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Wellspsring has just released a fancy boxed set called the Kurosawa DVD Collection, which contains a restored disc of Ran, together with Madadyo and a docu on the director entitled Kurosawa. The extras are interesting, and judging by the graphics of the full set, the overall presentation is very attractive.
But Savant didn't get the set, only a check disc of the individual Ran Masterworks Edition DVD, an item that undoubtedly carries some interest for Kurosawa fans incensed over the previous poor Fox Lorber Disc. So my reportage is limited to that single title.
As every fan of Akira Kurosawa knows, Ran is the director's late-career epic masterpiece, a large-scale adaptation of King Lear. In a feudal century, Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) wishes to retire, and tries to effect a clean transfer of his holdings, a number of castles and fiefdoms spread across some beautiful Japanese countryside, to his heirs. Ambition and jealousy interfere, and soon the white-haired patriarch is a helpless observer to the destruction of his clan from within. Plots and conspiracies among his sons and their wives lead to a war which engulfs castle after castle, and all becomes ruin. The bloody havoc is observed from a slightly formal distance, to better appreciate the bigger pattern of iniquity and folly.
In blazing color, and with a graphic formality that sees behind the pagaentry of court protocol and military meetings, Ran is a fascinating picture of the ultimate outcome of feudal strife. The surface of the film is amazing - static one-shot dialogue scenes are followed by fluid coverage of armed masses clashing - battalions of footsoldiers, riflemen, archers, cavalry. Brothers storm one another's castles like gangsters, hiding behind feigned outrage and righteous fury. There are battles as bloody as anything in Japanese cinema, with only Kurosawa's furious direction making sense of buildings burning and arrows falling like rain. A static confession is suddenly interrupted by a geyser of blood as the offender is summarily beheaded. Horrible piles of contorted bodies are strewn like images from a Goya painting. Petite, dainty females suddenly produce knives and commit suicide in unthinkable ways.
The always - fascinating Toru Takemitsu produces an experimental music score, with its nervous clickings and isolated notes. During the most outrageous onslaught, the soundtrack drops to near-silence, as if the killing were too strong to be accompanied by sound. It's so furious, we seem to hear a track anyway, and flinch at the 'sound' of each arrow hit and sword swipe. The dirge-like music enters slowly, and when the full battle track finally returns, it strikes with a real jolt.
Fox Lorber's earlier DVD was an ugly mess - Savant ordered it for the use of a language school, only to be turned off by its ugly colors and lack of 16:9 formatting. The main appeal of this new release, which will probably spur a lot of grudging purchases of the expensive full Collection, is the improvement in Ran. A lengthy restoration demonstration proves mostly that the original transfer was a sloppy job done from mediocre elements. The fuzzy, bleary color has congealed into a sharp image - sometimes with a totally new color scheme - that's far more satisfying. The 1:85 anamorphic transfer gives the brightly colored costumes real snap, and makes the smoke and fire of the battles look great, even on a large widescreen monitor. For audio tracks, there's a thoughtful choice of DD 5.1 and a 2.0 mono original. The lengthy movie is also given a liberal 40 chapter stops - averaging one every four minutes.
Savant sampled the commentaries by Kurosawa author Stephen Prince, and another by Peter Grilli, the producer of the Kurosawa docu included in the full Collection. They're fine, academic pieces. An original European trailer, and a home video promo are included as well.
With Madadayo and the docu Kurosawa of much more limited interest than Ran, fans are justifiably resentful of Wellspring's decision to create a limited-edition $130.00 box, and then make the new Ran exclusive to it. Savant can't help but recommend that Kurosawa aficionados not interested in spending so much, just wait for Wellspring to release it later on its own. Hopefully their marketers already have such a plan in mind.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Ran Masterworks Edition rates:
Supplements: 2 Commentary tracks, Production notes, Restoration demo, Trailers
Reviewed as a check disc screener, without packaging, separate from the Kurosawa Collection
Reviewed: September 25, 2002