Appellate Judge Dan Mancini reviews Akira Kurosawa's late-period masterpiece again for the first time.
"Certainly old age is part of it, but I've never had a shoot as exhausting as this one. It gets tougher the nearer we get to the end."—Akira Kurosawa, A.K.
I said the following in my review of Wellspring's Masterworks Edition of Ran:
"Wellspring recently teamed with Criterion to produce the box set of François Truffaut films, The Adventures of Antoine Doinel. It'd be a dream come true if they teamed again in the future to produce a final, definitive version of Ran on DVD (and maybe include A.K., Chris Marker's documentary on the making of the masterpiece, as one of the extras)."
Well, kids, sometimes dreams actually do come true. A new release of Ran is here—a definitive release?—from Criterion. And among its ample supplements is Chris Marker's A.K.
Let's take a look.
Facts of the Case
In a futile attempt to undo his bloody past, the aging warlord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai, Yojimbo, Kagemusha) divides his kingdom among his three sons Taro, Jiro, and Saburo, believing that their combined strength will produce a lasting peace among his clan and those of his rivals. But in their lust for power, the elder brothers turn against one another and chaos ensues. Driven mad and unable to recognize his youngest son's loyalty and devotion, Hidetora wanders the blasted heath as his rivals watch the Ichimonji clan destroy itself.
The opening scene of Ran takes place on a green, grassy plain in the wake of a hunt. The aged Lord Hidetora has gathered two of his fiercest rivals in order to arrange for the marriage of his youngest son, Saburo. The congeniality between Hidetora and his enemies is forced and phony. The tension among the men is amplified when the warlord nods off mid-meeting, his head bobbing like a child's. It sends his sons scrambling, and is embarrassing for his enemies. Saburo alone makes the effort to create shade and comfort for his wilting father. It's an oddly delicate scene with which to open a three-hour epic, but one that exemplifies Kurosawa's mastery of film style. It is a solid foundation for the dense blend of the epic and intimate that the director meticulously builds across the rest of the movie. We will later learn, for instance, that Hidetora has a habit of marrying his sons off to the daughters of rival clans, and that the consequences for his rivals are less than desirable. The warlord's nap telegraphs the advance of age and weakness that is the catalyst of the Ichimonji apocalypse to come. And Saburo's gentle caring for his father underscores the warlord's blindness regarding the true natures of his progeny. This opening scene sets the groundwork for the film so expertly, it allows Kurosawa to bypass a heap of exposition—a simple scene in the present communicates nearly everything we need to know about Hidetora's ugly past. Viewers who fail to pay close attention to Ran's opening are likely to miss the context—and therefore, the emotional weight—of much of what follows.
Like much of Kurosawa's best work, Ran is a fascinating mélange of Japanese history, Western literature, and the director's personal psychology. Kurosawa recognized an intersection between Motonari Mori, a 16th-century Japanese warlord who successfully divided his kingdom among his three sons, and Shakespeare's King Lear, which is Mori turned tragic, the title character bringing about his own doom in a failed attempt to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. Lear's appeal to Kurosawa was personal: 75 years old when Ran was released, he was the old king of Japanese cinema who'd been turned out, left to wander the world, seeking a way to restore his former glory. Despite his astonishing artistic and financial successes during the 1950s and '60s, the director's late period (1970-1993) found him in disfavor with Toho, the studio with which he'd had a long-standing relationship, and having to beg to finance his films. At that stage of his life, he must have found a new and deeply personal resonance in Lear. By grafting the play's tragic sensibilities to the basic framework of the Mori story (a very familiar one to the Japanese), Kurosawa delivers a film whose ruminations on war resonate in both East and West, but whose human story is something approaching autobiography.
One of only two jidai-geki made during Kurosawa's late period, Ran is a summation of the director's career. It revisits thematic territory explored in his great period films of the 1950s and '60s. The familiar themes take on new life, though, as they are filtered through the eyes of an older more careworn director. Ran shares Throne of Blood's focus on the destructiveness of man's lust for power. The earlier film is more conceptual, though. Its lead, Lord Washizu (played in an iconic performance by Toshiro Mifune), is a man of strutting bravado in the prime of his power, whose ultimate defeat is a just return for his arrogance and willingness to exploit others for his own ends. Ran adds to those themes the contemplativeness of Kurosawa's later period, born of the professional and personal struggles he faced late in life. It's easy to imagine Hidetora as Washizu grown old, regretful of the sins of his youth but unable to undo them. This imbues Ran with a tragic quality not present in Throne of Blood—such intimate experience of tragedy wasn't yet known to the director in his middle age.
