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Wellspring presents
Ran (1985)

"In a mad world, only the mad are sane."
- Kyoami (Peter)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: May 11, 2003

Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, Daisuke Ryu, Mieko Harada, Yoshiko Miyazaki, Peter
Director: Akira Kurosawa

MPAA Rating: R for (battle violence)
Run Time: 02h:40m:09s
Release Date: April 15, 2003
UPC: 720917536729
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

It's so easy to get caught up in the astonishing technology of today's filmmaking, galloping ahead at a breakneck pace, and to forget about the mythic, dream-like aspects of storytelling that can so transport us. Ran is many things: one of the last triumphs of one of the greatest of all film directors; a successful fusion of the storytelling traditions of the East and the West; a great big epic of a war movie and an action picture. But much of its power, I think, derives from the fact that at its core, it's got the feel of a myth or a fairy tale—it's a story that begins, essentially: Once upon a time, there was a great king, who had three sons. (Another of the all-time great films could be distilled to this same essence: The Godfather.)

Ran is Akira Kurosawa's epic retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear, in which an aging king decides to divide up his empire among his three children. In Lear, the king has daughters; here, sixteenth-century samurai Hidetora has sons. Intimations of mortality lead Hidetora to his scheme; but soon he and his entire empire learn just how sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child.

Kurosawa-san has refigured Shakespeare before—his Throne of Blood is a fairly straightforward retelling of Macbeth, but in his advancing years, he allowed himself more liberty with his chosen source material. The world of Ran is very much a warrior culture, and hence Hidetora ceding his power is the unintentional but ultimate expression of his weakness—no good deed goes unpunished in this world, as the king learns the hard way.

Warring factions are soon feuding for the reins of Hidetora's empire, and the old man is driven mad. About halfway through the film, in fact, the deposed king is so fully in the throes of his madness that he more or less drops out of the story altogether—we see him and his fool, wandering the hillside, trying to hold on to the last shards of their lives. The action is back in the palace, where neighboring samurai, longtime rivals of Hidetora, sense their opportunity, and where the evil Lady Kaede sets her demonic plan into action. She is Hidetora's daughter-in-law, married to his eldest son, Taro; when Taro demonstrates an insufficient instinct for the jugular, she puts her designs on Jiro, Hidetora's middle son, her brother-in-law. (We learn that Kaede's family was demolished by Hidetora years ago, and ever since she has been plotting her revenge against the house of Ichimonji.) She is one of the most fully realized female characters in all of Kurosawa—she's ambitious and sexual, eager to prey upon the weakness of the men that surround her. As played by Mieko Harada, she is a screen villain of monstrous proportions.

The technical aspects of the filmmaking are absolutely stunning—Kurosawa started shooting in color very late (in 1970), but he proves himself to be an absolute master. No one stages action sequences quite like he does, and the battles here are bloody, vicious and specific—a couple of shots are stolen almost in their entirety by Steven Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan, for instance. But this isn't just a war movie, and it's Kurosawa's control over tone and technique that make the film succeed both as a battlefield piece and as a searing family drama. It's hard to think of another film that compares favorably with such diverse pictures as Paths of Glory and Long Day's Journey Into Night; but then, that's the watermark of Kurosawa's genius.

Tatsuya Nakadai is a memorable Hidetora, convincing as both the iron-fisted ruler and the old man facing mortality and senility—as with so many Kurosawa films, the presentational style of acting may at first seem a little off-putting to American audiences steeped in Actors Studio realism, but there's something tremendously powerful here nonetheless. (One can't help but feel a sense of loss, though, at the rift that led to the end of the creative collaboration of Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, and one can't help but wonder at the heartbreak and the falling from the highest place that the audience might feel for a Mifune Lear.)

Funnily enough, the film is at its least successful when it's following Shakespeare most closely. At one point, Kyoami, Hidetora's fool, rages to the gods in the heavens: "Are you so bored up there that you must crush us like ants?" It's a pretty obvious paraphrase of Gloucester in Shakespeare: "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport." Perhaps it's the English-to-Japanese-to-English translation problem, but so much of the film is actively showing us the darkness at the core of human nature; telling us only sort of spoils it.

But so much of Ran is so extraordinary that it's hardly worth poking around for small things to criticize. Kurosawa would make three more films before his death, but none on the scale and scope of Ran, which, full of pity and terror, is an apt and beautiful capstone to the career of perhaps the greatest film director of the twentieth century.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: An earlier DVD incarnation from Fox Lorber (now absorbed by Wellspring) is notorious as one of the shoddier discs ever released, and a restoration demonstration on this DVD shows that the picture quality has been much improved. Still, I'm sorry to have to report, it doesn't look very good. The transfer is overly contrasty and lacking in resolution; the yellows and reds look especially bad, which is a particular disappointment, given the careful color scheme in the film's production design. Reel change indicators are all too evident, and other scratches and bits of interference mar the transfer still further. This is an improvement over what we've seen before, but Ran is still a far way from looking as good as it might, or should.

Image Transfer Grade: C


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The technological shortcomings of the video transfer unfortunately carry over to the audio as well. A good amount of pop is evident on the 5.1 track, which has some horrid reverb problems and limited range—anything above a certain volume seems to have blown out the equipment, so things like the galloping of horses or the swoosh of elegant silk gowns against wood flooring sound entirely wrong and way too loud. The mono track, despite its limits, is far preferable and much more pleasing.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 40 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
2 Original Trailer(s)
Production Notes
1 Featurette(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by Stephen Prince (track 1); Peter Grilli (track 2)
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. DVD production credits
Extras Review: As he did for Criterion's release of Red Beard, Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince offers a thorough and informative commentary track, which pays particular attention to the director's unusual method of shooting—he uses huge telephoto lenses almost exclusively, and uses four or five cameras simultaneously. Prince is also especially good discussing how Ran reworks the aesthetic scheme of Throne of Blood, and on how the director's take on heroism changes with the decades; he also aptly points out that in many respects this film is the last of its kind, a true epic from the pre-CGI days. (If any dOc readers are students at Virginia Tech, where Prince teaches, his courses would have to be highly recommended. Go Hokies.) Only one note to Prince: the name of Gloucester, the character in King Lear, is pronounced "Glohster," not "Glow-ses-ter." Peter Grilli doesn't fare quite as well on the second track. The producer of Kurosawa, a retrospective documentary about the director, Grilli is now president of the Japan Society of Boston, and came to know Kurosawa—Grilli even visited the set of Ran, on which he saw the director wearing a Notre Dame sweatshirt. He's got some good insights about Kurosawa in context—how, for instance, the director thought of Kagemusha as a rehearsal for Ran, and about some of the unusual casting of this film. (The actor who plays Kyoami, Hidetora's fool, is billed only as Peter, and is one of Japan's best-known drag queens, apparently sort of their RuPaul; Jinpachi Nezu, who plays Jiro, Hidetora's second son, is more famous as a rock star.) But there are lots and lots of gaps on this track, and you'll long for Grilli to say something.

Also on hand are a Kurosawa filmography; links to several websites devoted to the director; the aforementioned restoration demonstration (03m:54s); brief production notes, an original European trailer, and another for this home video release.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

A truly epic film in the best sense, Ran is Kurosawa working at the very height of his powers, and it's a height that few if any other directors have matched, before or since. Only the relatively weak technical values on this DVD keep it from soaring to the cinematic heavens.


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