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Akira Kurosawa Blu-ray Box(1949-1993)
Set includes: 'Rashomon', 'Ran', 'Madadayo', and 'The Quiet Duel (Shizukanaru Ketto)'
For more about Akira Kurosawa Blu-ray Box and the Akira Kurosawa Blu-ray Box Blu-ray release, see the Akira Kurosawa Blu-ray Box Blu-ray Review
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Tatsuya Nakadai, Akira Terao, Machiko Kyô, Jinpachi Nezu
Director: Akira Kurosawa
This Blu-ray release includes the following titles, see individual titles for specs and details:
Akira Kurosawa Blu-ray Box Blu-ray Review
A four-disc set featuring Rashomon, Ran, Madadayo and The Quiet Duel (Shizukanaru Ketto) serves as the first Blu-ray offering of Kurosawa's brilliant work.
Reviewed by Greg Maltz, April 30, 2009
Anyone who has a passion for movies knows that Akira Kurosawa is arguably the most gifted and influential filmmaker of all. His conception had an enormous gravitational pull on Hollywood's approach to most genres, from westerns to science fiction. The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo are credited as the thematic influence for Star Wars. And The Seven Samurai is often cited as the greatest and most influential film ever made--The Magnificent Seven is its most obvious descendant. Kurosawa created "westerns" from the Far East that seem just as American as the average John Ford movie. How is it possible that a Japanese director mastered the art of the western in a way few American directors could? The answer lies in Kurosawa's eye--not just through a camera but through the human soul. Judging by Kurosawa's enormous impact, it is not surprising that just one month ago three of America's most legendary directors, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas--each of whom fully acknowledges the ways Kurosawa effected their approach to film--toasted him at a gala event marking the deceased filmmaker's 99th birthday. Scorsese in particular has a unique affinity for Kurosawa. Knowing each other from the film festival circuit, Kurosawa actually cast Scorsese as Vincent Van Gogh in the abstract, dark and immensely powerful Dreams.
None of the aforementioned titles is included in the limited edition, four-disc set released by Jesnet in Japan. But the ones that do are equally compelling and fascinating--a formidable slice of Kurosawa's work--taking us from feudal Japan to modern times, from black and white to color and from 1.33:1 to 1.85:1 aspect ratios. Each title comes in its own black Blu-ray case (they are also available individually): Rashomon, Ran, Madadayo and The Quiet Duel (Shizukanaru Ketto). The discs are housed in a gold case with black Japanese lettering and abstract markings, as well as the name AKIRA KUROSAWA. The English lettering also appears on the cover of the included 34-page booklet, featuring color and duotone photos. Unfortunately, this lettering is the only English included anywhere in or on the set. Even the subtitles are in Japanese only. But for Japanese speakers or collectors who may know the films and not need subtitles, this set offers an important keepsake. Not only is it the only way to see Kurosawa's work on Blu-ray currently, but the 1080p performance of each of the four titles allows the viewer closer access to the filmmaker's artistic vision, and that is no small achievement.
The Quiet Duel (Shizukanaru Ketto) (1949, 95 minutes)
Only the second collaboration between Toshiro Mifune and Kurosawa, The Quiet Duel tells the story of Dr. Kyoji Fujisaki (Mifune) who is infected with syphilis from a scalpel cut, as he performs surgery during World War II. After the war, he seems to shrink from reality. Tormented by the cruel irony of his virginity combined with his sexually transmitted illness, the young physician treats himself in secret, while dealing with his father, Dr. Konosuke Fujisaki (Takashi Shimura), his fiance and his nurse. Eventually, he faces off against the man whose infection devastated his life. The Quiet Duel shows early signs of greatness from both Kurosawa and Mifune. In arguably the greatest director-actor tandem of the film industry, they collaborated together for much of the most productive, inspired parts of their careers, not unlike Scorsese and Robert De Niro or Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale.
Rashomon (1950, 88 minutes)
The film opens during a rain storm, with dramatic shots of a large temple in ruins and the sign "Rashomon" appearing in the countryside. Five characters are eventually introduced: a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), a bandit (Toshiro Mifune), a priest (Minoru Chiaki), a samurai (Masayuki Mori) and the samurai's wife (Machiko Kyo). A series of flashbacks within a flashback, Rashomon shows the characters' accounts of the rape of the samurai's wife and murder of the samurai. Each account contradicts the other. The stories are told to a wandering man (Kichijiro Ueda), who joins the woodcutter and priest in the old temple to take cover from the storm. The rape, murder, versions of the story and the behavior of the characters in the temple deeply impacts the priest, who seems to be questioning the morality of mankind. But something happens that restores his faith. Rashomon is a thought-provoking film that challenges the viewer to decide which, if any, of the various accounts are accurate. Its influence is as profound as other Kurosawa classics. Even The Usual Suspects appears to borrow ideas from it.
