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Review: Criterion’s AK100 Box Set

AK100Criterion’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.

AK100 box open
This is what you get

Other Films

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)
Dodes’ka-den (1970)
Drunken Angel (1948)
The Hidden Fortress (1958)
High and Low (1963)
I Live in Fear (1955)
The Idiot (1951)
Ikiru (1952)
Kagemusha (1980)
The Lower Depths (1957)
Madadayo (1993)
The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945)
The Most Beautiful (1944)
No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)
One Wonderful Sunday (1947)
Rashomon (1951)
Red Beard (1965)
Sanjuro (1962)
Sanshiro Sugata (1943)
Sanshiro Sugata, Part II (1944)
Scandal (1950)
Seven Samurai (1954)
Stray Dog (1949)
Throne of Blood (1957)
Yojimbo (1961)

AK100 review discsThis is what I got.

DVD Extras

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.

Written Material

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.

AK100 box closed
The box set closed. For once, the word “box” is not an exaggeration.

Conclusion

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.


Discussion

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ancientnut

The set is available at http://www.deepdiscount.com/ for $279.89 with free shipping.

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Vili Maunula

Thanks, ancientnut! Those who have trouble finding it, here is a direct link.

There are actually some places that sell it even cheaper (see for instance here), but do not offer free shipping.

Of course, if you do buy through the Amazon link in my post, you support this website (well, me), as I get a small commission of each sale generated through this website. Don’t feel obliged though, it’s not that much.

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NoelCT

Has there been any word of them releasing the four war-era films in a box set like they did with the post-war collection? I’ve already got SANSHIRO SUGATA and THE MEN WHO TREAD ON THE TIGER’S TAIL through their Janus VHS releases – both of which have very watchable transfers and good subtitles (possibly the same they used here?) – but would love to give the other two a clean watch.

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Vili Maunula

No word yet, but I would be surprised if they didn’t. Eventually. Whether that’s next year or five years from now is another matter.

Criterion’s website now reprints the short essay Richie wrote for the AK100 box set.

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Jeremy Quintanilla

Well, I just bought it off your link Vili, surely now, you can plan retirement with the commission. As for me, well, I must plan to find a refrigerator box to live in, not exactly a booming economy you know.

I’ll post a small review about the complete package, and my thoughts on just how worthy it is for the price.

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Vili Maunula

Thanks, Jeremy! I’m curious to see what your verdict is.

Do also tell us what the book is like. Many reviewers who otherwise hardly talk about the set seem to have found the book both beautiful and massive. This makes me wonder if it actually includes something else than just pictures and the essays that I had the opportunity to read.

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Vili Maunula

In another thread, Master Thief asked how the AK100 box set’s The Most Beautiful compares to the Toho release. I realised that I actually have the Toho release myself (thanks, Master Thief!), so I was able to do a direct comparison.

Well, almost.

For some reason my standard DVD player refuses to play the Toho DVD, so I had to play it on the Xbox 360. However, the region 1 DVD from the AK100 collection does not play on the region 2 Xbox 360, only on my region free DVD player. Since the (somewhat old) DVD player is connected by scart and the (probably somewhat upscaling) Xbox 360 by component cables, the equipment that I have does not allow a completely fair comparison.

Unfortunately, I also have no way of making screenshots of either print (I need to get a new external DVD drive for the laptop), so you have to take my word here.

But at least with this setup, and for my eyes, there is a clear difference. The Criterion print is sharper, as opposed to the softer Toho print. It could be said that the Toho print is at time a little bit blurry, but then again the contrast of the Criterion print feels far too strong when you compare it with Toho. I don’t know how much of this is due to the Xbox 360 upscaling the picture, but I much prefer the Toho print’s softness.

The Toho print is also cleaner, hands down. There is far less dirt and cracks than with the Criterion print, which looks old in comparison. As good as the Xbox 360 player is, I doubt it’s able to remove dirt, so this can’t be just a player issue.

