Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, Daisuke Ryu, Mieko Harada, Yoshiko Miyazaki, Hisashi Igawa, Masayuki Yui
Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, Masato Ide, based on "King Lear," by William Shakespeare
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
MPAA Rating: R
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 160
Date: 05/31/1985

Ran (1985)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Primal 'Lear'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This grand epic from the 75-year-old Japanese master Akira Kurosawa is one of his finest achievements. Crafted from Shakespeare's King Lear, it concerns an aged warlord who wishes to divide his kingdom up between his three sons (instead of daughters in the Shakespeare play), but wishing to keep his title and power. Of course, what the warlord has in mind and what transpires are not the same thing. The first son is killed by the second, and the third -- who was banished by his father -- remains loyal. The real powerhouse of the story is Mieko Harada as the superbly evil Lady Kaede who marries and influences two of the brothers.

For the story's backbone, Kurosawa utilizes the Japanese legend of the single arrow that may be broken and the three arrows that can't. Likewise, much of the action and makeup is influenced by Japanese Noh Theater. But the overall production has the same majestic feel as his Samurai films, and the movie crossed all culture barriers to become a hit here in America. Kurosawa controls every frame brilliantly, using golden hues for interiors, and grass green and dirt brown for exteriors. He has a beautiful sense of movement within the frame; there are very few close-ups or cuts within scenes. And his battle scenes are in a class by themselves (one scene in particular plays for several minutes with no sound effects, only music). Likewise, he never lets wastefulness or sentiment enter in. It's a clean, pure 160 minutes of film and a masterpiece, though it definitely plays better on the big screen than on video.

In 2005, the Criterion Collection re-released Akira Kurosawa's Ran, a full-blooded, full-color epic based on Shakespeare's King Lear, on DVD. The transfer has been ever so slightly improved from Wellspring's 2003 "Masterworks Edition" DVD, but only the fussiest of viewers will notice. Film scholar Stephen Prince contributes a new commentary track, even though he already recorded one two years ago for the Wellspring disc. But the real reason to pick up the new Ran is on disc two: Chris Marker's sublime documentary A.K. (1985), filmed exclusively on the set. Unlike most "making of" documentaries, Marker's film is observational and respectful, without resorting to the usual blustering talking heads. Moreover, Marker's films are notoriously difficult to find on video, so its appearance is one of the year's most welcome surprises.

In 2010, Lionsgate released the first of its Blu-Rays from the Studio Canal collection. (The acquisition irritated many fans, since Criterion had released many of these titles on DVD.) Their Ran Blu-Ray is gorgeous, with a bold, bright color pallette filling the screen. Extras include Chris Marker's terrific documenary AK, as well as the featurettes "The Art of the Samurai," "The Samurai" and "Akira Kurosawa: The Epic and the Intimate." We also get a trailer. Sadly, neither of the essential Stephen Prince commentary tracks is here. In 2021, Lionsgate released a digital version, newly restored in 4K, for $12.99.

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