BFI’s Early Kurosawa box set was released on Monday, and in my announcement I promised a review. Well, here you are. If you have come here just to be told whether to buy it or not, I can tell you right away that it is a very good release, and if you do not own these films already, the BFI box set is as good as anything else out there.
I have included some screencaps for both the BFI box set and the older Criterion Eclipse releases, but I would like to apologise right away that these shots are not always exactly the same between the two. The minor discrepancies should not affect framing, however, so even those shots that are not exactly the same should work for the sake of quality comparison.
The box set contains Kurosawa’s first six films on four discs:
Disc one: Sanshiro Sugata, Sanshiro Sugata Part Two
Disc two: The Most Beautiful, They Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail
Disc three: No Regrets for Our Youth
Disc four: One Wonderful Sunday
The only special feature included on the discs is eight minutes of deleted scenes for Sanshiro Sugata, which is the same selection as the one found on the Australian Madman Entertainment release. An illustrated booklet with a short essay by Philip Kemp is also included. The essay is six pages of text, and in it Kemp gives a suitable general introduction to the films.
The films seem to use the same translation as the Criterion Eclipse releases (found in the First Films of Akira Kurosawa and Post-War Kurosawa box sets), although there are a few minor differences in punctuation, spelling and such.
For obvious reasons, I am not going to review the actual films here. Instead, I assume that the question most readers will be interested in is what the quality of the prints is. I have done my best to find an answer to that here, although I am the first to admit that I am not a quality expert as such, and my home equipment is not as good as to allow for a fully objective take on the subject, if such a thing is even possible.
What I have primarily done here is compared the BFI prints to those found on Criterion’s Eclipse releases. The main thing to be said is that the two are very similar, and for an average viewer there isn’t much difference between the two. Yet, for those really concerned about having the best possible (English friendly) print for each film, there are enough differences to make you want to possess both releases (as well as possibly the Australian Madman releases).
The picture size on all of BFI’s discs is 768×576 against Eclipse’s 720×540, which I suppose means more information, which in layman’s terms could equal “better quality”. However, what the BFI prints gain in size they tend to lose in blurriness, and therefore although there is more information, the BFI prints aren’t quite as sharp as Eclipse’s.
The first film in the BFI box set, Sanshiro Sugata, is presented in relatively good quality, although flickering and scratches remain on the print. To my eyes, it is slightly better than Eclipse’s print, and includes ever so slightly more vertical space as well (we are talking about millimetres here). As the BFI version furthermore includes eight minutes of deleted scenes, which the Eclipse release does not, I would definitely go with BFI if I had to choose between the two. Here are some comparison pictures (click to open in full size):
When the BFI release is compared to the Australian Madman print, which I also happen to have, it is a rather more difficult question. After watching the two side by side for a while, it is impossible for me to pick a winner, especially as the Madman also includes the deleted scenes. Madman uses a different translation, by the way.
Sanshiro Sugata II
The second film in the BFI box set is Sanshiro Sugata Part Two, so I will also proceed in this order, and not the chronological one. BFI’s Sanshiro Sugata II is of noticeably worse quality than the first Sanshiro Sugata, or indeed any of the other films included, but this is also true of the Eclipse release. Again, marginally more vertical space is present than with Eclipse, so if I absolutely had to choose between the two, I would go with BFI. But the BFI is again slightly blurrier.
The Most Beautiful
The first film on BFI’s disc two is The Most Beautiful, which again has very marginally more vertical space than the Eclipse release. However, in addition to being blurrier, the BFI print also has noticeably less contrast and is darker in many places, so much so that I prefer the Eclipse print here.
They Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail
The next film in the BFI box set is They Who Step on the Tiger’s Tail, and quality-wise it is a similar story as with The Most Beautiful. Due to the sharper and slightly brighter image on the Eclipse print, I would choose the Eclipse. Having said that, the choice is not quite as obvious as with The Most Beautiful, mainly because the Eclipse is so sharp as to be quite grainy at times.
There also appears to be an interesting difference between the two transfers: rotation. If you compare the snapshots below, you should notice that the rotation of the transfers differs very slightly in two of the images. To my eyes, the Criterion Eclipse orientation looks more natural.
No Regrets For Our Youth
Disc three of the BFI box set is taken by No Regrets For Our Youth, and although the BFI print is again blurrier than the Eclipse one and has a little bit more of the picture in the frame, there is quite little difference between the two in the end. I would call this a tie.
One Wonderful Sunday
The final film in the box set is One Wonderful Sunday, and I can only repeat the same mantra as with the other films — the BFI is blurrier, but has a bit more picture. The Eclipse here is a bit grainy, but not distractingly so, so I shall call it a tie once again.
So, which one to go with — BFI or Eclipse (or Madman)? Well, for an average viewer (like for instance myself), there is no real difference, other than the Sanshiro Sugata extras on the BFI release (which can also be had with the Madman release). For someone looking for the absolutely best versions, it is a trickier question, and I think that ultimately all releases have their merits, so purists may want to own them all.
The BFI release is available, among other places, from Amazon.co.uk, currently going for £26.99, which is a very decent price for six films, especially considering the quality of the release.
For more information about Kurosawa’s films on DVD, see the Kurosawa DVD guide.