Nepotism has a long history in the ruling class, with the children of kings and lords becoming kings and lords themselves. The struggle for power is all that much more riveting to see or read about when those fighting amongst themselves, often in lethal fashion, are of the same blood, betraying or killing their brethren for a quicker path to the throne. Businesses today are often run the same way, with the children of presidents, CEOs, and owners getting fast-tracked through the company into posh seats of power, regardless of whether they deserve them (and in my experience, they often don't). Working as the third generation in a family business, I'm not in the position of having to stab my siblings in the back (or front) to get ahead, as they did that to themselves, but the nature in brothers to fight for the same piece of a pie can create jealousy, resentment, and one hell of a competitive spirit.
Perhaps that's why I view 'Ran' as one of the better works of Akira Kurosawa. Openly paralleling William Shakespeare's 'King Lear' and translating the tale to feudal Japan, the greatest director ever (which is less a statement of opinion than statement of fact), takes the themes from the greatest poet and playwright ever, in order to make one of the last great samurai epics. Original? No. Riveting? Incredibly.
A cliffnotes on this tale of betrayal, war, jealousy, and revelation is set into motion when Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai, with makeup effects that make him look like Yogurt from 'Spaceballs'), the aging ruler of the Ichimonji clan, has a vision of loneliness and immediately abdicates his throne to be split among his three sons, the eldest Taro (Akira Terao), Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), and the young Saburo (Daisuke Ryû). While Taro and Jiro praise their bloodthirsty father and his decision, Saburo takes offense, and points out the flaws in logic of having the siblings split the reign of the three castles. Saburo is immediately banished from the family, left to make his own way in the world.
Hidetora's plan goes exactly as Saburo predicts, though, as Taro's wife, Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), a serpent in human form (though she is equated to a fox), poisons him, leading to Hidetora being sent out from his position of Great Lord from the first castle. Soon after, Hidetora is not given true welcome at the castle of Jiro. Hidetora's loyal retainers are slaughtered by the brothers, who turn on each other, and the old fool is driven to madness. Saburo is left, aligned with rival lord Fujimaki, to retake the throne from his last remaining brother, and restore peace and balance to the force (sorry, kingdom).
'Ran' was the last true big-scale Samurai production for Kurosawa, a tragic end cap to his series of memorable characters, fights, and stories. There is no true hero or anti-hero, and sadly, no Toshirô Mifune, to root for, as this all-too familiar tale gives a plethora of flawed, human characters to document, instead. Sets are elaborate, armies dressed up to the hilt with such flare that an Academy Award was bestowed upon the film for its costume design, and the action is fast, a potent mixture of spears, swords, and firearms.
What makes the story fascinating has little to do with Kurosawa, as the intricate series of betrayals written by Shakespeare in his original tragedy remain powerful some 400 years later, as there is hardly a single character who doesn't double cross those close to them. Oddly enough, the only true and honest person is the fool, Kyoami (Peter), as his devotion to his master Hidetora never wavers, even when it drives Hidetora to want to slaughter the dancing and singing oaf. The ideals of all three brothers are believable, their quests and passions understandable. Thankfully, the brother who I felt gave the best performance was the one viewed most in the film (who also had the most difficult role), the treacherous Jiro, as Nezu gives the character real depth, without feeling too forced or over the top (like Nakadai does occasionally in his attempts to play mad).
'Ran' may not have closed the book on Kurosawa's filmmaking, but it did close a very important chapter, the one that first brought my eye to the work of the man whose work directly influenced 'Star Wars.' The story is as sound as they come, with great war games, double crosses, and losses on all sides. Characters are fleshed out and believable, like real people, while the supporting cast (including Hisashi Igawa as Kurogane, a scene stealer if ever there were one) is sound. View this film as a war epic, a period piece with extravagant costuming, or a character based tale. It's all of those things, and much more. Infinitely replayable, 'Ran' belongs in many a film collection.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Ran' is one of the first three titles of the StudioCanal Collection, alongside 'The Ladykillers' and 'Contempt.' The disc is Region AB (with no Region C compatibility), and is housed on a BD50 dual layer disc. The UK release of the film, released a few months prior to the this release, came in a digipak, rather than the standard (eco cut out) case with orange slipcover found here. This title was previously released by Studio Canal on HD DVD in Germany, however there were no English subtitles available.
