12th Oct2021

‘RAN’ 4K UHD Review

by Matthew Smail

Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Jinpachi Nezu, Daisuke Ryû | Directed by Akira Kurosawa

When it comes to critical review of the legendary Akira Kurosawa, one has to be extremely careful. There’s no doubt that the master of Japanese cinema directed a catalogue of films that is almost flawless in its production, drama and sheer scale. RAN draws inspiration from Shakespeare’s King Lear (as well as several Japanese fables) and presents us with an epic tragedy both on the screen and, poignantly, off it, as Kurosawa would lose his own wife during filming.

RAN tells the tale of the legendary warlord Hidetora Ichimonji as he faces his twilight years. Realising that his health is failing and that any sign of weakness would give his enemies strength, Hidetora chooses to divide his kingdom between his three sons – an act welcomed by the two of the three, but which the third does not agree with. In these early scenes, the newly released 4K blu-ray demonstrates a bright colour palette presented in HDR and in full 4K resolution taken from the original 35mm Panavision source. The slow early pacing of the film allows the viewer to bask in the beauty of Kurosawa’s production, but the respite is temporary.

As RAN progresses, Hidetora’s eldest son schemes to gain control of the parts of his father’s kingdom that were granted to his brothers – with his scheming wife Lady Kaede (also a victim of Hidetora’s youthful warmongering) only too happy to drive him forwards. This leads to some of the most visually impressive battle scenes in cinema, especially if you particularly enjoy the authenticity of having hundreds of extras packed onto a single screen. I’ve never seen RAN at lower than 1080p resolution, but the detail presented in this 4K version is almost too much for the eye to take in.

If the sheer weight of humanity on screen were not enough, Kurosawa’s tragedy requires that entire castles and towns be put to flame, and I’ve read that to achieve the scale required for the master Director, these sets were meticulously constructed, simply so that they could be burned down. Again, this is hugely impressive presented in modern technology, and I couldn’t help but marvel at the exceptional film-making. Close up shots of individual soldiers fighting for their lives – and often losing them – are presented with intimacy, and whilst blood is a necessary effect, RAN isn’t gory, but it makes death feel very personal.

As RAN moves into its second half, particularly around the three-quarter mark, it loses its way somewhat. This is ironic, because much of what happens at this point in the narrative involves Hidetora himself losing the plot – wandering aimlessly in the desert, or living rough in the ruins of a temple he remembers from long ago. Without spoiling the later moments that redeem both the movie itself and to an extent Hidetora, the ending is poignant, tragic and powerful – returning to the higher points of dialogue and attention to detail that we see during the opening scenes and during some of the one-on-one conversational scenes between Lady Kaede and her husband.

RAN is without doubt a masterpiece, and whilst I still prefer some of Kurosawa’s earlier movies in structure and pacing, I cannot deny that this – due to its 1980’s cameras and 2020’s re-production – is the most visually striking. It’s a long story, but a straightforward one, and whilst you may see what is coming long before the end, it still has the ability to be affecting. This is a movie that deserves to be seen by any serious film-fan, and there is no better way to watch it than this.

Special Features:

  • A.K. – FEATURE LENGTH DOCUMENTARY BY CHRIS MARKER ON AKIRA KUROSAWA
  • AKIRA KUROSAWA: THE EPIC AND THE INTIMATE
  • AKIRA KUROSAWA BY CATHERINE CADOU
  • ART OF THE SAMURAI
  • INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY – SHÔJI UEDA
  • INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL BROOKE – AUTHOR/JOURNALIST
  • INTERVIEW WITH MS MIEKO HARADA
  • STAGE APPEARANCE AT TOKYO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2015
  • THE SAMURAI

**** 4/5

RAN is available on 4K UHD now from Studio Canal.

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