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The Criterion Collection presents
Ran (Criterion Collection) (1985)

"So it was a dream."
- Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: November 20, 2005

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

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 02h:42m:43s
Release Date: November 22, 2005
UPC: 715515016827
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A+ A+A+A A

DVD Review

(Reviewer's note: What follows is a very modestly amended version of my review of Wellspring's previous release of Ran. My sense of awe at Kurosawa's accomplishment here has if anything only deepened; I'll save my getting schoolgirl giddy over this Criterion release in the new discussions, below, of the transfer and extras package.)

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: Third time's the charm. Watching the first DVD release of this title, from Fox Lorber, is the home video equivalent of nails on the chalkboard; the subsequent release was an improvement in comparison, but was also a reminder that in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. And so finally here we are, with a paradigmatic transfer from Criterion. Kurosawa's carefully planned and implemented color scheme looks glorious, and the images shimmer with verisimilitude—much of it is eye-poppingly beautiful, and the brightness and clarity of the images stand here in even more stark contrast with the emotional darkness of the storyline. I have not seen a finer transfer of a Kurosawa picture, and do not expect to.

Image Transfer Grade: A+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Japaneseyes

Audio Transfer Review: This transfer lacks the 5.1 track that appears on the Wellspring disc, but it's an understatement to say that it's no great loss—the audio, while perhaps not as attention-grabbing as the image quality, is a revelation. The thunder of horse hooves sounds like exactly that, not like a toddler turning a microphone into a pacifier, or like a truck rumbling past outside; the balance is always well struck as well.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
4 Original Trailer(s)
3 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Stephen Prince
Packaging: Amaray Double
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying booklet
  2. color bars
Extras Review: Another embarrassment of riches. Criterion has ditched Peter Grilli's commentary from the previous release (its absence will cause you to shed no tears), but retained Stephen Prince's, which has been modestly amplified and re-worked. Prince is thorough and informative, paying particular attention to the director's unusual method of shooting—Kurosawa 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." (Sadly, my having pointed this out in a previous review seems to have done nothing to correct this point, further puncturing the illusion that we dOc reviewers are drunk with power in the DVD world.)

The first disc also includes four original trailers, and an introduction (12m:02s) from Sidney Lumet, who says that "Kurosawa is the Beethoven of movie directors," and that Kurosawa is a colorist on the order of Matisse. Lumet seems like a bit of an odd choice—I don't see any obvious affinities between his movies and Ran—but he's a fan, especially of Kurosawa's fearlessness.

A good word about the new subtitles, as well, which are presented in a clear white rather than a muddy yellow. I speak no Japanese, but the Criterion version seems preferable and less stilted. Here's the Wellspring version, for instance, of Hidetora's opening speech, describing a nightmare:

"I was in a strange land. A vast wilderness. I went on and on, but met no one. I called, I shouted...but no one answered. I was alone. Alone in the wide world."

And here's the Criterion rendering of the same:

"I was walking through a desolate field, never encountering another soul, no matter how far I went, hearing no reply no matter how loudly I shouted. I was alone. All alone in the whole wide world."

Perhaps not a world of difference, but I much prefer the latter, for its flow and its diction.

The second disc is piled high with welcome additions, too, the most prominent of which is probably A.K. (01h:14m:33s), Chris Marker's documentary on the making of Ran, showing the master at work. Kurosawa is a stern taskmaster, intense and brutal in his preparation and with obsessive attention to detail—but there's no wasted effort, no shooting of extraneous footage. We see him put his crew through hours of preparation for a single take of a single shot—he gets what he wants and moves on, which for a master like this speaks of bravery and confidence, but for anybody else, would seem like nothing but foolhardiness.

There's also another installment of Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful To Create (29m:54s), Toho Studios' series of looks at the making of the director's films. This one features members of the production team (most prominently producer Masato Hara) and cast (among them, Tatsuya Nakadai), a look at some of Kurosawa's beautiful storyboards, and a brief tribute from Martin Scorsese, who says that he looked to Ran as inspiration for the climactic battle in Gangs of New York.

Image: Kurosawa's Continuity (36m:02s) compresses the whole story to a half hour, using audio from the film and only the director's riotously beautiful storyboards—it plays like the greatest graphic novel ever, and may well serve as the quickest way to wade through the Monarch Notes for tomorrow morning's Shakespeare quiz. In a 2005 interview (09m:51s), Tatsuya Nakadai discusses working with the director, particularly with regard to their conversations about madness, and how best to portray it on screen. Finally, the accompanying booklet has an essay on the film by Michael Wilmington; an interview with Kurosawa; and another with Toru Takemitsu, who composed the film's score, balancing themes of East and West.

Extras Grade: A


Final Comments

Perhaps, just as Hidetora, the Lear figure in Ran, had three sons, and Lear had three daughters, and Vito Corleone three sons, the DVD gods needed three releases of this magnificent achievement to get it right. The defining picture of Kurosawa's late period, Ran succeeds relentlessly on both the political and the domestic scales, as much a story of war as of a family coming undone from within. Criterion has finally favored us with a DVD release worthy of the movie's epic accomplishments—one of the great wrongs on DVD has been righted, and it's hard to think of a better release for this or any other year.


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