Damn. If ever there were a film that I wanted to garnish with great praises for its video, it would be 'Ran.' One of the best works from the greatest director ever, it's hard not to hope that it will look utterly amazing. It didn't take long when viewing this Blu-ray to realize that any high hopes would be dashed. It made me want to run, run so far away. So I just ran, I ran all night and day. But, sadly...I couldn't get away from the failures of this VC-1 encode (and hopefully now you won't be able to run away from the sounds of A Flock of Seagulls in your heads).
From the very start of this film, the credit sequence in the grassy fields, it's easy to see this is going to be a bumpy ride. The grass is blurry, indistinguishable, blending together to form a blanket of sorts, rather than an eye popping field of sharp blades. Once the credits end, the blades become clear and distinct...scratch that, blurry again, so soon after. This example may be relatively minor, but it is an issue that plagues the rest of the film, off and on, hazy, soft, blurry shots. Faces rarely ever have distinct character, save for those highlighted with extreme makeup. They're just a wash.
Colors are bold, with the solid colors representing each brother and their clans leaping right off the screen, with every flag and piece of armor, and skin tones are appropriate, a mixture of pale and tanned skins that never look orangey or red. That said, the makeup effects used to create the topknots (chonmage) are strikingly visible, as these warriors' heads look like they were just shaved yesterday, and were never out in the sun (the transition on foreheads is also distinct and distracting). Brightness levels fluctuate, as does contrast. Blacks are somewhat strong, though shadow detail is weak. There is some obvious edge enhancement to be found, with even some chromatic aberrations (color fringing), but no DNR, as the somewhat strong grain never looks altered or wiped.
Alright, I'll admit I wish the entire Criterion spiel about cracks and pops being removed from the audio of their releases was found in the StudioCanal Collection titles. While 'Ran' does sound quite nice with its (default) Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, there are distinct elements that should have been cleaned up and/or removed.
Dialogue is clear, though sometimes understated, moving from channel to channel as camera angles change. The score hits all angles properly, with great effect, including some spots of low end rumble. The LFE also gets some random workouts with atmospheric effects, but it isn't utilized all too thoroughly. Atmosphere is abundant, probably to the point that it is over-abundant, and can be somewhat distracting at times. I understand the bugs in the background, and was even able to live through the cicada onslaught from 'Neon Genesis Evangelion,' but these bugs must have been on the clear or the cream (to those with no BALCO related knowledge, that means steroids...). The high range is often muted, but when given a chance, it can be outright screaming. Gunfire hits from every speaker, though it is very faint in the rears.
I have some minor complaints with this track, more so than the above. There was a scene with a large cavalcade of horseback and infantry soldiers passing by the camera from left to right for damn near half a minute, but there was no real movement between speakers. There were extended moments of hums and whirs, basic annoying feedback obviously present in many prolonged scenes. Lastly, the war scenes are epic in their sound design, but after a while it can start to sound like nothing but one loud roar. The track isn't bad, by any means, but it's troubled.
The majority of the extras found in the Criterion release of 'Ran' did not find their way on to this release (see more about these exclusions after the high-def exclusives section). The main one did, though, and it's a damn good one.
Titles in the StudioCanal collection don't come with spine numbers, so they will certainly not get the attention from the completionist film snobs who nearly committed seppuku over the change in distribution of this title. I could care less who distributes the titles, so long as they hit Blu-ray at all...well, somewhat, as I do wish the StudioCanal collection titles had more time put into them, in terms of their audio and video qualities (and no, not by means of DNRing a picture to death). Kurosawa's 'Ran' is a fine way to kick off any film collection, even if it is no 'Seven Samurai,' because, really, few films are anywhere near as good as that all-time classic. This release sports a different set of supplements than fans are used to, some of which were quite interesting, even if they required reading subtitles. This release could have been done better, and I am left wondering how well the canceled Criterion release would have looked or sounded. This isn't just a case of Criterion placebo, as much as I wish it were.