Ran Blu-ray Review
'Ran' is presented in widescreen 1.85:1 with VC-1 1080p coding.
There has been quite a bit of controversy regarding the image quality on the DVD releases of 'Ran'. The majority suffered image variation and colouration discrepancies, with viewers favouring the Criterion Collection DVD release over all others. On HD-DVD this release did not fare much better, with Studio Canal's efforts slated for overuse of edge enhancement and DNR (not to mention the fact that it had no English subtitles). Unfortunately, it appears that the HD-DVD transfer has also been utilised for this BD release, which is not surprising as this essentially is a Studio-Canal release.
There is plenty of detail on view, such as clods of dirt kicked up from galloping steeds or the large vein protruding from Hidetaro's head but there is very little fine detail on show. Facial close-ups can be impressive and reveal the carefully applied makeup of Nakadai and the texture of clothing. Most of the scenes accurately represent the many subtle nuances of set decoration and character costume but the image is never stunning. Some of the exquisitely framed shots can also exude a pleasing depth but these are by no means in the majority.
I observed some slight colour fluctuation, especially during the outdoor scenes, wherein colours can seem slightly overblown. But for the most part the palette is well saturated. The primaries are bold and full but never really vibrant (aside from some scant instances). There is also some nice colour gradation, such as on the various subtly coloured kimonos. Overall the feel is very naturalistic; I didn't find the colour presentation unacceptable in any way and I actually quite enjoyed this aspect of the transfer. On occasion the image can appear somewhat dark but I believe that this was intentional by the director to depict dark times.
Unfortunately, edge enhancement rears its ugly head and is immediately evident, with ringing appearing in the mid-range opening shot of Hidetaro and his hunting party. This effect is also blatantly obvious in other mid range scenes and is especially noticeable around the characters in shot. Although I had to move closer than my normal viewing position to see the full effects, it's most definitely present in a large proportion (if not all) of the presentation. While this has undoubtedly sharpened the image somewhat, its effects are plainly obvious to those wary of its signs. The scene where Kaede is praying to Buddha on the mountain is a prime example. It also appears as though some DNR has been applied throughout. I am basing this assumption on the fact that softness can creep into many of the scenes. It seemed to my eye that the granular content has been tamed, with resultant loss of detail. Skin tones can also have a waxy appearance on occasion and I did notice one or two instances of motion blur (although this cannot be directly attributable to DNR). Some of the scenes, albeit a small percentile, also have frozen grain. Again I'm not too sure if this is directly attributable to DNR but it's most definitely a prime culprit. The image is for the most part flat and never really lifts from the print to come to life. Facial and other close up shots appear largely free from the effects of DNR but overall I just felt as though the image was just not as sharp as it could have been. Some of the scenes can also stumble back into the realm of standard definition quality. This was largely noted on the long shots, so this softness could also be evidence of excessive DNR utilisation.
The contrast ratio is also very unusual. It appears as though the white balance is overblown in some of the brighter outer scenes but I'm not too sure if this was an intentional decision by the director to enhance the burning heat of the sun. Black levels are adequate but never reach the inky depths which BD is capable of. A lot of filters have undoubtedly been used by Kurosawa to achieve his desired vision so some of the strange colour/contrast fluctuations could be attributable to this fact. Granted, there are some scenes which appear crisp, clear and moderately well defined but these definitely do not dominate.
Personally I found this Optimum BD release to be somewhat of a disappointment and I can't help but wonder how Criterion would have handled this release on BD. Unfortunately, there are some disputes over the rights of this movie, so I'm not too sure if we will ever see a Criterion release, which is a shame.
'Ran' comes packed with a Japanese dts HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track.
Front separation is very impressive and the overall directionality across the two main channels is very solid throughout. The attack on the First Castle is a prime example; as the mighty Hidetaro's first bastion burns, flames can be heard licking around the room, creating a nice, wide soundstage. The track also contains plenty of subtleties, such as the crack of gunfire during the battle scenes and the swooshing of Kaede's kimono. The varying vocal levels are crystal clear, with the various baritone samurai voices perfectly represented. Disappointingly, the surround channels don't get much of a workout at all. They are called into play for a few ambient effects, such as the whispering of Hidetaro's voice, indicating his mental demise but they are certainly nowhere near as active as the front channels. Where they do excel is during the scenes which feature the famous Kurosawa wind. The whooshing gales and gentle breezes exude with distinct presence from the surrounds. The bass department is poorly represented, with the close of the First Castle's doors acting as one the few facets on this track which provide any discernable wooferage. In saying that, the source material doesn't contain any high impact scenes, so I won't be taking away any points for this lack of bass.
The magnificent score from Toru Takemitsu gets the lion's share of the audio presentation. The score is at times immense, especially during the battle sequences, where it completely replaces any other audio effects and soars. The build and crescendos are masterful, with nice mid-range tom drums and a multitude of other orchestral instruments included. It is almost ritualistic and haunting, coming into play during many key scenes to inject emotion, with its repetitive nature labouring points which Kurosawa wants to make. The treble is high and clear with the bass solidly pounding from the mid-range. There are some deeper bass offerings from the immense tom drums but these instances are few and far between. There was also decent surround bleed noted.
