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Some films intimidate me as a writer beyond my comfort zone, while other films are a challenge to write about simply because their prestige has lead to so much discussion concerning their many and varied qualities already. Ran is both of these types at once – a film I feel I’ve never read satisfactorily, and one that has been studied into the ground. I’m going to keep my thoughts on the subject brief as a result, and ask that viewers trust me enough to see the film and form their own opinions. (In other words, I apologize for the quality of this review).

Ran: Studio Canal Collection
Ran is not Kurosawa’s most entertaining, modest, or moderately paced film, and will surly be difficult for many uninitiated viewers. I highly recommend those not yet familiar with the master’s work to start with the basics – The Seven Samurai, Rashumon and Yojimbo. These are his most accessible, entertaining, and enduring films. All three have also been remade and mimicked ad nauseum over the years, which ads a hint of familiarity, and all three are relatively original stories. Anyone who watches these three films and doesn’t enjoy themselves should probably quit there Kurosawa quest altogether right there. Ran is a more artistically driven feature, and like many of the master’s films is based on the works of William Shakespeare, and traditional Japanese history/lore (specifically Sengoku-era warlord Mōri Motonari in this case). Large sections of the film thusly feel more like staged costume drama than modern filmmaking.

Speaking candidly and more personally than I’d normally care to admit in print (pseudo print) the stage and acting elements of the film mostly lose me, and I find the first hour of the film a big of a slog, but when the first act climaxes in the form of a bloody and bombastic tone poem of a battle I find myself on more comfortable footing. This scene is shockingly assured, and has truly earned its place in epic battle history. The rest of the film reverberates from these events, delving into darker melodrama, and downright terrifying character study. Again, this melodrama is hyper-stylized, and heavily influenced by the very Japanese art of Noh theater, so the uninitiated will probably be somewhat baffled by all the long silences and long faces. The most critical praise has been hefted onto Tatsuya Nakadai's shoulders for his ghost-faced performance as Hidetora, and it certainly is the film’s most broad and attentive performance, but I’m personally more regularly impressed by the efforts of Mieko Harada, who plays Lady Kaede in varying shades without changing the tone of the overall acting style.

Ran: Studio Canal Collection

Video


Lionsgate starts their new Studio Canal collection (which might as well be called their ‘we swiped this from Criterion Collection’) here, with a film so colourful and visually breathtaking it would be hard not to notice either rousing success or utter failure. I personally haven’t seen the film since its initial US DVD release from Fox Lorber, which was lumpily non-anamorphic, so I have no personal frame of reference concerning the semi-recent Criterion DVD release. The video section of this review is based only on what is presented here, not in terms of improvement or lack there of between various transfers. The results are unfortunately not quite as rousing or eye-popping as most of us might have wished. Ran isn’t that old (1985), it was definitely shot 35mm (though apparently not using an anamorphic process), and featured a decent budget for the type, so my expectations were pretty elevated.

The two problems I’m having are those of overall detail, and the overall brightness and clarity Kurosawa’s pallet. Details are relatively consistent between scales and focal lengths, but never near as sharp as the format is capable. I can’t recall any instances of the sharpness pushing beyond even DVD abilities. Had this been a DVD I would’ve been very satisfied, even impressed with the consistency, but this is a Blu-ray, and I’m sure fans were expecting an upgrade. It seems to me that this could be the material’s limit, because there is a slight presence of edge enhancement, especially on the otherwise satisfactory blacks. This could mean the disc’s authors pushed the sharpness a bit beyond capacity. The colours also clearly effected by the limited possibilities of the source material, and the brightest and fullest warm hues are speckled with noise, and even occasional bleeding. During the big centerpiece massacre the Blu-ray serves its purpose in the form of poppier colour elements, specifically the rich stage blood and fire elements that stand hard against the charcoal blacks and grays of the scorched earth of the battle. The starker daylight scenes are a bit more yellowed and dulled, and thus less impressive than the more heavily contrasting and smoke-filled battle.

