Sure, Judge Adam Arseneau can break three arrows on his knee...urgh...just...give him a minute...ouch! Dang, this is hard.
Simply put, Ran is a masterpiece of cinema. Endless analysis and dissertations, endless dissections and analysis of this magnum opus of a film, have been written, including two excellent and in-depth reviews by our own Judge Dan Mancini. Ran is elegant and chaotic, savage and sweeping in scope, vivid and groundbreaking, and arguably the finest work from one of the most acclaimed and celebrated directors of all time—and there was almost a Criterion edition on Blu-Ray.
Criterion released Ran: Criterion Collection, a superb standard-definition presentation and fans clamored in anxious anticipation of a Blu-Ray release. It was scheduled on the release calendar, but was pulled at the last minute due to a rights issue. Those rights, it would seem, were lost for good. Now we have Lionsgate and StudioCanal stepping up with Ran (Blu-Ray). Can this humble release ever hope to satisfy a legion of neurotic and freakish collectors demanding tiny little chronological numbers on the spine of their titles?
Facts of the Case
The powerful Ichimonji clan is at a crossroads. Its leader, the elder Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai, Yojimbo, Kagemusha) hopes to preserve his legacy by dividing his kingdom among his three sons: Taro, Jiro, and Saburo. To his dismay, his plans for unity soon unravel. His sons soon reveal their own ambitions and desires for power and control of the clan. Brother will betray brother in a complex and brutal battle for domination, while Hidetora is driven mad as he watches his empire crumble, unable to turn back the wheels of fate…
The last truly great film by legendary director Akira Kurosawa, Ran is a thematic and personal achievement for the late Japanese auteur: a grandiose and sweeping epic, the most expensive film ever made in Japan at the time, and a personal bookend to a marvelous and influential career. Kurosawa made films after, but none so monumental and influential. With elaborate and lush costume designs, hundreds upon hundreds of extras, elaborate set pieces, and treacherous on-location shoots on the slopes of Mt. Fuji, Ran is as notorious for its numerous financial, technical, and artistic challenges as it is for its final product.
With a theme similar to other films in the twilight of Kurosawa's career, Ran is about the transition and loss of power, of legacies and lingering regrets of lives lived, the gradual and inexorable turn of fate's wheels that pits the aged against the young in an endless struggle for power. An aged and feeble warlord, himself a man who took power in his youth through violence, now desperate to control his legacy one final time and dole out power to his sons. He fights against the currents of fate, of the natural order of the world, yet only ends up precipitating the exact situation he hopes to avoid—violence, chaos, disorder, and destruction of his legacy.
The thematic adaptation and synthesis of two influential works, Ran came into being through an analogy from Mori Motonari, a warlord and ruler during the Sengoku period of Japan in the Sixteenth century who had three sons. Each was handed an arrow and told to snap it, which they did so easily. However, when the father produced three arrows and asked his sons to snap them together, they could not—a literal strength in unity. This historical allegory, which makes its way into Ran's opening sequence, harmonizes surprisingly well with the other work Kurosawa was fascinated with—Shakespeare's King Lear, another work about fathers and their children and metaphors about power, control, and the cost of abandoning unity.
There is a harsh pessimism at work here in Ran, a brutal, relentless, and nihilistic anger that festers, boils, and explodes with furious rage as the film winds towards its inexorable conclusion. Lust, anger, and jealousy drive all the characters mad, leading to almost complete annihilation of their beings, both physical and spiritual. This is a film that revels in the worst elements of human nature, the basest of instincts and irrational fears, of resentment both real and imagined as the Ichimonji clan self-destructs and Hidetora watches all he has strived to build and achieve in his long life burn into ash with mad, half-crazed eyes.
Color is so dynamic and pervasive in Ran that it bears special mention, as if a protagonist in of itself interacting with the characters. Kurosawa came to color filmmaking rather late in his career, and in doing so, approached it like an abstract painter approaches a blank canvas. Primary colors literally explode in Ran, a staggeringly vibrant embodiment of dancing flame and chaos. Indeed, were it not for the color, Kurosawa may never have made the film—during the numerous financing issues that plagued the production, the lavishly colored storyboards became key elements used to sell the film to foreign investors.
Trying to capture all the elements of Ran into a single DVD review is, frankly, exhausting. The film is so epic and yet so intimate; a massive, chaotic assault of war and violence and destruction counterbalanced with the most intimate and personal of anxieties, fears, and lamentations. Again, I refer audiences to Judge Dan Mancini's treatments of the film, for he delves into its historic, literary, and conceptual depths deeper than I dare; they are marvelous reads.