Ran also has interesting connections to Kurosawa's most famous film internationally, Seven Samurai. Both are sengoku-jidai, period pieces set near the end of the civil wars that created upheaval in feudal Japan from 1490 until the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the early seventeenth century. Kambei, the wizened samurai leader in the earlier epic, so regretful of the loss of a social order that had provided his life with value and meaning, is the survivor of a decimated clan very much like the Ichimonjis in Ran. The insight that both Ran and Seven Samurai view the same world from the perspectives of different social strata (the former the aristocracy, the latter the common retainer) adds texture to both. While Seven Samurai retains its place as Kurosawa's most impressive distillation of technical brilliance, narrative pacing, and character development, Ran's scale is grander and yet somehow also more personal. At the end of the earlier film, the surviving samurai realize they have no role in the world in which they find themselves, and that the world for which they long is lost forever. In Ran, that lost world is personified in Hidetora. The film ends with the warlord having lost himself entirely, body, mind, and soul. And not to historical circumstances, but to the consequences of his own ambition.
In adapting King Lear for the screen, Kurosawa didn't allow Shakespeare's preoccupations to get in the way of his own. This is typical of the director's approach to adapting the work of others. A number of the film's scenes are lifted nearly wholesale from Lear, but the replacement of daughters Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia with sons Taro, Jiro, and Saburo adds an epic quality to Hidetora's deterioration. If Lear is an intimate study of old age, personal loss, and familial love and loyalty, Ran takes up all those concerns and adds to them the violence and death (on an epic scale) that result from the assertion of male power and dominance. Where Lear uses thunderstorms to represent the king's physical and psychological collapse, Ran uses war. The onscreen battles are some of the most visually stunning ever committed to film. Kurosawa's genius in shot composition and editing are fully utilized to create the illusion of vast forces of samurai combating on grimy, bloody battlegrounds. Yet he's simultaneously able to imbue the sequences with an intimacy that's astounding considering the foot soldiers are nameless to us. In a key setpiece in which Jiro's army clashes with Taro's, Kurosawa uses Toru Takemitsu's eerie score to great effect, dropping the rest of the soundtrack for the first half of the conflict so that the violent images and chilly music combine, unimpeded, to shape our emotional response to a turning point in the narrative: the events which will drive Hidetora literally and psychologically into the wilderness. It's a tour-de-force segment from a master filmmaker in total control of both the technical and aesthetic components of his art.
In another fascinating departure from Lear, Kurosawa adds the characters of Ladies Kaede (Mieko Harada, Akira Kurosawa's Dreams) and Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki, After the Rain) to the mix. Kaeda is the manipulative wife of first Taro then Jiro. Evoking Lady Macbeth (as well as Lady Asaji Washizu from Throne of Blood, Kurosawa's loose adaptation of Macbeth), she's a brilliant addition, a viciously intelligent woman whose female power both drives and undermines the men around her. In sharp contrast to Kaede, is Lady Sue (pronounced Soo-ay), Jiro's first wife. Like Kaede, she is a member of the Ichimonji clan through marriage, and has seen her own clan decimated in Hidetora's relentless quest for power. A devout Buddhist, Sue treats the old warlord (much to his shame) as though he is her father. Though their reactions to personal tragedy couldn't be more different, the two women are Ran's strongest, most resolute characters—Kaeda in her will to exact revenge, and Sue in her unwavering forgiveness. The addition of Kaede's machinations and Sue's placid spirituality create narrative complexity and flesh out the character of Hidetora. Unlike Lear, Hidetora has a past that is defined for us, his ascension to power filled with violence, death, betrayal, and the ruthless subjugation of his enemies. These insights into how Hidetora accumulated his power add a tragic justice to the chaos that ensues at the end of his life, yet are handled so delicately we don't lose sympathy for him. The paradox of this man with a mercilessly violent history believing he can somehow mandate peace at the end of his life adds an almost sad naïveté to the character.
