Akira Kurosawa’s impact on filmmaking and storytelling will be part of Western cinema for decades to come. Despite being slightly underappreciated in his later years in his native Japan, some of the work he put to film is some of the greatest and most influential ever seen. His work, such as Rashomon, The Hidden Fortress and The Seven Samurai, to name a few, have been remade or cited as major influences in the films and/or careers of George Lucas, Clint Eastwood and James Cobur…, among others. I’ve become increasingly interested in Kurosawa’s work, and I recently picked up the Kurosawa DVD Collection, which is available as an Amazon.com exclusive as part of a limited edition run of 5,000. The 3-disc set contains the documentary on the sensei (Kurosawa’s nickname), aptly titled Kurosawa. The other two discs house Kurosawa’s last film, Madadayo, and the Masterworks Edition of Ran. In terms of packaging, it’s a bit hard to describe, the box opens much like your standard amaray case. On the left side, Kurosawa is at the bottom, and on the top, there is a greeting card sized package of materials. Aside from the obligatory certificate of authenticity, four 5×7 glossy cards that are Kurosawa storyboard illustrations for Madadayo and Ran are here, as well as a small booklet that is mainly comprised of biographical information. The discs for Madadayo and Ran are on the right side, as well as a small board (Amazon says it’s a “Japanese-style miniature shoji screen”) that has art from Ran on it. It’s nice artwork, plus it’s been clear-coated to help prevent damage to it. To round out the goodies, there is a reproduction of the poster that trumpeted the re-release of Ran in 2000, but the poster is reduced to a more manageable size to fit the case.
Kurosawa is just under 2 hours long and is full of information and interviews about Kurosawa, as well as footage of Kurosawa himself. It’s narrated by Sam Shepard and features excerpts from Kurosawa’s book, “Something Like an Autobiography.” It does a good job of relating things that happened in Kurosawa’s life, as opposed to spending several minutes at a time on each film that he made. Detail is given to the events before the war, and the time of U.S. occupation post-war, as well as union strikes with management at that time also. A passage is included about how the studio was seized by the union, and about the union’s preparation for management’s possible re-occupation, a pretty humorous story. Many in-depth, detailed reflections on Kurosawa’s youth and family are mentioned that help provide insight into his family life. Numerous interviews are featured here, but the treat is seeing interview footage of Kurosawa, which looked fairly recent (before his death). There are unique interviews here, featuring some of the actors (and actresses) Kurosawa has worked with, along with some members of the crew, and their trips back to the locations of the films the worked on. The hostess for the hotel Kurosawa stayed in to write some of his films was even interviewed. Eastwood and Coburn reflect on when they first saw a Kurosawa film, and what they wanted to do in order to pay tribute to him when they were making subsequent films. Prince and fellow Kurosawa expert Donald Richie both have interview time here also. There is also behind the scenes footage here, some of it going back to 1947’s One Wonderful Sunday. Many topics are covered, from his working relationship with Toshiro Mifune, to the mistake he made in agreeing to co-direct Tora! Tora! Tora! His suicide attempt is discussed somewhat briefly, then it moves on to talk about the difficulties in getting money for his films afterwards. Behind the scenes footage shows Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola on the set of Kagemusha, where they assisted with financing. Before showing footage from his funeral, as well as a visit to his gravesite, there is footage from Madadayo of him directing the last shot in the film, and thanking everyone involved with the making of it. Overall, it’s a very entertaining documentary that gives an admitted newcomer like myself a good look into the history of Kurosawa.
