With the passing of legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa this month, now is the perfect time to take a look at four of his films that recently arrived on home video, two on DVD and two on laser disc. We'll start with the DVD release of the film that many critics, this one included, consider to be not only one of Kurosawa's best films, but one of the greatest films, period. That film is, of course, "Seven Samurai" (The Criterion Collection, 1954; not rated; 3 hours, 23 minutes; original 1.33:1 aspect ratio; Dolby Digital monaural sound; $39.95).
Inspired by the sweeping Westerns John Ford filmed in Monument Valley, Kurosawa's film seemingly has a simple theme -- in medieval Japan the members of a poor village of farmers become tired of being overrun by marauding bandits and pool their resources to hire a group of samurai to defend them. But as the story unfolds and we learn more about the individual farmers and warriors, a different set of social dynamics becomes apparent. The performances in the film are solid throughout, but Kurosawa regulars Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura are standouts.
The Criterion Collection's DVD basically is the same as the company's laser-disc version. The film has been cleaned up -- scratches and spots removed -- and the result is the best picture quality of the film you are likely to see. In addition, the Dolby Digital monaural sound is clean and clear, and the disc features informative commentary by Japanese film expert Michael Jeck.
The second DVD release also is set in medieval Japan and features some of the most beautiful images ever captured on color film. "Ran" (Fox Lorber, 1985; rated R; 2 hours, 40 minutes; original 1.85:1 wide-screen aspect ratio; stereo sound; $34.98) is Kurosawa's brilliantly conceived and executed retelling of Shakespeare's "King Lear." When aging Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) decides to step down and divide his kingdom among his three sons he unleashes a maelstrom of jealousy and rage that shatters the peace and pushes the monarch into madness.
The print on the Fox Lorber is stunning, clear, clean and crisp with brilliant colors that bring a gruesome beauty to spectacular battle scenes. Likewise, the sound is good but would have benefited from being remastered in Dolby Digital. Still, that is a minor fault and this is a DVD worth adding to your collection.
The two laser-disc releases may be of lesser-known Kurosawa works, but that does not mean they are not brilliant in their own way. The only thing the two films have in common are that they are contemporary works set in the time they were filmed rather than in the past.
"Stray Dog" (The Criterion Collection, 1949; not rated; 2 hours, 2 minutes; original 1.33:1 aspect ratio; $69.95) is a suspense drama set four years after the end of World War II. Mifune plays a young policeman whose gun is stolen by a pickpocket on a bus. When one woman is wounded with his gun and another is killed, the emotionally vulnerable young policeman teams with a veteran homicide detective (Shimura again) to retrieve the weapon.
This may not be a well-known Kurosawa work, but it is a powerful film that manages to make points about the hardship of the people in post-World War II Japan without losing any of the suspense or emotion that drives the story. Mifune's performance as the guilt-ridden young policeman is touching and real. The film, which features brilliant cinematography and editing, looks stunning on laser disc. And the sound is sharp and clean.
Finally, we have the laser-disc release of "The Bad Sleep Well" (The Criterion Collection, 1960; not rated; 2 hours, 30 minutes; original 2.35:1 wide-screen aspect ratio; $69.95). In his liner notes, film writer Chuck Stephens calls it "a gray flannel ghost story in which the living haunt the dead." Part "Hamlet" and part "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," the film is Kurosawa's take on film noir, a tale of revenge that takes place in the boardroom and homes of the corporate giants of Japan.
--Vern Perry/Knight Ridder
(1) Titanic (Paramount Home Video). (2) Jerry Springer -- Too Hot for TV! (Real Entertainment). (3) Pocahontas 2: Journey To A New World (Walt Disney Home Video). (4) Playboy's Playmates Revisited (Playboy Home Video). (5) The Exorcist-25th Anniversary Special Edition (Warner Home Video). (6) Spice World (Columbia TriStar). (7) As Good As It Gets (Columbia TriStar). (8) Austin Powers (New Line Home Video). (9) Backstreet Boys: All Access Video (Jive/Zomba Video). (10) Boogie Nights (New Line Home Video).
(1) Titanic (Paramount Home Video). (2) The Wedding Singer (New Line Home Video). (3) Jackie Brown (Miramax Home Entertainment). (4) The Big Lebowski (PolyGram Video). (5) Good Will Hunting (Miramax Home Entertainment). (6) U.S. Marshals (Warner Home Video). (7) The Apostle (Universal Studios). (8) Wag the Dog (New Line Home Video). (9) The Man in the Iron Mask (MGM/UA Home Video). (10) Wild Things (Columbia TriStar).