Silences are also used to great effect, giving the audience time to reflect on the deeply layered plot. The only problem is that these silences reveal an audible hiss on the track. While this is largely unobtrusive for the duration, it is most definitely present. Unfortunately, there were also a few pops and cracks noted on the track as well but these were infrequent.
Although this is a 5.1 uncompressed mix, it is still front heavy. The surrounds do have their moments to shine but I felt that this track still sounds like a stereo mix (it was released originally on DVD as a stereo offering). In saying that the audio upgrade is both pleasing and worthwhile but this release will never make it into the demo category section. I feel that the source material is a limiting factor and this has been taken into account for the scoring.
The extras package is low on quantity but high on quality and includes the very impressive “AK” documentary. The absence of a commentary track from Kurosawa expert, Stephen Prince, is a disappointing omission; I found Prince's track most informative on 'Kagemusha'. If I remember correctly there was a DVD release which featured a commentary track from another Japanese cinema expert but this is also absent. As is to be expected, as this release is part of the Studio Canal collection, the majority of the features are in French but thankfully English subtitles are available.
“AK” (SD 71mins) - This generous feature is basically a making of documentary from the set of 'Ran'. It focuses on the renowned director and his methods, influences and previous releases. The documentary includes a wealth of background footage, which exposes the great Akira Kurosawa at work. An explanatory narrative (which can be a bit sparse at times) is included and really serves to expose the techniques and methods which Kurosawa employed on the sets of his movies. Excerpts of interview recordings with Kurosawa are peppered here and there for flavour, adding worthwhile content to the already ripe feature. His interaction with great actors, such as Nakadai, is fascinating and really serves to highlight the respect which these men and women, who are stars in their own right, have for the revered director. The old but seemingly healthy Kurosawa moves with surprising pace and energy, moving close to his actors during the takes to ensure that every minute detail is to his liking and high standards of perfection. This highly revealing documentary basically offers a fly on the wall glimpse from the set of an epic Kurosawa production and reveals his shortcomings (such as his extreme perfectionism) and also the passion and focus which make him the greatest Asian movie director of all time.
“Akira Kurosawa: The Epic and the Intimate” (SD 41mins) - This feature includes some of France's elder statesmen of cinema and journalism (as well as Kurosawa's daughter), who impart knowledge on Kurosawa, as well as elaborating firsthand what the great, but difficult, man was like to work with. There are plenty of interesting anecdotes as well as footage from 'Ran' itself, which is discussed at length. All participants discuss the great director's works and how he is an unparalleled director, mentor and film-maker.
“The Art of the Samurai” (SD 52mins) - This documentary takes a look at the world of the traditional samurai warrior and is the only feature which is in English. Footage from a samurai warrior convention, wherein 100's of civilians dress as samurai warriors and adhere to the discipline of the Bushido code, is included to give an idea of what life as a samurai warrior would have been like. The origins of these warriors, their traditions/ceremonies and their battle prowess/weaponry are all explored in depth. This highly informative piece looks at the complex feudal systems which lasted for 700 years in Japan, as well as the influence they have had on cinema.
“Trailer” (SD mins) - Included here is one standard definition trailer for the movie.
'Ran' was released in 1985 and was heralded as the legendary Akira Kurosawa's modern masterpiece. With suitable financial backing and a stellar cast, headed by the magnificent Tatsuya Nakadai, this release marks the great director's true return to form. This movie charts the chaos which descends on a tightly knit samurai dynamic, who fall prey to the temptation of lust, power and greed. These factors cause their once powerful warlord to descend into madness, tearing the entire clan apart. As is the case with the majority of Kurosawa's movies, 'Ran' is multi-layered and cerebral. The concept of this movie was pondered and incessantly reworked over a period of fifteen years. As such, the plot runs deep and contains many thought provoking themes. There's also a couple of cracking battle sequences and plenty of treacherous double-crosses. This is simply a work of art, with the immense effort which Kurosawa injects into his movies, plainly visible here through stunning cinematography and attention to detail. This is simply one of the most engrossing and thought-provoking samurai dramas out there and is a must for all lovers of great cinema.
Unfortunately the video presentation is somewhat of a disappointment. While the image is well saturated and solid for the majority, a couple of unattractive features, such as EE and DNR are present. I felt that their use is heavy handed and to the detriment of the transfer. The audio presentation fairs a bit better but also has its shortcomings and will most definitely never make it into the demo category. Overall is this movie worth the upgrade? I would say yes. The transfer is definitely not the best that BD has to offer but with the Criterion release shelved indefinitely, this Optimum release offers worthwhile package to make this disc worth purchasing if you don't already own a copy.
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