Ran (1985, 160 minutes)
Kurosawa took liberties with Shakespeare's King Lear to conceive this brilliant film. Nearing the end of his days, Great Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai) decides to step aside to bring to power his three sons, Taro Takatora (Akira Terao), Jiro Masatora (Jinpachi Nezu) and Saburo Naotora (Daisuke Ryu). The father's only wish is to live out his years as an honored guest in the houses of each son. Taro and Jiro praise the decision, pleasing their father. But the youngest son, Saburo tells his father he made a mistake by expecting the three to remain united and warns of a fake allegiance between the older brothers. Rather than see the wisdom of Saburo's warning, Hidetora grows enraged and banishes his youngest son. Of course, the elder siblings indeed conspire to take everything from their father. Ran is a cinematic masterpiece with indoor and outdoor shots that show Kurosawa's genius in composition. The costumes, sets and makeup are also exceptional.
Madadayo (1993, 134 minutes)
Kurosawa's last film ever produced tells the story of Professor Hyakken Uchida (Tatsuo Matsumura). Beloved by his students, the professor retires to become a writer. After his house in Tokyo is bombed during World War II, he moves to the countryside and lives a life of relative seclusion and pastoral simplicity. But once a year, his students honor him at his birthday where their toast, "mahda kai?" (not yet?) is always answered by Uchida-san's answer, "Madada yo!" (No, not yet!), meaning the professor has more life to live. That explains the name of the film. The elegant story, strong acting and brilliant cinematography provide a fitting swan song for Kurosawa's career and the film is at least partially about the filmmaker himself. Ultimately, he is the professor and all of us who love film are his doting students, learning from him each time we see one of his movies. Kurosawa doesn't teach us only about film, but about ourselves, about the beauty and ugliness of the world and about humanity.
Akira Kurosawa Blu-ray Box Blu-ray, Video Quality
The Quiet Duel (Shizukanaru Ketto)
Like most productions of its era, the video is presented in black and white in an aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The film grain is barely visible with some signs of noise, but for the most part it's cleaned up nicely. Given the source material, black level is average; however, shadows do not achieve the greatest low-light detail. The most intriguing element of the Blu-ray picture is the contrast. Kurosawa created a phenomenal lattice-work of light and shadow throughout the movie and this black-and-white tapestry is paid off handsomely on Blu-ray. It is even possible to pick out damage in the source material. While some signs of digital noise reduction are visible, such as a hint of artifacting, the 1080p definition is delivered with marked improvement over NTSC versions of the film. The contrast, too, is preferable in the Blu-ray version, showing how Kurosawa created texture and mood out of complex lighting.
Also presented in black and white in an aspect ratio of 1.37:1, the visual power and grandeur of Rashomon is fully realized in this MPEG-4 AVC encode. The outdoor scenes involving the samurai's wife appear bright but never washed out or unbalanced. But the darker, stormy scenes in and around the temple or the bandit scene in the forest have especially dramatic contrast. Definition is surprisingly sharp considering the source and age of the film. One can discern stripes and textures in the actors' clothing and details in their faces that were simply lost in NTSC. Even shadow detail is not bad, although blacks rarely achieve an inky appearance. As in The Quiet Duel (Shizukanaru Ketto), the relative lack of noise and grain is a concern, but thankfully signs of DNR are at a minimum. Even the rain--having a symbolic role in the movie--is clearly visible, which is a challenge especially for black-and-white footage.
With its 1.85:1 aspect ratio and MPEG-4 AVC encode, the boost in picture quality over DVD versions is stunning during the opening moments of the film, showing hunters on horseback in a lush, mountainous region. The colors burst from the screen. Earthtones are stronger than skin tones throughout, but indoor shots prove as exquisite as the outdoor scenes. Good black level provide a sense of depth, but as with the discs previously described, the picture is too scrubbed of noise and grain to be fully representative of the source material. The few signs of film damage-- mostly colored spots--appear lightened and digitally altered. However, no overt signs of DNR are visible aside from slight digital artifacting that holds back the definition a touch. Overall, the picture fully supports Kurosawa's vision, with rich, vibrant colors emphasizing the greens and golds. As much as I wanted to find fault with the presentation, I was enthralled by the overall color palette and the detail that--while not reference quality--appeared far better than DVD versions available.