The emotional resonance of the Kaede and Sue plotlines also serves to replace the emotional linchpin of King Lear: the relationship between Cordelia and her father. The similarly strained relationship between Hidetora and his youngest son, Saburo, doesn't have anywhere near the wrenching impact of Bard's work, but it's not meant to. Again, the switch in gender puts the male ego at the center of Kurosawa's film, and moves the consequences of the misunderstanding between father and child onto the fields of battle, making them more cultural than personal. Playing up the personal dynamic between Hidetora and Saburo would have unbalanced Ran. Having established Hidetora's treacherous past, Kurosawa must encourage only so much empathy in his audience. The Ichimonjis' fate, after all, is just desserts for their ill-gotten power and influence.
It is all this delicate manipulation of Shakespeare's source material that makes Ran so much more than an adaptation. Kurosawa's late-period masterpiece is executed with such confidence and virtuosity, it stands second only to Seven Samurai in his canon. As with King Lear, its themes can only be fully grasped and expressed by an old man, yet its epic scope and kinetic visual energy are far beyond what we normally expect from a 75-year-old director. Ran represents a perfect marriage of opposites. Its scope is both intimate and epic, delving deeply into the human psyche while immersing us in bloody, action-packed battle sequences. It is at once grandiose and blunt in the universal yet simple truths it exposes. It is an uncompromising, deeply personal, almost autobiographical confession by Akira Kurosawa by way of William Shakespeare. It is close to perfect. I suspect that when I'm an old man myself, I'll be able to feel its power more fully and it will have surpassed even Seven Samurai as my favorite of Kurosawa's films.
The original Fox Lorber DVD release of Ran looked and sounded so atrocious, it was hard to complain about the transfer on Wellspring's 2004 Masterworks Edition, despite some bothersome video artifacts. I'm pleased to report, though, that this third go-'round is definitive. The French and Japanese opening credits are an immediate signal that Criterion's transfer is sourced from an entirely different print than Wellspring's (and a nearer generation to the original negative since Ran was a Japanese/French production, France-based producer Serge Silberman having bailed Kurosawa out when his Japanese financiers ran out of money). The liner notes indicate the transfer is from the original 35mm interpositive, digitally restored. The end result of Criterion's work is a demonstration of how poor a transfer the Masterworks disc truly offers. Not only are the interlace artifacts and edge-enhancement haloing gone in this new Criterion edition, but side-by-side comparison shows how oversaturated the colors are on the Masterworks release. Black levels are especially problematic on Wellspring's disc, muddying the overall image and reducing detail. The colors on Criterion's transfer are controlled and accurate. Detail is noticeably sharper. Grain levels are exactly what one would expect from '80s film stocks. The image is properly framed at the film's original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and is enhanced for widescreen displays. This is the transfer fans of Ran have been waiting for.
Purists will be pleased by Criterion's audio offering. The original Japanese stereo track has been fully restored, and has a depth and detail superior to the equivalent track on the Masterworks Edition (which I misidentify as a two-channel mono mix in the body of my review of that disc). The Masterworks disc also offers a matrixed Dolby 5.1 track, which I wasn't particularly impressed with since the original source lacks the thunderous low frequencies that make surround tracks so much fun. Viewers who prefer a 5.1 surround track regardless of the make-up of the original source may be disappointed with Criterion's decision not to include one on this release, but offering an artificial (and unnatural) expansion of the film's original soundtrack runs counter to Criterion's transfer philosophy. Besides, the stereo track was the better option on Wellspring's disc, and Criterion's restoration only improves that track.
The English subtitles are also brand new. Not only is the white, slightly shadowed font easier on the eyes, there are also none of the occasional spelling errors that mar the Masterwork Edition's subtitles. The translation is a little livelier, too.