The very moving Madadayo was ultimately the last film directed by Kurosawa, and while the Professor is an effective pseudo-autobiographical tool that Kurosawa uses to show that while he may know the end is coming, the film’s title translates to “Not Yet.” The film details a Professor who is retiring from teaching to live off the sales from books he’s written, and his place at the school has become such a seemingly permanent part of the school, he keeps in touch with many of his students after he retires. The students value the education and experiences he gave them, and repay him however they can. The Professor is based on Hyakken Uchida, a Japanese writer who decided to retire in 1943, the same year of the Professor’s retirement, and we see the Professor (and his students) age from that point. You see the students grow older and have families and grandchildren, while at the same time doing whatever they can to help find the Professor’s beloved cat, who had run away from home. The students build a home for the Professor and his wife after it was destroyed by the Allied bombing in World War II, and they pay constant visits on him, to check on him, to share a drink, or even to pass the time. Each year they hold a party for him, and he is asked “Maadha Kai?” or “Not Yet?!?”, and the Professor responds with “Madadayo!” The parties start at his 60th birthday, and at his 77th, he has some heart trouble and is forced to leave the party early, and a small group of his students take him home. The students speculate on how great his imagination is, and what he dreams about, and the last shot in the film is of a small child, playing the Japanese equivalent of “Hide and Seek” with his friends, using the same “Maadha Kai” and “Madadayo” responses from the parties, and as the boy looks to hide in a hay pile, he stops, and looks towards a beautiful skyline. Call it symbolism or whatever, it is a very inspiring last shot of a film, and of a career of one of the greatest directors of cinema the world will know.
The remastered, or in Wellspring’s case, the “Masterworks Edition” of Ran rounds out the package. In Kurosawa’s last outstanding film (inspired by “King Lear”), the aging Lord Hidetora Inchimonji decides to split his power equally among his three sons Taro, Jiro and Saburo. Saburo questions the soundness of the decision, and Hidetora banishes him. Soon after, the brothers clash over the split power, and Hidetora is cast aside by Jiro and Taro, culminating in Hidetora’s warrior escorts being overwhelmed and killed by soldiers of Jiro and Taro’s armies. Hidetora staggers out of the burning castle he was forced to retreat to, and wanders away, driven insane by the struggle, as well as the path Hidetora himself took to claiming the power he won over time. The scenes shot in the castle during the battle are some of the most memorable and visually exhilarating scenes Kurosawa has filmed, with blood flowing freely and in a distinct shade of red.
The three brothers are all distinct personalities, and we barely see Saburo during the film’s 160 minutes. At the beginning, we see him banished by his father, but the power of Kurosawa’s narrative has you eagerly awaiting the reunion of Hidetora and Saburo, with Hidetora’s apologies for acting the way he did to his son, and his son simply accepting things and moving on. Taro is the harsher of the two remaining sons, forcing Hidetora from his castle, even persuading Hidetora to sign a pledge stating Taro’s powers. Taro is killed during the ambush of Hidetora, and Jiro enters the picture to take control of Taro’s land as well as his own. Jiro, ambushing and killing Taro, is the weakest of the three sons, indicated by almost going after his father after he leaves the castle. He is restrained by a general who mentions to him that it was part of a choice that he made, and must stick with. The other ingredient in the story is Lady Kaede, who was Taro’s wife, and later becomes Jiro’s plotting mistress. She has her own plan for things, as Hidetora overthrew the castle she stayed in and killed her family, as her mother also committed suicide. She is more concerned about destroying the Inchimonji power grip as her retribution for the pain inflicted upon her. In her pursuit of power, she wants to have Jiro all to herself, going so far as to order Jiro’s aide Kurogane to kill Jiro’s wife Lady Sue. Despite Jiro’s rule, Kaede clearly wears the pants in the partnership, with Jiro seeming to be a reluctant ruler at times.
Hidetora’s madness is probably not the best word to use. Rather, he is coming to the revelation of the acts he engaged in and the blood that had been shed under his reign, and he’s become haunted by the ghosts of his evil past. Midway through the film, Hidetora and his two assistants look for solitude in a small hut, and when they are refused they enter anyway and discover that the hut is owned by Tsurumaru, the brother of Sue, whose eyes were cut out in lieu of being killed by Hidetora’s forces. Lady Kaede’s scheming almost resembles a soap opera villainess, but she’s an Eastern version of Lady MacBeth, and portrayed very well by Mieko Harada. Tatsuya Nakadai played Hidetora, and for a man in his then-50s, he did an exceptional job at portraying someone 30 years older. The movie ends with a death that the audience doesn’t want, but does expect. It follows with a comment by Hidetora’s assistant Tango about how the Gods cry at death, because man takes a creation such as life, and how man always seems to prefer war over love and peace. The closing shot is of Tsurumaru at a castle’s ruins, perhaps symbolizing that it’s better to be blind than to see the cruelties that man can inflict on man. The movie is riveting work, and to consider that Kurosawa had been making this basically since Kagemusha, and that he directed this in his 75th year of life is an amazing testament to the creativity within the man. It’s an exceptional film that everyone must have in their collection.