Presented in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this MPEG-4 AVC encode shows the full frame matting for the first time on home video, revealing the film's rounded corners. The left edge of the film is recessed as well. Like the appearance of Ran described above, the fascinating imagery of Kurosawa's last film appears far more lifelike and defined than any NTSC version on DVD. The colors are not as vibrant, though. Often, the picture appears slightly washed-out, but the darker colors pop, creating a deeper, more 3-D presentation. As one might predict judging by the other Blu-rays in the set, the detail of Madadayo may be hampered by digital tools or noise reduction, judging by the squeaky clean look of the picture. Grain, noise and film damage are kept to an absolute minimum in the transfer. So too are artifacts, edge enhancement and banding, which indicates that whatever was done to clean up the picture didn't leave horrible telltail signs. While I didn't feel like I was watching film, the overall color palette and detail was captivating, and any but the stodgiest videophile will be pleased with this transfer. The alternative--to watch one of the overly processed DVDs--is now unnecessary.
Akira Kurosawa Blu-ray Box Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Rather than break down each film separately on the audio merits, here are observations common to all four titles in the set. Each features lossless PCM in monaural 2.0 at 16-bit, 48 kHz, delivering a bitrate of 1536 kbps. The sound is more open and detailed in the two color films--not surprising since those were produced with more modern recording equipment. But otherwise the tonal characteristics are fairly consistent: rolled-off highs, some muffling in the midrange and a boxed-in sound to the bass. While this audio may compare poorly with some Blu-ray PCM tracks, it is the best I have heard Kurosawa's movies sound. Even when I saw Dreams in the theater shortly after its U.S. release, a film that was nominated for Award of the Japanese Academy for sound quality (among others), it sounded shrill and thin. Each monaural track delivered in the limited edition set provides a narrow, deep soundstage and while they will not win any nominations for audio quality, the voices are clear and convey emotion, the instrumentation is passable--a bit congested--and ancillary sounds are not distracting. Think CD remasters of old recordings, and you'll get an idea of the sound quality here--particularly of Rashomon and The Quiet Duel. Not great, but you'll be hard pressed to find better sound for these titles.
Akira Kurosawa Blu-ray Box Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Although no bonus content and only Japanese subtitles are included, I cannot give this set the lowest rating for supplements. The packaging and 34-page booklet (even though I can't read it) offer a quality keepsake. More importantly, the four films bundled in the set show a remarkable slice of Kurosawa's output. Together, they demonstrate the similarities as well as the diversity that he commanded from film to film throughout his career. In that respect, each film serves as a supplement to the other, despite the lack of extra features. Somehow, it is fitting that each disc accommodates the film alone. I have always felt that, despite how much meaning and symbolism was buried in movies like Rashomon, Kurosawa's work ultimately needs no further explanation. And besides, even if supplementary content was included, watching it would be an exercise in frustration without English subtitles.
Akira Kurosawa Blu-ray Box Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
It is a travesty that no titles by Akira Kurosawa have been released on Blu-ray domestically. Now that a consumer format is capable of film-like quality it is no excuse that, in the rush to deliver blockbusters and new titles day-and-date with DVDs, a master of cinema such as Kurosawa is overlooked. No serious movie library can be without his films, and thanks to this limited edition Blu-ray set, no library needs to be without Rashomon, Ran, Madadayo and The Quiet Duel (Shizukanaru Ketto). Granted, the lack of English subtitles is a serious omission that will discourage most English-speakers. But in a way it's a positive. It forces the viewer to focus on the characters, their vocal inflections and facial expressions in a way not possible when constantly reading subtitles. Of equal concern to Blu-ray collectors, the audio, video and bonus content are not reference level, nor even exemplary. But with films this powerful and with presentation that finally leaves NTSC in the dust, why nitpick about whether more definition is possible when you could be feasting your eyes on the best available editions of these four Kurosawa films? I am hopeful these and other Kurosawa titles will soon see the treatment they deserve in 1080p, with English subtitles. But even if/when that finally happens, this imported Blu-ray set is a keeper in its handsome gold cover and booklet with individual black Blu-ray cases. The bottom line is that this limited edition box is a precious treasure chest for serious Blu-ray collectors and fans of Kurosawa. I recommend ordering the set before it goes out of print. Alternatively, the titles are available individually.
Akira Kurosawa Blu-ray Box Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Kurosawa Box Coming to Blu-ray - December 5, 2008
The 'Akira Kurosawa Blu-ray Box (Limited Edition)' is coming to Japan on February 6th, and it will feature four of the legendary directors best known films, including 'Rashomon', 'Ran', 'Madadayo', and 'The Quiet Duel (Shizukanaru Ketto)' in stunning high definition. ...
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