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"Masterworks Edition" DVD is badly botched
on October 23, 2003
The "Ran: Masterworks Edition" DVD could have been much better, but was badly botched by the producer (Wellspring Media).
By far the biggest problem is the so-called "digital restoration," which consists of two things: running the whole movie through a miscalibrated digital denoising filter, and increasing the contrast and color saturation to cartoonish levels. The latter change can at least be undone at the playback end, but the former does irreparable damage to the image. Most of the image problems mentioned here by other reviewers are due to this "restoration," not to defects in the new transfer.
The damage from the digital denoising is severe and present throughout the film. It's easily recognized with experience, or when the denoised image is shown next to the pristine original. But since I don't have that luxury here, I'll just mention some of the more easily seen symptoms. Clouds seem slightly unnatural, as if hand-painted, because their delicate wispiness is interpreted as noise and removed (see for example 0:11:45 and 2:18:00). Thin bright lines against dark backgrounds "sparkle" or "twinkle" like stars; this is caused by cross-frame denoising, which misinterprets movement of sharp edges due to frame jitter or camera movement as transient noise (see for example the sunray pattern in the Ichimonji crest beginning at around 0:04:30). Fast-moving objects shrink or disappear completely for brief intervals, again due to cross-frame denoising (see for example Kyoami's legs as he runs, at around 0:09:15).
The new _Metropolis (1927)_ DVD includes a restoration featurette which explains why computerized denoising was not used in the restoration of that film, and shows examples of some of the problems described above. And denoising was only considered for that film because the available prints were badly in need of restoration. _Ran_ does not need restoration, which makes this unnecessary damage all the more tragic.
Many DVDs released by Central Park Media have also been defaced in this way, notably the new two-disc edition of Takahata's _Grave of the Fireflies_. I think the same company is responsible for all of these botched "restorations," since the modus operandi is always the same: moderate to severe denoising artifacts, grossly oversaturated colors, and a "restoration demo" comparing the restored version to a previous video release in a distinctive splitscreen format.
There are many other problems with this DVD, though they are minor in comparison to the above:
The new transfer was apparently made from a theatrical print rather than a higher-fidelity interpositive, since it contains reel change marks (flashing black circles at the upper right corner of the frame). Surely such a beautiful film deserves better than this.
There are several embarrassing mistakes in the subtitles which would have been caught by a human being, but not by a software spelling checker. Apparently the producers of this DVD labor under the delusion that proofreading, like restoration, can be done by computer.
The MPEG-2 encoding was done improperly, with the result that the image switches randomly between progressive (film) and interlaced (video) encodings, instead of remaining film throughout. This causes annoying random blurring and sharpening during playback on many DVD players, noticeable mainly in still scenes. (See for example the long shots of Hidetora starting around 0:50:00; please note that this problem is not visible on all players.) Some players can be reconfigured to mask this problem (on software players choose "bob" rather than "weave" or "automatic"), but this will reduce the playback quality of properly-encoded DVDs.
Technical incompetence aside, this is not a bad disc. The subtitle translation is problematic, but I've seen much worse; I can't complain too much here. What's lost in the translation is probably insignificant compared to cultural details which no translation could hope to explain. A short "production notes" extra fills in a few of those details but neglects others. Two uninteresting trailers for the film are included. The "restoration demo" is good for seething at in impotent anger, and also for seeing how Kurosawa probably intended the film to appear, colorwise, before it was "enhanced" for this DVD.
There are two commentary tracks. One, by Stephen Prince, focuses on narrative technique and is clearly intended for students. It's quite good. The other is by Peter Grilli, who was present on the set during part of the shooting of _Ran_; he talks about his experiences there and his opinions of Kurosawa and his work. Though sometimes interesting, Grilli's comments make no sense as a commentary track since they're wholly unconnected to the action on screen. They should have been printed in a companion booklet.
The film itself is a masterpiece, of course; even the shoddiest technical treatment can't mask its emotional impact. I would have given it five stars but for the problems with the DVD.
This is the first non-Central Park Media DVD that I've seen to use this "digital restoration" process. I'm frightened that it will spread further. I urge anyone concerned by this to write to Wellspring Media and tell them that they could have produced a much better DVD, with less effort, by simply omitting the "restoration" step. If you decide not to buy the disc for this reason, tell them that too.