Thankfully, as part of Criterion’s desire to be completists of the Akira Kurosawa collection, they have finally decided to release Ran on DVD. For the sake of time, I’ll include my thoughts of the film based on my review of the Kurosawa boxed set, which included a previous version of Ran:
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 ques…ions 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.
This is the third DVD version of Ran, following two releases that gradually improved in quality. With this version, most of the other problems that plagued the film on DVD are cleared up. The flesh tones and colors appear the most natural, and while the overall quality of the film is a little bit lacking, Criterion’s work in ensuring Kurosawa’s color prints get love and attention deserves brownie points.
It sounds like the Dolby Digital 2.0 Japanese audio mix is different from the previous DVDs, and in this case, sounds a little better, with more clarity and consistency. The soundtrack covers a broader environment than the Wellspring/Koch release, and the music sounds as good as it ever has. The only downside being that older films seem to lack a decent 5.1 Surround mix, but this is perfectly acceptable.
While previous incarnations of Ran have included supplemental material that is good, but not great, to have the folks at Criterion get their hands on this was long awaited, with outstanding results. The feature is on Disc 1, along with a commentary by Film scholar Stephen Prince, who wrote a book about Kurosawa and his films, entitled “The Warrior’s Camera”. Prince provides a commentary track for the film that is identical to the previous version. 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. However, the one that was more enjoyable, by Peter Grilli, isn’t on this disc. To make up for that deletion, director Sidney Lumet (Network, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon) discusses the merits of the film, both as an appreciation and as a series of technical accomplishments. When Lumet says that a film is “as good as a movie can get”, it’s a must-view. Combined with four trailers, that’s everything on Disc 1.
Disc 2 starts with the documentary A.K., helmed by Chris Marker, whose short film Le Jetee inspired 12 Monkeys. In the documentary, you view how Kurosawa handles his actors, both good and bad, as well as his work on the set. There is some footage of a scene that was not included in the film (that resulted in the spray painting of some grass, if you can believe it), along with extended looks at key scenes in the film, like the battle sequences at the third castle. It’s clear that the crew enjoys working for him and some of them had worked with him for over 30 years at the time of production. But the crew enjoys a communal experience. They all pitch in to help with set arrangements if they are needed, and they all want to do the best possible job possible. It serves as an excellent companion to the production, along with the “Ran edition” of the Toho series “It is Wonderful to Create”, which focuses on the technical and production aspects of each Kurosawa movie (and what Criterion has included on all recent Kurosawa DVDs). Kurosawa’s production detail has been discussed in the past, but to see the third castle being built, with a foundation and everything, is quite impressive, along with a desire to shoot a scene in a typhoon to illustrate how tumultuous Hidetora’s madness was. Along with this information, members of the crew recall working with the director, and pictures of his storyboards are included too. The stories about Kurosawa using Kagemusha as a “dry run” for Ran are touched upon too, and Kurosawa told several members just how much of himself he put into the film. This is another outstanding extra on the set, and Tatsuya Nakadai (who plays Hidetora) discusses how hard it was to shoot the sequence where he leaves the castle as it’s devoured in flames. In a separate interview that lasts about 10 minutes, Nakadai recalls the director and some of the film’s key scenes, and discusses the character in an articulate and technical manner. The other extra on Disc Two is a series of storyboards and Kurosawa paintings, set to production audio of the film that provides an alternate look at the film. Kurosawa’s artwork is simply amazing, as most directors’ storyboards are so sloppy, it’s nice to see one person who put a lot of time and thought into what he was looking for.
Quite simply, Akira Kurosawa is one of the greatest directors of the 20th century, producing a film in a genre that he has defined and perfected. Using a famous Shakespearean work and adapting it to meet Eastern cultures and tastes makes it a pleasant experience, and the “Criterion treatment” is so outstanding and consistent, it’s a catchphrase all its own. Recommended for any film fan’s library, and at least deserves a rental for the curious, who will enjoy it.
Special Features List
- Commentary by Stephen Prince
- Appreciation by Sidney Lumet
- A.K. documentary film
- “It Is Wonderful To Create” documentary of making of Ran
- Storyboard Sketches
- Interview with Tatsuyka Nakadai