Every great director hits a point where they look back. Rarely their greatest films, these career retrospectives say much more about the than perhaps any of their previous films. Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, Hitchcock’s North by Northwest both play like this, but by far the best career culmination was Akira Kurosawa’s Ran.
From the opening moments, the hallmarks of AK are present. His greatness in the presentation of action flows smoothly into human interactions and character. We meet Tatsuya Nakadai’s emperor, and with great economy establish the entire course of the film, from the feuding lords, his ungrateful children, excepting the loyal youngest son, and most importantly his decent into the madness that will grip his for most of the film are all laid out within the first minutes.
A free adaptation of King Lear, Ran works in the same vein as the greatest of the Shakespearean adaptations by pushing aside the staid staginess and moving the work into humanity and barbarity. The best Shakespearean translators, Kurosawa and Welles, stage Shakespeare as an animalistic, base instincts writer. It is ferocity of the acting, especially in the leads, that opens these overanalyzed texts into living films.
Ran’s greatest strengths lie in Nakadai’s performance. The direction of Kurosawa. Kurosawa’s transition from black and white to color was as accomplished as any director from the west, and his use of color here is masterful. And his staging of the epic battle scenes is more impressive than even the height of Peter Jackson’s computer driven hordes. Kurosawa moves his action beyond Shakespearean tragedy into the realm of Noh abstraction and back again. The battle at the center of the film exists in the sublime.
While not as great or flawless as Seven Samurai, Rashomon or Ikiru, Ran’s grandeur and the brilliance and joy in Kurosawa’s telling lends itself to a film that overwhelms the viewer and leaves them reeling.
Three times through and a company finally nails the transfer. After a failed pressing for Fox and a sub par Wellspring effort, the amazing crew at Criterion turns in another spot on effort. The colors look dead on and the inherent 80s grain have been reduced to their lowest possible level. In a film this virtuosic with imagery, it’s wonderful that a company finally took the time to get it right.
A solid Dolby 2.0 mix, without the noticeable quality loss of earlier efforts.
No one can touch Criterion. Their time and effort in collecting the best special features to put the film in the appropriate context is still unrivaled. Across the two discs of Ran are a wealth of wonderful features including:
Commentary by Stuart Prince: Very informative, although quite academic and dry. Prince has literally written a book on the subject, so the track works best to sample than for a listen straight through.
Trailers: An odd international trailer plus three interesting Japanese trailers. The Japanese seem to have realized what they had on their hands here. It is wonderful that this was respected as the last great work of a true artist.
Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create: An episode of the Toho Masterwork series, the profile uses archival footage mixed with new interviews to create a much more personal vision of Kurosawa than you are presented elsewhere on the disc. The half hour piece gives you a great sense of the man himself.
Image: Ran’s Continuity is an interesting, if failed, attempt to synch Kurosawa’s conceptual artwork with music. Another feature that is brilliant to sample, but shouldn’t be sat through in its entirety.
Tatsuya Nakadai: A short, slight 10 minute interview with the actor. Nothing not revealed elsewhere on the disc.
A.K.: The jewel of the set is a 74 minute film by another Criterion worthy filmmaker Chris Marker. Brilliant in his own right, Marker’s film mostly follows the atmosphere of the set as Kurosawa creates his final epic. Part cinema verite, part essay film (a genre created by Marker) the intimate look into the production was used to promote the Ran’s release, which makes it by far the best promotional material ever made.
To Sum Up:
Even if you own one of the previous releases, Criterion’s Ran is worth the double- (or triple-) dip. Vastly improved in audio, video, and special features the new version is the best possible presentation of Kurosawa’s last masterwork. Epic in scope, and yet still retaining all of the humanism that so marks his work, Ran is one of the ultimate classics of the Japanese cinema.