When we received RAN to review I felt that it was not necessary to offer an alternate take of Kurosawa’s masterpiece, primarily because those of you reading this and consider yourselves as fans are only going to be interested in how this compares to several other editions of the film that have cropped up over the years on DVD. Secondly Noel Megahey echoes my sentiments in his fine review, which can be found here. This review, then, is purely a technical one in which I’ll be comparing Optimum’s latest release with that of Criterion and Warner/Studio Canal.
Optimum has released RAN as a two disc special edition and quite frankly they've done a damn fine job.
The following screen shots are presented in order of Optimum, Warner/Studio Canal and finally Criterion:
I’ve checked the DVD Beaver comparison as it’s been hard to ignore with a film of such status, but I have to completely disagree with their assessment. The Criterion transfer certainly isn’t the most detailed; it’s no cleaner than both the Warner and Optimum efforts and if you look at the grabs provided then you may just be able to make that out. I must point out that all three transfers feature almost the same level of Edge Enhancement, which is clearly visible via my screen shots; Criterion’s appears a little less pronounced in certain scenes due to the colour boosting, which appears to soften the image and lessen shadow detail. This is still something of a tricky situation to fully guage, due to the redder transfer having reduced contrast slightly, therefore giving a perception of softness. As such Criterion has a generally warmer tint (see shot 4), in comparison to the colder climate featured in all other releases. While I won’t dispute what we’ve seemed to refer to as being “the sunset effect” - which happens to be quite effective later on in the film - I will say that the Criterion transfer often looks garish in terms of red and orange displays, which even fall victim to minor colour bleed - it’s most distracting during the samurai battles or quieter scenes involving samurai in orange armour or on particular kimono patterns. With that said there's no great difference between either version in terms of clarity and at the end of the day personal preference is in the eye of the beholder.
When we look at the Warner/Studio Canal and now current Optimum discs we find two transfers which are nigh on identical to one another. Optimum’s latest release is in fact sourced from the same print that Warner used, as it includes the original Canal logo, as does Criterion I might add. So if Criterion has also sourced their material from Studio Canal then why does their transfer look so much different? It’s indeed heavily manipulated I suspect; I wondered initially if it might have been intended by the director to look this way, because it’s such a large shift in comparison to all other releases and Criterion usually gets all fancy with their techno babble in regards to thier source material, but it’s quite the mystery indeed and only confirmation as to how the theatrical showings looked will see us get to the bottom of this. As Noel Megahey pointed out in his review (linked to above) the Criterion addition also features a spot of dot drawl and slight artefacts.
So in terms of personal taste I have to go with Optimum’s new release. While none of the RAN releases have been perfect I will go so far as to say that Optimum’s is the most definitive version to date. The saturated colours suit RAN far more effectively and it retains a solid amount of detail, certainly no less than the other notable releases. Moreover it gets the one up over the previous R2 disc by featuring optional English subtitles, as opposed to the burnt in ones that were on the former. Finally it’s a perfect PAL transfer; none of that NTSC-PAL nonsense for which Optimum has fallen foul to in the past.
The images below can be viewed in their largest format by clicking on them. You'll notice that edge enhancement on the Criterion edition is more pronounced here (see the pole in the water).
Optimum provides a new 5.1 Dolby Digital mix as well as original 2.0 Stereo. The most noticeable difference here is that Optimum eliminates the inherent hissing which is present on the 2.0 track by simply making the music and ambience more aggressive, i.e. much louder. There’s no great amount of separation and fancy tinkering, just a rather typical attempt to try and make it sound better, when really it offers nothing of real value. Sticking with the original 2.0 track you’ll still find a fairly clean sounding film, with plenty of clarity during heavy scenes of dialogue and the action sequences are tight, with the score and various additional effects offering a nice amount of oomph. It appears to mirror the previous R2 release and the more recent Criterion effort.
The bonus features are where Optimum loses out in comparison to Criterion’s meaty release. Though to be perfectly honest they’ve included one of the most essential documentaries ever created, in the form of Chris Marker’s fabulous A.K. The Making of RAN. This remarkable piece, running for 71 minutes, follows Kurosawa during the production of his masterpiece. It’s not a typical documentary in that doesn’t feature the usual cast interviews and extensive film processes, but rather more it shows the non-glamorous side of film making, with the director in an environment that proved to be almost impossible to work in. It gives us an insight into how an entire crew can pull together and overcome obstacles and it shows Kurosawa as a fine voice of authority who truly got great performances out of his cast. This feature also includes optional English subtitles.
Also included is the 2 minute theatrical trailer.
Personally speaking RAN sits right next to Seven Samurai at the top of my favourite Kurosawa film list. It was the first film of his that I saw many years ago and it was certainly the last greatest film that he ever made. It’s a simply beautiful piece of work, crafted to perfection and one that explodes with a hauntingly real atmosphere, brought magnificently to life via a stark palette, wonderful performances and some amazing set pieces.
While I don’t expect everyone to agree, and that there is bound to be continuing arguments, I find that Optimum has presented the film in the best possible way. So if you’ve still been mulling over which version to pick up, well you can seriously consider this one.