When director Akira Kurosawa comes up in conversation two of his films are invariably mentioned: The Seven Samurai and Ran. Both films are masterpieces and Kurosawa fans go back and forth endlessly as to which is the better. Criterion gave us an incredible restored release of The Seven Samurai on DVD but Ran is a Fox Lorber property and that spells trouble.
The film itself is simply fantastic. Kurosawa is a masterful artist whose hand can be seen in every aspect of Ran from the stunning cinematography, finely calculated compositions, moving performances and peerless editing. Ran is a loose interpretation of Shakespeare's King Lear complete with court intrigue, massive battles and great depth of character. The action takes place in 16th century Japan when an aging warlord decides to divide his land amongst his three sons. Power struggles immediately erupt between these four factions and the ensuing events build to a climactic psychological crescendo. To my way of thinking this is one of the best films ever made.
I may as well say it now: Fox Lorber did an unforgivably bad job with this DVD. To start with they've cropped the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio to what looks like 2.35:1. Next they use film elements that press the image up to the top of the screen and then they put the subtitles in the resulting black bar at the bottom. The subtitles themselves are 'burned in' so they can't be turned off. The transfer itself is barely a cut above VHS. The images are very soft and exhibit a good deal of what appears to be lack of focus. The colors are fully saturated but black level is a touch shallow and the shadow detail is only fair.
The two channel Dolby soundtrack (AC-3) fares a little better. The dialogue (in the original Japanese) is clean and clear with little distortion. The music is mixed mostly to the front mains but drifts back to the surrounds from time to time and there are several instances of nice ambient effects that widen the overall soundfield.
The extra content here is very slim. There are a few text screens with production credits and filmographies for the cast and crew, there's a single theatrical trailer that's in even worse shape than the feature itself and one additional text screen shows some of the awards Ran has won. Worst of all, Fox Lorber encoded this film with no less than 41 chapter stops but only seven of them appear in the chapter selection menu.
Ran is a superb film and one that any serious film fan should see. Fox Lorber seems to have done everything in their power to ruin this presentation of Ran though. If you've never seen Ran you're probably better off renting the widescreen VHS version. I have a hard time even recommending a rental of this disc. Perhaps if people show their displeasure with Fox Lorber by passing on their substandard releases they'll either start offering higher quality DVDs or selling the rights to companies like Criterion.