Release Date(s)1985 (July 19, 2021)
Studio(s)Toho/Greenwich Film Productions/Herald Ace/Nippon Herald Films (StudioCanal)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B+
[Editor’s Note: This is a UK import 4K release. The UHD disc is compatible with players worldwide, but the Blu-ray Discs are limited to REGION B. The film portion of this review is by Barrie Maxwell. The overall 4K UHD review is by Bill Hunt.]
While Ran is certainly one of Akira Kurosawa’s epic masterpieces, released some 13 years before his death, it’s probably not the best place to start if you’re new to the director’s work. Ran is highly stylized, theatrical, and at times static, a film that can only be truly appreciated after one has more experience with Kurosawa’s earlier films. (The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Kagemusha provide cinematic context that allows one to understand the acting styles and tradition of Japanese theatre that inform much of the director’s work.) That said, while Kurosawa made a few additional films during his final years, none achieved the imagination or spectacle of Ran’s King Lear-like tale of power, greed, and revenge set in feudal Japan.
It begins with the aging ruler Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) turning over his kingdom’s leadership to his three sons, hoping to live out his remaining years in comfort and dignity while still maintaining a level of control himself. Predictably, his plan runs awry as his youngest son Saburo (Daisuke Ryu) rebels against the arrangement. Saburo is banished from the clan and ends up with a rival kingdom as the other two sons Taro (Akira Terao) and Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu) vie with their father to assume total control.
The complex plot has many elements that beg attention, as anyone familiar with King Lear might expect, and the convoluted twists are as interesting for the observation of their planning as their actual execution. There is, however, so much going on in Ran that it’s impossible to do justice to everything in a single viewing. Following the machinations of eldest son Taro’s wife is a particularly fruitful exercise, and requires close attention to see the whole pattern of her actions. But it is a focus on Hidetora himself, a man who seemingly expects that no bill for his past sins will ever be submitted, that intrigues the most. That bill comes in the form of the actions of his sons, who are essentially chips off the old block. The result is an effective exile from his kingdom for Hidetora, rather than the comfortable retirement he had anticipated, and the unexpectedness of it all slowly drives Hidetora mad.
As was common with Kurosawa’s later films, the director had difficulties with funding. In Ran’s case, the solution was a jointly-financed French/Japanese production with some $12 million to work with. Kurosawa’s typically thorough preparation allowed him to maximize the value of every cent and the results are very evident on the screen. Costuming is lavishly detailed and colorful, and the action sequences are nicely choreographed and delivered on an epic scale. The characters are well-fleshed out too, for the most part, with the best portrayals coming from Nezu as second son Jiro and Mieko Harada as first son Taro’s scheming wife. Nakadai’s handling of the Hidetora character is effective, although it flirts with excess as the character’s madness accelerates.
Ran was shot on 35 mm photochemical film using Panavision Panaflex Gold cameras with Super Speed MKII, Ultra Speed MKII, and Cooke spherical lenses, and was finished photochemically in the 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. For the 2015 restoration (and for its release now on Ultra HD), Laboratoires Éclair in Paris scanned the original camera negative in native 4K and completed an extensive physical and digital restoration to repair broken splices and frames (resulting from earlier overuse and mishandling of the neg to create dupe negatives and “prestige” prints), and to remove unwanted age and wear-related artifacts in the actual image (scratches, dirt, etc). The good news is that the OCN had been well stored, so it remained in good condition. And the process of restoration and color grading for both SDR and high dynamic range (available in both HDR10 and Dolby Vision) was approved by director of photography Shôji Ueda. The result of all of this effort is an image that falls a little short of perfect, but that certainly represents Ran looking and sounding better than you’ve ever seen it at home. Image resolution is exceptional on first generation shots, with lovely fine detailing and refined texturing. It’s noticeably lower on optically-printed titles and transitions, but that’s par for the course on photochemical productions of this vintage. There are a few shots that are softer as originally photographed, and a couple of matte shots—featuring castle roofs and spires against sky vistas of boiling clouds—exhibit what appears to be static grain (on the building elements). But these shots were likely optically printed or photographed in camera (with still photos and rear projection), so this is almost certainly not an issue of excessive noise reduction being applied during the restoration. Grain is otherwise light to moderate and organic at all times. And while the HDR grade is restrained, it’s also spectacular. This film’s color palette hasn’t looked this good since its original release. Gone is the excessive blue-green tint that plagued previous Blu-ray editions. Skin tones are natural, grass and foliage are lush, gloomy clouds are properly gray, and the shimmering textures of robe fabrics and armor are exquisite—accurate and more vibrant than ever. What’s more, the expanded contrast adds a real metallic luster to gold lace detailing in costumes, while lending the shadows more pleasing depth. (Note that the Dolby Vision option offers slightly greater dimensionality, but the differences are not significant.) There are a couple of subtle encoding errors in StudioCanal’s disc image, but nothing that really distracts from one’s enjoyment of the actual film. All in all, this is a very good restoration.