A much smaller and expected issue is that of grain. The frequency of the grain here is a little chunkier than I had anticipated, created more of a digital noise look, and again appearing more like the short coming of standard definition compression. But grain is expected, and really isn’t a problem otherwise. We should be thankful that those Lionsgate people didn’t crank the DNR and turn the whole thing into a blobby mess. I also should say that my eyes adjusted to the transfer’s minor problems very quickly, and that most of the experts seem to agree that this is the best version of the film available on home video for the time being.

Ran: Studio Canal Collection

Audio


Ran has been remixed for Blu-ray into a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Auido track. The bulk of the centered effects and set dialogue is unfortunately a bit tinny, and the dialogue especially reverberates more than I’d like. There isn’t really any distortion on these elements, and sudden jumps in volume reveal a lack of overall compression. The rear and stereo channels are often busy with ambient elements such as calm winds, chirping birds and bugs, galloping horses, warring samurai, and fire, but often these surround elements sound more like embellishments for the sake of embellishment, rather than natural or immersive elements. However, the Dolby 2.0 track, which is apparently the original stereo track, doesn’t fair too much better in this field, so it’s possible it’s just an issue of design. When aural elements bleed into the scene from offstage they are almost always presented in the center channel only, reveling more of the intended structure of the soundtrack. This isn’t a The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly mono to surround sound monstrosity, but I’m leaning slightly more towards the 2.0 track just in terms of naturalist sound, and lack of dialogue reverb. The DTS track does have an advantage concerning the graceful, mournful musical score, which is altogether warmer, and which utilizes the LFE more effectively.

Though, of course, entirely sacrilegious of me to suggest listening to it, but the English dub track actually isn’t too bad, in terms of performance or sound.

Ran: Studio Canal Collection

Extras


Lionsgate has neglected to include most of the Criterion disc’s extras, including the audio commentary, but they grabbed one of the bigger morsels – AK (71:30, SD), a retro behind the scenes documentary by Chris Marker which was made available on various other DVD releases of the film. Technically and tonally the film is kind of similar to many of Werner Herzog’s behind the scenes films, with a calm narration (in French) guiding the audience gently through various making-of processes. Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of focus to the doc, and there are long scenes of raw preparation that are frankly uninteresting to watch. Idol chit-chat, costume preparation, and images of sleepy cast and crew define most of the film, which rarely picks up to entertain beyond a few haunting images and amusing flubs. This one is for the purest fans only, the rest of us are going to probably doze off. ‘Akira Kurosawa: The Epic and the Intimate’ (41:50, SD) is another French made doc made up of interviews with various Frenchmen who had some kind of attachment to Kurosawa. These retrospective tales would probably be better served with a little less talking head make up, but the tales are informative, especially in lieu of the missing commentary tracks.

‘The Samurai’ (52:50, SD) is an uncannily old fashion documentary pertaining to the real history of Ran’s most colourful characters. The whole thing kind of shouts made for public television, and the facts are presented in rough and general terms, but those without any working knowledge of the historical samurai will probably learn something. ‘Art of the Samurai’ (41:10, SD) doesn’t exactly up the entertainment scope on the extras. It features a French expert in samurai culture describing some of the finer points of history, technique and gear, occasionally intercut with scenes from Ran to illustrate a point. The doldrums are finally ended with the film’s original trailer.

Ran: Studio Canal Collection

Overall


Kurosawa’s last epic comes to US Blu-ray, and the results are disappointing, but acceptable. I wish I could say this high definition transfer is a revelation, and a must see, but the limits of the source material are enough to keep expectations down. The soundtrack isn’t much better, but again, this has everything to do with the original material, and not some misguided re-mixing on the part of the disc’s producers. Everything I’m reading tells me this is the best the film can and will look, unless someone discovers some new pristine original negative that defies all assumptions. I’m feeling more critical of the disc’s extras, which certainly fill the time quota, but fail to inform in an entertaining manner. You’re likely to learn something about the feel on-set, and of the history of historical Samurai, but the Wikipedia and imdb.com pages feature a dozen times more information about the film’s back story and reception. Fans might want to update for the slight video quality increase, but should hang on to those Criterion discs for the special features alone. Hell, I’m thinking of buying one.

Reviewer Note: Huge thanks to Troy Anderson at Andersonvision.com for the screencaps, which have been resized for the page.


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