Luckily, I went to high school in New Jersey, where astronomic property taxes mean the educational system can provide all sorts of cool stuff. At the time, Mr. Truitt, one of the English teachers at Cherry Hill High School West, taught this great film class that was comparable to courses you can take in college. I hope it’s still offered; if not, the students enrolled there now are missing out on something great.
Mr. Truitt eschewed VHS tapes, running everything off a projector so the films could be shown at their correct aspect ratio (he even taught us what aspect ratio was all about), and he programmed a smorgasbord that ran the gamut from silent classics to such relatively recent hits as “The Godfather” films. (Thankfully, this was before the third one came out.)
Since Mr. Truitt showed different movies every time he taught the class, I took it my sophomore and senior years. During the former, I remember him proclaiming that the only two movies from 1985 that anyone would care about in the future were Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran” and Woody Allen’s “Purple Rose of Cairo.” He ridiculed “Out of Africa,” which was playing in theaters at the time and was oft-discussed in the media. While a quick perusal of the 1985 box office chart shows that “Back to the Future” and “Witness” also still hold up as great movies, I’d say that Mr. Truitt was pretty much on the ball there. Is anyone waiting anxiously for a two-disc “Out of Africa” Special Edition?
“Purple Rose of Cairo” may not get the respect it deserves, but “Ran” sure does, especially among film geeks, so I’m thrilled that Criterion finally gave it the lavish treatment it has long needed. Kurosawa’s retelling of Shakespeare’s play “King Lear” is an epic not only in terms of the scope and intensity of the action but also on an emotional level. We know the film’s aging lord has made a grave mistake in dividing his kingdom among his three sons and yet we can’t help but watch the tragedy unfold as base human greed and vanity take hold of the situation. Come for the large-scale battles but stay for the gut-wrenching character moments.
This two-disc set features a restored print of the movie on disc one, along with an audio commentary by film scholar Stephen Prince. As you’d expect, it’s an academic discussion of “Ran” that’s similar to what you’d probably hear in a class. It’s definitely for viewers who don’t care so much about how the video and audio were obtained but what they mean. Along similar lines is a featurette that offers director Sidney Lumet discussing why he loves Kurosawa in general and “Ran” in specific. It’s nice to hear someone other than Francis Ford Coppolla, Martin Scorcese or George Lucas extol Kurosawa’s virtues; we’ve heard those guys yak about the director a billion times already.
Disc one also includes four trailers, one in English and three in Japanese. The latter really put the emphasis on Kurosawa, which is interesting considering that American trailers don’t typically hype film directors, even the great ones. Trailers can be fun to watch, just to see how they’ve changed over time, and the Japanese ones included here offer plenty of behind-the-scenes glimpses of Kurosawa in action.
Over on disc two, the centerpiece is “A.K.,” a 74-minute documentary filmed in 1985. Director Chris Marker narrates an intimate look at the making of “Ran,” during which he was given unprecedented access to Kurosawa as he worked. Sometimes Marker just lets the visuals speak for themselves, and occasionally he throws in stylized interstitials that allow him to express his thoughts about the director’s body of work or simply show clips from movies made by Kurosawa’s contemporaries. At one point he even relates a horrific incident from Kurosawa’s childhood that helps us understand better why the director never shied away from difficult subject matter.
Next we have “Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create,” a 30-minute featurette from Japan’s Toho Video. It looks at the film’s genesis and includes thoughts from its producer, several of its actors, the script supervisor and the art director. We even get some comments from Martin Scorcese that were shot during a press conference (I have no idea what the event was about; perhaps it was a 20th anniversary celebration of the film in Japan).
After that is a 36-minute film created by Masayuki Yui, one of the actors in “Ran.” “Image: Kurosawa’s Continuity” takes illustrations created by Kurosawa during pre-production and sets them against the movie’s soundtrack. Think of it as a “Reader’s Digest” version of “Ran” or something. It’s a unique idea, but I think Kurosawa’s artwork would have been better served up as a gallery we could page through.
Disc two concludes with a 10-minute interview with Tatsuya Nakadai, who played the aging Lord Hidetora. He was interviewed in May 2005 and talked about his memories of filming “Ran,” as well as his thoughts on what makes the movie great. It’s a nice segment that includes even more behind-the-scenes images and footage.
Criterion has also included a 30-page booklet that features an essay about the movie as well as interviews with Kurosawa and Toru Takemitsu, the film’s composer. Both of the Q&As were originally printed in French magazines in 1985. Criterion likes to throw books into its DVD releases, something that the major film studios do only rarely. That’s just one more reason why film buffs love this company.