If I look closely, the Criterion print seems to show marginally more picture on the left side of the image. But this is extremely little. We are talking about less than half a percentage of the entire width of the image.

The Criterion print is a little bit brighter. I think I prefer the blacks of the Toho print.

All in all, the Toho print seems like a clear winner to me.

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Master Thief

Thanks for doing the comparison Vili. If we could attach the Criterion English sub-titles to the Toho release we would have the best of both. But that would be a naughty thing to do. Do you also have the Toho Tiger’s Tale to do a similar comparison?

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Vili Maunula

Unfortunately, I don’t have Toho’s Tiger’s Tail.

I was thinking about the subtitles myself. I suppose if you bought both the Criterion and the Toho product, you could without feeling guilty merge the two with Toho image and Criterion subtitles.

However, as I mentioned in my review, Criterion’s print quality is still perfectly viewable.

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Pantheon

There is a much detailed review of this box set here in three pages:

http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film2/DVDReviews48/ak100_25_films_of_akira_kurosawa.htm

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Vili Maunula

Thanks, Pantheon! Interesting reading.

Meanwhile, Criterion has confirmed that the five new DVDs will be released separately, although no actual dates have still been given.

Additionally, Sanjuro and Yojimbo are coming out in blu-ray in March, and a new restoration of Seven Samurai later in 2010.

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cocoskyavitch

Blu-ray Yojimbo and Sanjuro…and Blu-ray Seven Samurai!!!
Sweeeet!

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Jeremy Quintanilla

I have had this new box set for a week and half, and after going through all the movies, I can only give an unenthusiastic thumbs up. A great set for someone new to AK films, but this certainly not a collector’s item, the box is decent(for a fabric covered shoebox), but the cases are outright cheap, and the DVD artwork is all the same, certainly nothing “collective” about it. The book is nice, but other then a few photos, it’s just a brief bit about each movie, not exactly awe inspiring.

I would consider this box set, AK on the bulk rate, and would recommend it to anyone that rather have his movies on the cheap then anything else. For any collector, best just stick to the “real” Criterion releases. There is far more bang for the buck, going with the real release, then these strip down, no thrills versions. I can only feel a bit ripped off, maybe more so for being a faithful buyer of Criterion, and having (I believe) all the AK, Criterion releases. Maybe I was expecting too much, but this box set is rather poor. I was hoping for something grand, like the most recent Seven Samurai release, and would happily pay much more for this set, had it been something on par with Criterion’s current re-remastering(picture quality, box and DVD artwork, booklets, extras, nice durable cases,etc). Understandable a realistic, and marketable price point most be had, but even with that consideration, my disappointment remains.

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The 2 best photos in the book:

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b

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Tony

Hey those are nice photos how many photos in total are included? Not enough I guess. I agree in that it may not be the collectors dream but, it may be a great Christmas present for someone who is new to Kurosawa and does not own many of his movies! Especially for those who don’t have the energy to go out looking themselves. Tony

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Jeremy Quintanilla

Indeed, as gift to expose someone to Kurosawa, or to quickly obtain most of the Kurosawa film, you can not go wrong with this box set. And I suppose this was the whole point behind the effort, however if the attempt was more to celebrate the 100th birthday of Kurosawa, as the whole “AK100” would suggest, to me the effort falls short of any special honoring.

There are about 25 full page photos, with about the same amount of small photos mixed in with the words of Prince about Kurosawa. Then each movie has a one page picture towards the rear to supplement the words of Richie regarding each movie. The book is nice and well done. The effort behind the book is to me much greater then the remaining.

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Vili Maunula

Thanks for the information, Jeremy! What do you think of the image qualities, especially of the oldest films? For my eyes, the four previously unreleased early films are all ok, but of lesser quality than any other Criterion releases, including the Eclipse Kurosawas. The DVD File reviewer seemed to disagree with this assessment, while the DVD Beaver reviewer, it seems, agrees with me.

