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Ran: The Criterion Collection

Criterion Collection

Starring Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu,
Daisuke Ryu, and Mieko Harada

Written by Masato Ide, Akira Kurosawa, and Hideo Oguni
Based on King Lear by William Shakespeare

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

Largely considered the most influential — and, often, the greatest — film director yet to emerge from the Asian continent, Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa earned his plaudits over 50 years of work. Punctuated by the regular appearance of landmark works like Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo, amongst others, Kurosawa's career was founded on his skillful and often gripping fusion of Eastern and Western subjects and styles.

For his last masterpiece, 1985's epic Ran, septuagenarian Kurosawa went once more to the well of Western literature for his inspiration, picking source material that would not only deserve the massive scope of the director's vision, but that might also intimately appeal to an aging figurehead acutely experiencing the wane of his powers and faculties: William Shakespeare's tragedy King Lear.

Tatsuya Nakadai stars as Hidetora, Great Lord of the Ichimonji clan, a ruthless warrior who imperiously ruled his lands through battle for 50 years. Now in his 70s and visibly tiring, Hidetora precipitously announces that, while he plans to retain his title and status until his death, he is transferring his rule into the hands of his eldest son, Taro (Akira Terao). Expecting the cooperation of his two younger sons, Jiro and Saburo, in supporting and strengthening Taro's command, Hidetora is outraged when Saburo, the youngest, impertinently derides his father's decision as foolish. Hidetora banishes both Saburo and the soldier (Masayuki Yui) who defends him.

Saburo's warning, however, turns out prophetic, as Hidetora quickly finds himself cast as little more than a pawn and/or nuisance in Taro's assertion of his new power, and worse as Jiro's hawkish advisors spur the second son to subvert his older brother's rule. All the discord (or, rather, Chaos, as the film's title translates), weighs heavy on Hidetora's ailing mind, and the former Great Lord begins to slip into a Alzheimer's-like fog of sorrow and shame.

*          *          *

Ran has its problems. As Kurosawa aged, his films became more didactic, and the earnest emphasizing of rather obvious messages and symbols that would make his next two (and final) films, Dreams and Rhapsody in August, almost unstomachable similarly mars key scenes in Ran. Some may also find the 160-minute running time drawn out beyond necessity, as Kurosawa's painterly approach (literally; he paints his storyboards) often resolves itself in near still-life imagery which, while stunningly gorgeous, demands an almost sedated patience.

Above all, however, Ran is an object of great beauty, both in form and performance. Set against a severe topography of dramatic valleys and windswept verdant hills, and decorated with brightly costumed warriors slipping in and out of the rolling fog, Ran provides its three cinematographers, Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saitô and Masaharu Ueda, with a vivid palette, and what they make of it is nothing short of breathtaking. From panoramic vistas speckled with warriors on the march, to the recurring motif of gathering cloud formations, nearly every frame of Ran is a gallery-worthy work of visual art.

As further evidence of the director's penchant for mixing diverse cultural styles, the acting in Ran affects a surprisingly subtle and effective Noh style, unusually combining exaggerated makeup and gestures within a realistic, natural tone, and the entire cast, including many non-actors with little film experience, seamlessly blends into the greater vision of the movie. Particularly brilliant is Mieko Harada, as the manipulative femme fatale Lady Kaede, whose violent swings of emotion are almost as frightening as the deathly calm that surrounds them.

Ran's showstopping set piece, during which Kurosawa's incredible visuals interact most potently with Tôru Takemitsu's transfixing musical score, is the horrific, hypnotic siege on Hidetora's fortress just after the one-hour mark (chapter "Lord Jiro"), which Kurosawa brazenly depicts sans sound effects for five-and-a-half minutes. It is an inspired choice and virtuous filmmaking, easily amongst the greatest and most memorable battle scenes in all of cinema.

*          *          *

The Criterion Collection's two-disc DVD edition of Ran is the third Region One release of this title, and the most definitive to date. While the 2003 Wellspring Media "Masterworks Edition" featured an improved transfer over Fox Lorber's sub-standard 1998 release, Criterion presents the movie in an all-new, restored anamorphic high-definition digital transfer (1.85:1). While Wellspring's transfer featured more vibrant colors, its source was grainy and speckled with flecks and scratches. Criterion's transfer is slightly less saturated, but the colors appear more natural as a result; furthermore, the images are sharper and more detailed, and nearly every blemish has been miraculously removed.

1998 Fox Lorber release

2003 Wellspring Release

2005 Criterion Release

Disc One of Ran: The Criterion Collection includes the feature with a restored Dolby 2.0 Surround track and new subtitle translation. Also available is a commentary (from the earlier Wellspring release) by the professorial Stephen Prince, author of the book The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa (the other Wellspring commentary, by the irreverent and disparaging Peter Grilli, is not revived for this edition). Director Sidney Lumet appreciates Ran in a 12-minute introduction, and four international theatrical trailers fill out the remainder of Disc One.

Disc Two of Ran: The Criterion Collection includes a number of substantial documentaries and featurettes. In the 1985 AK, director Chris Marker spends most 74-minutes presenting lyrical slices-of-life behind-the-scenes of Ran's production, favoring mundane shots of the placid Kurosawa in "action" (his working style appears unusually calm and quiet and accentuates the uneventful reality of filmmaking). Marker, better known for his influential 1963 short "La Jetée," includes narration that veers from prosaic description to pretentious overstatement, and favors shots of Kurosawa's magnificent set-pieces in preparation, capturing some neatly incongruous visuals, like ornately costumed extras looking bored or lone grips running across the frame of an elaborate tableau, and able capturing the excruciating level of detail necessary for such an epic production.

Also included is a 30-minute chapter from Toho Masterworks' Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. There is also a 35-minute reconstruction of the movie from Kurosawa's vivid, impressionistic painted storyboards (from the series Image: Kurosawa's Continuity), plus a new interview with Nakadai. The collection also includes a 28-page booklet including interviews with Kurosawa and composer Takemitsu, and an essay by film critic Michael Wilmington.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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