGM)

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Rhapsody in August (MGM)
1991 (2003) - Shôchiku Eiga (MGM)
Released on DVD on July 1st, 2003.

Film Rating: B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B-/D


If Dreams can be called the most personally-revealing film of Kurosawa's career, Rhapsody in August is arguably his most intimate. The film follows three generations in the family of Kane (played by actress Sachiko Murase), an elderly woman who survived the atomic bombing of nearby Nagasaki many decades earlier. The tale of how Kane survived, but lost her husband in the terrible event, is gradually revealed (for the first time) to her young grandchildren, who have come to stay with her for the summer. Their parents, Kane's own children, have traveled to Hawaii to visit Kane's ailing brother Suzujiro, whom she doesn't remember. Prior to the war, Suzujiro left Japan to live in Hawaii, married an American woman and had a son named Clark. Now he's on his death bed, and wants to see his sister one last time, so he writes to her begging her to come.

Kane doesn't seem excited at the prospect, however, and her grandchildren think it's because she doesn't like Americans, still blaming them for her loss. But the truth, as always, is much more complicated. When Suzujiro learns, in a written reply from her grandson, that Kane's husband was killed in the bombing, he sends Clark (Richard Gere, in a small role) to Japan to meet with Kane and pay their respects. What follows is a charming and deeply-affecting story of a family rediscovering itself and its matriarch, of the power of love, memory and personal forgiveness... and of Kane's quiet strength.

Kurosawa's direction here is by turns moving and playful. This is no action film, taking place mostly in and around Kane's country home, with a few scenes set amid the memorials in the heart of Nagasaki. But it's a highly engrossing story, with gorgeous cinematography and Kurosawa's trademark use of music to counterpoint his visuals. What really makes this film work, however, is Murase's stunning performance, as well as those of the young actors playing her grandchildren. They're completely charming, and their interplay with Kane and each other is a delight to watch. Rhapsody in August does not wallow in the tragedy of the A-bomb, nor is it an indictment of Japanese or American actions in the war. There are no pointed fingers. Rather, it's simply the story of how one family survived a tragedy and healed. The message is bittersweet but quite hopeful: War is terrible, but life goes on.

In terms of video and audio quality, MGM's DVD is good, but not outstanding. Contrast is quite nice actually, but colors are a little muted, and the entire image is a bit softer looking than you'd prefer. The 1.85:1 aspect ratio image is at least presented in full anamorphic widescreen, which is appreciated. Audio is available in the original Japanese in Dolby Digital stereo surround, and there are optional English subtitles (along with subs in French and Spanish). The only extra on the disc is the film's original Japanese trailer, also presented anamorphic, but it's in Japanese with no subs.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com


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