Samurai King Lear
Kurosawa’s last epic – and arguably one of the finest films of his career – turned once again to Shakespeare to reimagine one of the Bard’s least appreciated works, the tragedy of King Lear.When a powerful, once-brutal warlord has a portentous dream about how old he is getting, he elects to leave his throne to his two most reckless, disloyal sons, who soon proceed to engineer the retired warlord’s own exile, all the while bringing the kingdom to the brink of war. Majestically reimagining Lear into the structure of feudal Japan was a stroke of genius, particularly given his age and the faintly autobiographical undertones of the source work, but Kurosawa, despite being some forty years and 26 movies into his illustrious career as a filmmaker, was still struggling to find backing to make such an epic piece, looking overseas (as he had with his last film, the equally magnificent Kagemusha) and resulting in a co-French production which – for political reasons – cost the film a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination.To this day, though, it remains one of Kurosawa’s greatest endeavours, which is some pretty impressive praise, given some of the greats he’s come up with: from popular Samural-Westerns (Yojimbo, Seven Samurai) to noirish thrillers (The Bad Sleep Well, High and Low) to reimagined Shakespeare (Throne of Blood, The Bad Sleep Well) to more politically inspired masterworks (Red Beard). His films have proven inspiration for countless future gems (most obviously The Hidden Fortress, which inspired Star Wars) and Ran was a fitting final epic to embark upon, with Kurosawa working his magic to bring the vibrant characters to life, perfectly framing the lush Japanese landscapes and skilfully delivering equal parts quiet brooding intensity and jaw-dropping epic battle sequences, all cut to a moving, memorable score. It's sheer perfection.
Picture QualityStudiocanal’s eagerly-anticipated 4K-restored remaster of this masterpiece certainly doesn’t disappoint in terms of outright upgrade over its previous Blu-ray releases (it’s had quite a few across different territories), returning to the original negative for a meticulous manual ‘image by image’ restoration which promotes the classic 1985 film’s wondrous landscapes and fine detail with aplomb, leaving the feature looking arguably better than it has ever done before.
Controversial colour choices aside, this 4K-remaster is undoubtedly the best the classic has ever looked.
Whilst detail levels are amazing – from the second the softer opening credits sequence finishes you can immediately see a shocking leap-up in clarity, with the lush environment and vibrant colours springing to life and objects and individuals taking crystal clear shape, without any signs of digital defects or overt over-manipulation – the colour scheme may well be something of a bone of contention. Sure, it brings out the vibrant palette that Kurosawa used but, without the original filmmakers on hand to supervise themselves, it’s hard to get the colour timing quite right, and the end result is a marginally skewed look that veers in the direction of greeny-blue teals, making the lush Japanese landscapes almost alien in tone. You get used to it after a while, and it doesn’t frustrate the viewing experience, but it would be hard to unequivocally rate this as a reference restoration when, for one reason or another, this particular element appears to be far from perfect. It shouldn’t hold you back from picking up what is unquestionably a tremendous upgrade over prior releases.
Sound QualityThe tremendous – albeit frequently minimalist – score is brought to life via a bevy of different track options, headlined by the most obvious choice: a Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which does a marvellous job with the material.
Underpinning the whole feature, Ran’s warm, atmospheric score becomes an important character of its own.
Dialogue is keenly disseminated across the frontal array – well, obviously the whole piece is remarkably front-dominated – and effects, which are much more noticeable in the broader, more epic battle sequences, are far from dynamic but nonetheless well presented. It’s the score, though, that holds the whole thing together; understated yet beautiful, it’s almost as important as the words, themselves clearly translated by optional English subtitles.
ExtrasThe 2-disc set reserves the first disc almost exclusively for the 4K-remastered film itself, complete with a short Featurette about the restoration work done for the release, and saves the wealth of extra material to pack out a second disc.
Studiocanal’s lavish remastered edition of the film comes complete with a whole second disc packed with worthy extras.
There’s A.K. – a feature length (75 minute) Documentary on Kurosawa and the making of Ran; Akira Kurosawa: The Epic and the Intimate, a further 42-minute retrospective Documentary with a number of famous directors discussing their thoughts about the great Kurosawa; the 14 minute Akira Kurosawa by Catherine Cadou, who discusses her experiences translating on his productions; Art of the Samurai (40 minutes) which sets the historical period stage for the film; Interview with the Director of Photography – Shoji Ueda, a 10-minute piece looking at Kurosawa’s detailed storyboarding and set/costume designs; Interview with Michael Brooke – Author/Journalist, another quarter-hour opinion piece on the director; and an Interview with Ms Mieko Harada who spends 21 minutes talking about her key role in the film and her experiences on-set. There’s also a 15 minute Stage Appearance at Tokyo International Film Festival 2015, introducing the new restoration, and finally The Samurai, an hour-long Documentary about Bushido and the Samurai. The lavish set is rounded off with a 17-page booklet packed with interesting background information into both the production and the restoration, as well as a set of art cards.
VerdictRan is pure genius, an all-time masterpiece from one of the greatest directors who ever lived and, whether or not you've discovered his work yet, you should push this to the top of your must-watch list.
Studiocanal have done a stunning job with this 4K remaster (notwithstanding the undoubtedly soon-to-be-controversial colour choices), providing the film in the best condition it’s ever looked and with a burgeoning selection of extra features sure to sate any fan. Highly recommended.
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