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Ran (Studio Canal)
Release Date(s)1985 (February 16, 2010)
Studio(s)Toho/Nippon Herald (StudioCanal/Lionsgate)
I would recommend that one not choose Ran to be one’s first Kurosawa experience for it would be easy to be put off by the stylized and at times static approach to the material. Ran is a film that can only be truly appreciated after one has first seen a number of Kurosawa’s earlier films. Films such as The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Kagemusha provide film-making context that allows one to understand the acting styles and tradition of Japanese theatre that inform much of Kurosawa’s work.
That said, Ran is one of Kurosawa’s epic masterpieces, released some 13 years before his death. He made a few other films during those last years, but none captured the imagination or spectacle of Ran’s King Lear-like tale of power, greed, and revenge set in feudal Japan.
It begins with aging ruler Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) turning over his kingdom’s leadership to his three sons, hoping to live out his remaining years in comfort and dignity while still maintaining a level of control himself. Predictably, his plan runs awry as his youngest son Saburo (Daisuke Ryu) rebels against the arrangement. Saburo is banished from the clan and ends up with a rival kingdom as the other two sons Taro (Akira Terao) and Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) vie with their father to assume total control.
The complex plot has many elements that beg attention, as anyone familiar with King Lear might expect and the convoluted twists are as interesting for the observation of their planning as their actual execution. There is, however, so much going on in Ran that it’s impossible to do justice to everything in a single viewing. Following the machinations of eldest son Taro’s wife is a particularly fruitful exercise, and requires close attention to see the whole pattern of her actions. But it is a focus on Hidetora himself, a man who seemingly expects that no bill for his past sins will ever be submitted, that intrigues the most. The bill comes in the form of the actions of his sons who are essentially chips off the old block. The result is an effective exile from his kingdom for Hidetora rather than the comfortable retirement he had anticipated and the unexpectedness of it all slowly drives Hidetora mad.
As was common with Kurosawa’s final films, he had difficulties with financing and in Ran’s case, the solution was a jointly financed French/Japanese production with some $12 million to work with. Kurosawa’s typically thorough preparation allowed him to eke out every cent and the results are very evident on the screen. Costuming is lavishly detailed and colourful, and the action sequences are nicely choreographed and delivered on an epic scale. The characters are well-fleshed out for the most part with the best portrayals coming from Nezu as second son Jiro and Mieko Harada as first son Taro’s scheming wife. Nakadai’s handling of the Hidetora character is effective, although it flirts with excess as the character’s madness accelerates. The film won numerous awards around the world including an Oscar for Best Costume Design and Oscar nominations for director, cinematography, and art direction-set decoration.
For a short time, Criterion planned (and briefly announced) their own Blu-ray edition of Ran – one that would presumably have been an upgrade of their previous DVD special edition. Unfortunately, Criterion’s distribution rights expired before it could be released.
Subsequently, Ran is now available on Blu-ray from Lionsgate, as part of its StudioCanal Collection. For a Blu-ray, the 1.85:1 image is a little underwhelming. The chief issue is the clarity. At times, the image looks nicely detailed but there is little consistency to it. It can vary between and within sequences, and that is characteristic of the entire length of the film. Film grain is fairly evident throughout.
There is also some quite obvious edge sharpening that jumps out at one in various scenes throughout the film, sometimes jarringly so. Colour brightness and fidelity seem on the other hand quite impressive with some costume details looking quite striking at times. Overall, the impression is more of a strong DVD than the enhanced presence of a good Blu-ray presentation.
The 5.1 Japanese DTS-HD Master audio offers a good surround experience with clear dialogue and some modest LFE. The battle scenes provide some impressive moments, but it is the quieter sequences with ambient effects that register most strongly (although it must be admitted that a couple of them seem overdone somewhat).
The release contains no audio commentary, but like the Criterion DVD it does sport A.K. – filmmaker Chris Marker’s 74-minute documentary on Kurosawa, his work and his methods. Again, it’s sometimes methodical in its approach, but the content is always interesting and informative. Akira Kurosawa: The Epic and the Intimate is a 41-minute French documentary mainly focused on the production of Ran from the viewpoint of some of the film’s crew. In French with English subtitles, it is somewhat static, but it does provide a basic overview. Also included are a lengthy piece on Samurai culture that’s worth viewing, a rather dry featurette on the art of the Samurai, the film’s theatrical trailer, and a 20-page booklet that features an article on Ran by Time Out London writer David Jenkins.
Ran is a title that any serious film enthusiast should have on their shelf, and this Blu-ray version of it is probably the best-looking and sounding one available despite its shortcomings. In that respect, it is recommended. But the disc’s supplements are serviceable at best and certainly won’t make you want to ditch your Criterion standard DVD version in that regard.