Primary audio on the UHD is available in both Japanese 5.1 and 2.0 in DTS-HD Master Audio format, though be aware that the disc automatically defaults to whatever language you select for the menus when the disc starts up. (Obviously, any serious cinephile will want to switch over to one of the original language options to view the film.) The 2.0 track preserves the stereo theatrical sound experience. It’s largely free of any production or age-related issues. The soundstage is medium wide, with full rich tones and bass for the score, flatter sound effects, and clear dialogue. The 5.1 mix offers much the same experience tonally, while expanding the stage a bit by drawing atmospheric effects (wind noise, birds, and insects) and music into the surround channels. During some of the film’s grandly-staged battle scenes, there’s just a little bit of subtle directional play in the rear channels as well. But fans will know that key battle scenes are allowed to play out with only music, which actually lends the imagery a greater power and impact. Nevertheless, the subtle extension of the soundstage does result in a somewhat more immersive viewing experience. Additional audio options include English and French 5.1, and German 2.0 all in DTS-HD MA format. Optional subtitles are included in English, French, and German. Before moving on to the special features, however, the subtitles are our key complaint about this release: The English translation subs are not very good, and the text is filled with obvious errors—missing characters, misspellings, frequent untranslated dialogue, etc. It’s not a deal-breaker, but more than once it’s an irritation while viewing the film.
StudioCanal’s Ultra HD package is a 3-disc set. The 4K disc includes only one special feature. The package also includes the film in 1080p HD on Blu-ray—mastered from the 4K restoration—which includes this same feature:
- Ran: The Restoration (HD – 9:26)
You also get a Blu-ray of bonus content that adds the following:
- A.K. (1985 documentary) (HD – 71:35)
- Akira Kurosawa: The Epic and the Intimate (SD – 41:49)
- Akira Kurosawa by Catherine Cadou (SD – 14:04)
- Art of the Samurai (SD – 41:11)
- Interview with the Director of Photography: Mr. Ueda (HD – 10:35)
- Interview with Ms. Mieko Harada (HD – 20:42)
- Interview with Michael Brooke (HD – 16:13)
- Stage Appearance at Tokyo International Film Festival 2015 (HD – 15:00)
- The Samurai (SD – 52:47)
A.K. is an exceptional piece of work, essentially Chris Marker’s feature-length documentary on Kurosawa shot during the making of Ran. If you haven’t see it yet, it’s worth its weight in gold. The Epic and the Intimate is a 2010 French documentary by Robin Gatto, which features interviews with Kurosawa’s European collaborators and financiers on the production. Next up is a short piece featuring comments by French interpreter/translator Catherine Cadou, who worked with Kurosawa frequently. Art of the Samurai has historian and author Jean-Christophe Charbonnier comparing the reality of samurai culture to its highly-theatrical depiction in the film. Then there are a series of HD interviews with the film’s DP, actress Mieko Harada (who played Lady Kaede), and former BFI author/journalist Michael Brooke. Finally, there’s a 15 minute video of some of the film’s surviving cast and crew speaking at the Tokyo International Film Festival debut of the 4K restoration in 2015, and an hour-long look at samurai culture. These Blu-rays are essentially identical to StudioCanal’s 2016 release, which first featured the new 4K restoration. Note that the SD material was included on the 2010 StudioCanal Collection Blu-ray release, and has appeared on previous DVD releases. Also, some of the HD material is in 50i, so there’s audio speed-up unless your player and display can present such material without conversion.
Ran won numerous awards around the world, including an Oscar for Best Costume Design and Oscar nominations for director, cinematography, and art direction-set decoration. The film is a masterpiece, a sprawling and epic visual feast full of color, sound, fury, and life. It belongs in the library of any serious student of cinema in general, and Akira Kurosawa in particular. StudioCanal’s 4K Ultra HD presentation represents a highly-welcome upgrade of the film for home viewing. Aside from a few minor issues noted above, the disc is well worth importing for Kurosawa devotees and fans of classic cinema in 4K. Unfortunately, there’s no sign that Lionsgate intends to release the film on physical 4K UHD here in the States, though they have made the 4K presentation available digitally. But you should know that the image quality of the physical disc is notably superior to the digital offering. If Lionsgate should decide to release Ran on physical 4K UHD here in the States, it’s our hope that they’ll consider commissioning a proper new English subtitle translation of the original Japanese dialogue. Until then, if you don’t mind importing it and you have an All-Region player, this 4K release is certainly recommended.
- Bill Hunt and Barrie Maxwell