In addition to a spectacular presentation of the film, The Criterion Collection's release of Ran is a two-disc Special Edition packed with great extras. Disc One contains a video appreciation of the film by director Sidney Lumet (Serpico, Network), who squeezes many great observations into the featurette's 12 minutes. He talks in detail about the picture's themes, as well as Kurosawa's technique. It's an excellent piece. Those who haven't seen Ran should only watch Lumet's appreciation after screening the feature, though, as his discussion does reveal some key plot elements.
Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince (The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa) provides a feature-length commentary as he did on Wellspring's Masterworks Edition release. Based on the cursory comparison I did of the two tracks, Criterion's commentary appears to be brand new, though Prince is probably working from the same set of notes he used to record the track for Wellspring. His presentation on this new track is slightly smoother (one of the advantages of a do-over, I guess). He places a bit more emphasis this time around on the characters and storytelling rather than Kurosawa's technique. He still points out the director's heavy use of axial cuts, for instance, but spends less time defining technical terms and more time on narrative structure and Kurosawa's delicate defining of character. The two tracks are about equal in terms of substance, but this new one is slightly more polished and, therefore, a more enjoyable listen.
If you enjoy Peter Grilli's more personal, less scholarly commentary on the Masterworks Edition, you'll need to hang on to your copy of that disc as Grilli (who produced the PBS documentary, Kurosawa) didn't participate in any of Criterion's supplemental materials.
The extras on Disc One are rounded out by a collection of four theatrical trailers for the film.
Chris Marker's excellent documentary, A.K., is the chief extra on the set's second disc. Criterion's text-based introduction to the feature rightly describes Marker as an innovator of the essay film. The fact his renowned short, 1962's La Jetée, is itself a lyrical examination of apocalypse perhaps made him uniquely qualified to spy on Ran's production. The piece was also produced by Silberman, and shot while Ran was shot, mostly during the later part of the production when Kurosawa's unit spent their days on the desolate slopes of Mt. Fuji. A.K.'s beauty is in Marker's incredible restraint. He occasionally inserts narration so that we have context for what we're watching, but for the most part he simply allows us to watch Kurosawa and his crew at work. The result is a wonderful vitality not often found in making-of documentaries. The inclusion of A.K. considerably ups the value of this DVD edition of Ran. The feature is offered in a nice anamorphic widescreen transfer, framed at about 1.78:1. I wasn't able to find any definitive technical information, but based on the amount of grain in the image, I'd guess A.K. was shot on 35mm stock with small cameras and on fast stock to accommodate the natural lighting conditions. In any event, grain is considerably coarser than a polished studio film, but not so rough as 16mm stock. Overall, it's a lovely, natural image, well-handled in the digital realm by Criterion.
Recent Criterion releases of Kurosawa films have included episodes of the Toho Masterworks series, Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create, and Ran is no exception. Comprised of modern interviews with actors Tatsuya Nakadai and Mieko Harada, Kurosawa's assistant Teruyo Nogami, and other members of the cast and crew, the 30-minute piece offers a retrospective look at the film and it's place in Kurosawa's career.
As with Criterion's release of Kagemusha, Disc Two of Ran contains a 35-minute featurette, created by Masayuki Yui (who was an actor in Kagemusha) called Image: Kurosawa's Continuity. The video piece backs Kurosawa's colorful storyboards for Ran with music and dialogue from the finished film in order to demonstrate the fidelity with which the director brought his visions to the screen. It's a decent piece, though not as compelling as the featurette on Kagemusha since Kurosawa's storyboards for Ran were nowhere near as elaborate as the gorgeous work he did for the earlier film.
The final onboard supplement is a 10-minute interview with Tatsuya Nakadai. The central feature of the interview is the actor's recollections of shooting Ran's most iconic scene: Hidetora's dazed exit down the steep staircase of a massive castle set ablaze.
The set also comes with a 28-page insert booklet that contains credits for the film; a brief but insightful essay by film critic Michael Wilmington; a reprint of a 1985 Positif interview with Kurosawa; and a reprint of an interview with composer Toru Takemitsu from a 1985 issue of La revue du cinéma.
Ran is a masterpiece. This Special Edition from Criterion finally gives it the treatment it deserves. The two previous DVD releases can be forgotten. This is the one to own.
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• Commentary by Kurosawa Scholar Stephen Prince
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