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Tony

great points Jeremy and interesting point Villi I never would of thought the quality would be so different but I will certainly be looking for it now.
Tony

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Jeremy Quintanilla

I would agree with you Vili, the picture is lesser then typical Criterion on the older releases, and perhaps even a tad lesser then what is had with the Eclipse series. I do agree with your review, that the picture is still very watchable, and any imperfections are forgivable. In these cases, I’m more concern about proper translation, and have no problem dealing with scratches and skips, or even issues with contrast. I still think it would of been nice that the newest transfers where used for this boxset, opposed to the older version on the more modern films however. As for the films previously unreleased, as I said I’m fine that they didn’t give them the hardcore Criterion treatment, cost to redo relative minor and unpopular films is understandable to avoid.

Maybe this is a stupid gripe, but still, my biggest gripe remains in cheapness of it all, as I mentioned, the newest Seven Samurai release is very nice, and even the obvious cheaper Sanjuro/Yojimbo combo. I truly doubt it cost Criterion but a few cents more to create these nice packaging, then the really cheap, poorly inspired DVD cases and artwork on the AK100 boxset. But I’m a very material sort of guy, and a sucker for niceties of packaging and artwork, even if they are truly of no value, and not the reason behind the purchase. Just, the small things are everything.

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Tony

Yes I agree with you Jeremy, if you are going to keep it in your home for the next few decades you want the packaging to be quality. Tony

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Tony

just got the set and although the box is nothing special i am happy i picked it up.
tony

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Taki

I just watched Stray Dog 2 nights ago plus the commentary and interviews, and was quite moved by the experience. So I was thinking about buying the boxed set, and in my search stumbled on to this website and review. This has been very useful and I am very appreciative. Thanks guys, from a newbie.

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Jeremy Quintanilla

If Stray Dog is your only experience to Kurosawa, you should very pleased with his other works; Stray Dog is but a mere example of styles and themes continued, and often more deeply so, in his other movies.
This boxset is really the way to go.

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Vili Maunula

This boxset is really the way to go.

Unless you want the excellent commentary lectures and “It Is Wonderful To Create” documentaries that are included in the regular Criterion discs, that is!

Oh, and welcome to the group, Taki! If you are interested in watching Kurosawa with us, feel free to join in with the film club discussions! Starting in May, we will in fact begin watching Kurosawa’s films in chronological order, in case you are interested.

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Jeremy Quintanilla

I either have contradicted myself regarding the boxset’s worth. Or as I believe, got interrupted by a phone call, and forget to add the “Unless you want the excellent commentary lectures and “It Is Wonderful To Create” documentaries that are included in the regular Criterion discs, that is!” before submitting the post. The truth my never be known. 😛

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rotawa

I just got mine off ebay for less than $270 shipped, and am NOT disappointed…it contains 13 movies I don’t already have, and the book that’s included is AWESOME! I love this set!

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cocoskyavitch

Rotawa, if you didn’t have ’em before, then, it is really a great thing! Hey, it makes available some that were very hard to find! And, it’s Criterion. So, yay!

I’m with Jeremy, though. Collecting the discs over the years, with the excellent commentaries and the “It Is Wonderful To Create” (greatest title ever) series is so good! I can recall scenes and interviews immediately into my mind’s eye…and am so grateful for the additional insight gained.

But, if I were starting now, I probably would buy the box, too! It would be easier, and delicious to have the whole kit and kaboodle, and cheaper, and in many cases better quality. I do not regret, though, my hunt and search for titles, my investigation into the history of Kurosawa, and what then, in those darker days, felt like a lone seach in the wilderness. Well before Vili’s site here, I stayed up nights reading about Kurosawa, Japanese cinema, anything relevant or related to the topic. It was a grand adventure to discover what then was a semi-lost world!

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Amnesty11

This thread was magnificently helpful! I am going to look for the individual releases by Criterion, because I do love the commentary and the “It’s Wonderful to Create.”

Thanks all!

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