Kurosawa and Madadayo only come with Dolby 2.0 sound. While some of the scenes in Madadayo perhaps could have benefited from a 5.1 presentation, it’s not a huge sticking point. However, Ran includes a Dolby Digital 5.1 Japanese track to go with the mono track. There’s nothing special to the 5.1 track, though it does provide adequate emphasis to some of the battle scenes.
Kurosawa looks good, despite the varying different film excerpts that were part of the documentary, the recent interviews are in 1.85:1 non-anamorphic widescreen with Dolby 2.0. Madadayo is also in 1.85:1 widescreen, but the film has many shot with many blacks and grays, no doubt to reflect the occupation era in Japan, and the transfer is only satisfactory. Ran’s previous release under the Fox Lorber label was horrible from what I’ve heard, and the “new high definition transfer” is OK, but doesn’t do the film enough justice in my opinion. The 1.85:1 widescreen format shows quite a bit of edge enhancement here (Hidetora’s face is almost indistinguishable at times), and the colors really don’t stand out well. Hopefully the rumored Criterion release will blow the previous discs out of the water.
There is extra interview footage on Kurosawa totaling about 90 minutes, and covers material more suited for the film school buff or historian, such as Kurosawa’s writing habits and working with other writers, as well as some detail about working with his actors, specifically Mifune. More footage from interviews with Coburn and Eastwood are here also. As far as extra material goes, a filmography is included, along with a dozen websites relating to the director are included, one or two of them related to the Ran re-release. Ran includes two commentary tracks, the first is from Peter Grilli, who is the President of the Japan Society of Boston, and visited Kurosawa on the set of Ran. Grilli’s commentary is more anecdotal, recalling stories about Kurosawa’s well-reputed attention to detail, his work habits, and the history of the shoot. Considering the runtime of the film, it’s understandable that there are some gaps in the commentary, so be prepared for them if you sit down to listen to this one. Grilli also helps to illustrate the ties to King Lear from the film also. Film scholar Stephen Prince, who wrote a book about Kurosawa and his films, entitled “The Warrior’s Camera,” provides the other commentary track. Prince’s commentary is primarily analytical, talking about the editing and camera shots in the film, and it analyzes the scenes in detail. I’m not a huge fan of scholar commentaries, as they can be a bit tedious, but this one did hold my attention. Biographical notes for both speakers are included, with Prince’s focusing more on his written work, and 5 pages of production notes are here also. Trailers for the European release and the home video release of the film are included as well, along with a filmography of Kurosawa and several weblinks for the film. There is a 4 minute piece without dialogue that helps to illustrate the restoration involved with the film, and put up against the original material, the new transfer looks OK in that regard. Madadayo’s extras consist of the trailer, filmographies for Kurosawa and three of the actors, and 5 Kurosawa storyboard illustrations. There are 4 pages of production credits, 3 of the film and 1 of the DVD, and there is a weblink for the Fox Lorber DVD newsletter as well.
Being available just through Amazon for about $100 may serve as two discouraging issues for curious buyers, but it can be had for much less, and includes an informative documentary, not to mention two outstanding films from one of the greatest directors in cinema. At the very least, Ran is a must-see (though hold off on purchase until the Criterion disc comes out), but the set is strongly recommended for any film enthusiast.
Special Features List
- Commentary Tracks
- Production Notes
- Deleted Footage
- Restoration Demo
- Recreated storyboards