Criterion’s mammoth AK100: 25 Films of Akira Kurosawa box set will hit retail shelves on Tuesday (8th of December 2009). But, who should buy it?
Despite the title, this is not really a review, but an attempt at one based on somewhat incomplete data. While I really appreciate Criterion’s kind offer to send me review copies of the discs that they had not previously released, it is obviously difficult to draw a complete picture of the box set based on only the four film prints that I got. But here’s a try.
The Four New Films
I’ll start with what I know, which means the four films not previously available on proper Region 1 DVD. These are Sanshiro Sugata, The Most Beautiful, Sanshiro Sugata Part II and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail.
Picture quality for these four films is perfectly watchable, but nowhere near the quality of Criterion’s “proper” releases. Dust and scratch marks are everywhere, and there are brightness changes from one scene to another. Neither has the sound has been remastered. All in all, the prints of these four films are of slightly lower quality than with the five films found in Criterion’s Eclipse “Postwar Kurosawa” set.
I must stress, however, that the picture quality here should still be good enough to take nothing away from anyone’s enjoyment of these films, unless of course you watch films solely for their prints’ technical aspects (does anyone actually do that?). Also, and very importantly, since the subtitles are very good throughout, these Criterion discs are a much better pick than the earlier Chinese releases. And even if below Criterion’s usual high standards, the picture and sound quality are also a great improvement over the Chinese editions.
Unfortunately, I don’t have the Australian releases of the two Sanshiro Sugata films to compare Criterion’s efforts with, so I cannot say how the AK100 discs compare with those. But what I can say is that if you have been waiting for Sanshiro Sugata, The Most Beautiful, Sanshiro Sugata Part II and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail to come out in Region 1, you should not be disappointed with the results.
This is what you get
The other films included in the collection come from Criterion’s older releases, plus Madadayo, which Criterion has also slipped in. As this is a 25 film box set from a 30 film director, five of Kurosawa’s films are missing. These are The Quiet Duel, Dersu Uzala, Ran, Dreams and Rhapsody in August, which are all currently available on DVD from other publishers. These have in fact clearly been left out due to rights issues — Criterion simply couldn’t negotiate rights to release these films on DVD. I don’t think that this should be held against them, for bringing 25 films into one release is already a huge achievement in itself.
I have no way to confirm first-hand what the transfers used for these 21 other films are like, but a DVD File review informs us that the transfers are near-identical to Criterion’s older releases. I’m sure that some will be happy to hear that picture-boxing used in older releases has been removed, so you now get the picture occupying the entire screen estate, rather than including black bars to compensate for the area often left out around the edges by older televisions.
It was, of course, to be expected that Criterion would use their old transfers. How old, however, is another question. Films like Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Sanjuro and High and Low have all received new and much improved transfers from Criterion to replace the company’s first attempts with them. Whether the discs included in the AK100 box set are the new transfers or the old ones is something that I cannot say. At least Seven Samurai, like all the other films in the collection, is included on just one disc, and therefore cannot be the same transfer as Criterion’s much celebrated three-DVD release, where the newly restored film was on two discs. Whether Criterion has reverted back to their original transfer, or re-encoded the restored transfer to fit onto one disc, is impossible for me to say. The same goes for the other films mentioned above — has Criterion used the new restored prints, or reverted back to the old ones? Unfortunately, I have no answer to you. The DVD File reviewer referred to above considers the DVD quality similar to older releases, but does not say which ones he is comparing them to. Additionally, he also sees the Sanshiro Sugata prints as an improvement over Criterion’s Eclipse releases, which as I mentioned is not how I see them.
Another question that I have no answer for is what the Madadayo disc looks like. As Criterion hasn’t at least to my knowledge previously released this film on DVD, I am left wondering whether this is the same transfer used by Winstar in their Region 1 Madadayo, or something else.
The good news is that other reviews of the AK100 box set will be published soon, and those will doubtlessly clarify the issue regarding transfers. Here, in any case, is an alphabetic list of the titles included:
The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
Drunken Angel (1948)
The Hidden Fortress (1958)
High and Low (1963)
I Live in Fear (1955)
The Idiot (1951)
The Lower Depths (1957)
The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945)
The Most Beautiful (1944)
No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)
One Wonderful Sunday (1947)
Red Beard (1965)
Sanshiro Sugata (1943)
Sanshiro Sugata, Part II (1944)
Seven Samurai (1954)
Stray Dog (1949)
Throne of Blood (1957)
This is what I got.
The box set films have no supplementary features on the discs, so unfortunately those buying this collection will get none of Criterion’s usual commentaries and documentaries that greatly help a newcomer to understand the films and their place in the Kurosawa canon. This is a real shame, but obviously an understandable marketing decision.
The box set comes with an illustrated book, which includes a 3750 word introduction from Stephen Prince, his notes to each of the included films, and a short 1250 word “Remembering Kurosawa” essay from Donald Richie. I have had the opportunity to read this material in digital format.
As one would imagine, neither Prince’s or Richie’s essay touches any new ground, but rather concentrates on introducing Kurosawa to new audiences. Prince does a fine job in giving all the basic biographical and filmographic details, while Richie’s essay recounts a few anecdotes and perhaps somewhat surprisingly (but all the more honestly) concludes that ultimately Kurosawa is a director “about whom we really don’t know all that much”.
Prince’s notes on each film are very good, and he is able to in just three or four paragraphs give the reader a very good basic understanding of each film’s background and possible agenda. While these are obviously not comparable to his full-length commentary tracks that appear on Criterion’s original releases, they should be enough for someone who is only interested in watching these films for the sake of boosting his or her general knowledge of film history.
The box set closed. For once, the word “box” is not an exaggeration.
The question then is, who is this box set for? I would say that there are two kinds of people who should definitely buy this: those who need an easy and relatively cheap introduction to Kurosawa’s body of work, and those collectors who simply need to have every Kurosawa release out there.
For audiences new to Kurosawa’s films, the AK100 box set is well priced. The suggested retail price of $400 for 25 films comes to only $16 per film, and since from Amazon and other retailers are currently selling this for around $285, the unit price can be as low as $11.40 for each individual film. If you haven’t got any Kurosawa in your collection yet, and don’t think that you would in any case have it in you to spend hours going through supplementary materials found on Criterion’s earlier releases, this is certainly an excellent deal. Especially since for supplementary material, you can always later turn to the available Kurosawa literature, which can substitute for much of the missing audio commentaries, although you will still miss the excellent little “It is Wonderful to Create” documentaries that appear on most of Criterion’s Kurosawa releases, and include interviews with people who worked with Kurosawa. But if your aim is to get to know Kurosawa, not to become an authority in his works, this box set is for you.
The four films that have never before been properly released in Region 1 will obviously make this a tempting buy also for those who already have everything else. But, unless money is not an issue, the question that you need to ask is how long it will take for Criterion to release these discs separately, or as part of a box set of their own. While I have no official confirmation one way or another, I would bet that the four films will eventually come out sooner or later, possibly through the Eclipse series. (Edit: Criterion has now confirmed that the discs are getting a separate release.)
Whatever you do, remember that the AK100 films do not have those audio commentaries and documentaries found on earlier Criterion releases. So do think twice before you sell those older Criterion discs to replace them with the AK100 box set.
AK100: 25 Films by Akira Kurosawa will be available for purchase from December 8th, and can among other places be bought from Amazon.com, which currently prices the box set at $284.99 ($114.96 off the retail price), as well as from Amazon.ca.