The FilmAfter a dry-run with Kagemusha, Akira Kurosawa made the best epic film of his later career with a free adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear. Ran proved a number of critics wrong after they had predicted that the change to filming in colour had destroyed the director's talent, as it is a painterly masterpiece of modern epic cinema. If the original reception of the film was none too positive then over time Ran has silenced the critical voices that nearly drove one of the medium's greatest masters to early retirement, and the international support of Kurosawa was paid off handsomely by the director's best work since the 1960's.
When out of favour and drifting away from Japan, Kurosawa had taken on the complete social disaster of Dodes Kaden, and the tale of a man who no longer belongs in Dersu Uzala. He had tried to modernise to belong in Japan, and then he had gone abroad to find backing so that he could keep making movies. His return to the samurai film-making that made his name was courtesy of international money and the support of young artists like Scorcese, Coppola and Spielberg. With proper funding to match the grand scale of the project, Ran reminded the whole world of the craft and artistry that Japanese producers had failed to support in the intervening years.
The story places the great Tatsuya Nakadai as a once all conquering warrior who abdicates in favour of his sons. Taro, the eldest, succeeds, but he is egged on by his wife, Lady Kaede, to further humble his father, and soon the father is moving himself to find refuge with his second son, Jiro. Jiro also plots and he unites with Taro to shun their father and create an excuse for patricide. War follows the once powerful father and he is driven from his wits by the treachery around him and the knowledge of the sins of his past.
The humanism of Kurosawa's films is at its most tested here with the great tragedy of Hideotora who realises that the power he created is quickly destroyed by the ambition of his own kin. Hideotora sees those who have suffered in his victories and feels their pain, and the prime driver of his downfall is the vengeful Kaeda who sets son against son in order to avenge her defeated family. The world that Hideotora has created eats him alive when he succumbs to vulnerability, and it is hard to not see real world parallels to the harsh world faced by an older Kurosawa.
Ran debates whether this tragedy has been created by the gods or by men. As the jester says at one point, "Man is born crying. When he cries enough, he dies", and at another climactic moment he is corrected by being told that the battles amongst fathers and sons are part of the ongoing conflicts of an ignorant and unrelenting mankind. In the film's final scene, there is a huge symbolic suggestion of mankind's fate as being like the blind above a precipice unable to hold on to its faith and heading to its doom.
Technical SpecsI believe there exists a French blu-ray of this film of dubious quality, and not so long ago a very good standard definition edition was released by Optimum on these isles. Comparing this release to the standard definition release, I believe there is evidence of sharpening, greater edge enhancement, and a generally darker appearance overall. Looking at both together, I have to say that the more film-like of the two is definitely the technologically inferior one. This presentation does yield more detail, but in brighter sequences colours look excessive and in darker ones the image is very dark indeed. But again, it's important to judge for yourself so there are screenshots below for you to note the higher grain levels on the blu-ray and to judge what extra detail there is:
Optimum DVD release
And to illustrate the point with a brighter comparison:
The Optimum blu-ray
Optimum DVD release
If a film was made for lossless audio, then this is the one. On this count, Studio Canal/Optimum deliver with numerous Master Audio options offered in numerous languages. In my world, an English dub of a Kurosawa film is blasphemy and I did not appreciate the track here for its inappropriate acting, accents and general awfulness, the Japanese tracks are though superb. Offered in 5.1 and what I believe is 2.0 mono, both are excellent with my preference given to the sense of dimension and action created by the surround mix. Never has Toru Takemitsu's work on this film sounded so great and despite my qualms about the transfer, the audio is first rate.
Special FeaturesApart from presenting the extras in 480i, this is a wonderful selection. Two general pieces on the history and approach of the Samurai will prove interesting to those new to the rituals and philosophy of Bushido, and the inclusion of new features from Kurosawa's translator Catherine Cadou and a documentary on the films making bringing together interviews from the crew make this package one that will encourage double-dipping.
The new documentary, The Epic and the Intimate, deals with how the film came about and talks with Kurosawa's Italian AD and his daughter Kazuko about their experience working with the man. Attention to detail, a furious temper and a collective commitment to the project come out of people's memories, along with interesting tales of how the director motivated actors(getting Mieko Harada to crush a butterfly to understand her role, for instance).
There is a trailer and the interview with Cadou, along with BD-Live features which take you to the HDtune network where you can sign up for discussion boards, to use basic A/V adjustment tools and access materials publicising the Studio-Canal collection.
The best extra though is Chris Marker's AK. A documentary, narrated by Marker himself that discovers Kurosawa's method as he films Ran. Like all of Marker's works, it has a poetic style but gets to the heart of its subject offering examples of the man's passion and his particularness. Kurosawa is literally seen waiting for the weather as they plan shooting, and the extreme preparation and craft present here are celebrated. AK is sadly not offered in HD but it remains possibly my favourite documentary about a film-maker.
Also included with the release is a booklet including David Jenkin's essay on the film which sits it within the director's canon alongside Ikiru and I Live in Fear, dealing with the legacy of a patriarch like both of those films. Jenkin's reading of the film and his comment that perhaps "the central character in Ran is God" are opinions that I think over-reach themselves and ignore the emphasis placed in the dialogue on man's own folly. The booklet though will prove very useful to those not so familiar with the director's long career and is a good inclusion.
SummaryRan is a masterpiece. The transfer here seems too dark to my eye and I hope a better more film-like treatment will arrive soon, but this package with its superb sound options and fine extras may help you to overlook that.
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9 out of 10