by Marty Demarest

If you can't see it in a theater, the only decent way to watch Ran -- and you should watch Ran -- is in its new DVD incarnation. Directed by the late Japanese master Akira Kurosawa at the apex of his talents, Ran is a work of art that could not exist in any medium other than film. It is as splendid as any painting, only it moves and tells a story over time. The colors are so vibrant and the images so striking that it's not worth even seeing a VHS copy of the film; videotape is inadequate for even marginally capturing Kurosawa's heart-stopping visuals, which he took 10 years to plan.

Even though most of his films, like Seven Samurai and Rashomon, are black and white, Kurosawa, at the age of 75 and nearly blind, handled color film like a lifelong master. Drawing on the themes of King Lear to tell the story of betrayal and greed that results from an aging Japanese warlord's division of his kingdom among his sons, Kurosawa created a psychological landscape of lurid extremes for which only the most seething colors and photography would be adequate. And so Ran (which means chaos), seen anywhere other than a theater, will always be compromised by the machinery, as Kurosawa's pure light becomes its digital recollection. And yet, even weakened, the scenes, from the nearly silent storming of a castle to shots of armies marching with vast, undulating banners across bleak landscapes, are overwhelming.

Ran had previously been released on DVD in a poorly executed version last year. But the new Masterworks edition captures the director's vision almost in its full glory. The problem is that not everyone will be able to enjoy it, due to the wide range of standards in multimedia technology. Gone are the days when merely owning a television set meant you had the latest in home entertainment hardware. If you have a television with remarkably high definition and a top-of-the-line DVD player, you'll probably come as close as possible to the effect of seeing Ran on film. But watching the new release on an older, less sophisticated system might result in an experience even less impressive than Ran's previous release, with flickering images and literally vibrating colors.

Publication date: 05/08/03

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