Now we come to the technical presentation, where this review finally addresses the elephant in the room. The 1080p transfer is clean and sharp, with closeups exhibiting excellent detail in skin texture and fabric variegation. Colors are splendidly vibrant and saturated to the point of abnormal vibrancy, with yellows, reds, and greens leaping off the screen, staggeringly vivid. By any other standard, this is a very good treatment of Ran, but people will hold this film to a staggeringly high standard. Unfortunately, the more you go looking for flaws in the image, the more you find them. Contrast levels are high, with white levels blown much brighter than feels natural, leading some almost impossibly luminescent sequences. Edge enhancement is detectable throughout the film, and the transfer is excessively grainy, not in a pleasing film stock sort of way, but in a blocky, digital noise reduction filter kind of way. This becomes distracting during indoor sequences where the image jumbles and swirls like a swarm of mosquitoes. While this may be a disappointment to many, remember that Ran has seen more than a half-dozen iterations on DVD released since the inception of the format, and each one has varied dramatically from the next; a sure sign of inconsistent source material elements if there ever was one. It may not be perfect, but this is a good presentation, certainly the best currently available. To borrow a boxing metaphor, Ran (Blu-Ray) wins on technical knockout, but it exhibits enough quirkiness and undesirable elements preventing it from a pure KO.
Audio fares better, thankfully, with a barrage of DTS-HD Master Audio presentations and subtitles to suit practically the entire European continent. We get full 5.1 treatments in Japanese and French, and both are magnificent improvements over the standard definition DVD versions even to the most untrained of listeners. The fidelity and clarity of the battle sequences is marvelous to behold, and the lossless track make it that much more sumptuous, with arrows whizzing, fire crackling, and armor clanking, all perfectly realized. The score is emphasized beautifully, a powerful and rousing theme. Bass response is less than marvelous, with a lack of deep low end, and rear channels don't quite get as much action as one might hope, but not unexpected considering the film was never shot this way. For the purists, the 2.0 version offers up a very similar experience, minus the extra (and some would argue artificial) channels, with no noticeable differences in quality. For other languages options, we get Spanish, German, and Italian dubs. For the foreign-language speaking crowd, take your pick between Spanish, German, Italian, French, Danish, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, and Finnish subtitles.
In terms of extras, we see a lot of material here that should be familiar to the Criterion clan—but also some notable absences. The superb feature-length documentary A.K. by Chris Marker is included. It's a must-see viewing experience, offering up a surprisingly introspective and intimate interpretation of Akira Kurosawa on-set and his astonishing devotion to his craft. We get a 40-minute documentary, "Akira Kurosawa: The Epic and the Intimate" interviewing cast and crew about the production and funding of Ran; "Art of the Samurai: Interview with a Japanese Art-of-War Expert," a 40-minute feature discussing historic Japanese military, weapons and armor; and "The Samurai," a 50-minute feature on the historical and cultural importance of the samurai. A trailer and a twenty-page essay booklet by David Jenkins are also included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The worst part about Ran (Blu-Ray) is that, no matter how many times you look at it, hold it in your hands, put it on your DVD shelf, rearrange its position or squint at it from a distance, it stubbornly and obstinately refuses to transform itself into a Criterion Collection title. Everyone wishes Criterion could have kept the rights to this film, but alas, they did not, and all the willing in the world will not make it so. Griping about it at this point simply cannot change the reality of the situation.
Will people become entrenched in their apathetic dislike of this title of sheer dogged single-minded stubbornness, bemoaning its very existence? Will people be convinced that had this shiny little disc been released by Criterion, it would somehow be "better" or "superior" in some measurable fashion? Judging by the legion of one-star reviews on Amazon (before it even streets), these fears do appear to be unfortunately apt.
Who is to say? Why even stress about this kind of thing? Lest we forget, Ran is available on Blu-Ray, and that is a Good Thing, full stop. If you ask me, this kind of speculation acts as an invisible line of sorts, separating the men from the boys—or perhaps more accurately, the film lovers from the obsessive and neurotic collectors.
Ran is an undeniable cinematic masterpiece, and under any other criteria, judging the quality of a Blu-Ray release, Ran: Blu-Ray could be considered a fine and upstanding release. Unfortunately, the lingering shadow of a once-promised Criterion Blu-Ray edition will forever haunt this title, taunting audiences from beyond the grave of a magical, perfect HD release that may simply never be.
The final verdict ultimately boils down to how obsessive a collector you are. In terms of supplements, Ran: Criterion Collection is still the reigning champion in the extra features department, with commentary tracks and interviews not available in any other edition. Serious fans may not want to part with these supplements.
If what you yearn for is the most technical and superior treatment of this film for your collection, the choice is obvious, if a bit painful. Ran: Blu-Ray is the best-looking edition of this film currently available to purchase. It should come as no surprise that a Blu-Ray topples a standard-definition release (even a Criterion) in the technical specs department, but the margin of victory here is embarrassingly slim—hardly the knockout punch fans were clamoring for.
You can shake your fist at the cruel injustices in the world that rob collectors of a Criterion edition, but Ran: Blu-Ray is still worthy of a place in your collection, if only to honor the amazing film itself and to appreciate its splendor in full high definition. It may not be a full-blown replacement for Ran: Criterion Collection, but if there was ever a film worthy of a double-dip, Ran just might be it.
Not Criterion, but definitely not guilty.
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