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Tuesday Foreign Region/Blu-ray Disc Report: “Tokyo Story” (Yasujiro Ozu, 1952)

What, finally, is the point of the Blu-ray disc? Not just for cinephiles, but for anyone with a home entertainment setup? Which questions lead us back to the question of what's the point of a home entertainment setup. Not just for anyone, but for cinephiles. You following me?

These questions dog me as I consider three Blu-ray discs from the British Film Institute, high-resolution home versions of three—no, wait, make that four— Ozu masterpieces. If I focus here on Tokyo Story, it's because it's the one best known to whatever larger audience there is or may be for Ozu pictures, and also because it's the one that's most likely to be a budding cinephile or film student's first exposure to Ozu. The other three Ozu pictures put out not merely in Blu-ray but in dual-format—that is, Blu-ray and standard definition DVD—editions are 1951's Early Summer, and a dual-format double-feature of 1949's Late Spring and 1936's The Only Son. These titles are part of a larger dual-format push from the home video division of the Institute, which is selling these discs at a lower-than-normal price (or "price point," as Americans in marketing like to say, for reasons I never understood). The point, I suppose, being to push the Blu-ray format itself, and push the Blu-ray for cinephiles concept, while also being backward-compatibility friendly. And so we shrug our shoulders and sigh, "Ah, marketing." But marketing is what drives the technology, and vice versa. And what also drives our expectations about the technology. This is part of my point.

High-definition television and its attendant software complements were marketed to the public—we could say "pushed" on the public—as transformative technologies/experiences. As with a large-format film technology such as IMAX, high-def for the home was going to CHANGE THE WAY YOU WATCHED TELEVISION. Hence, a severe emphasis on the more sensational-looking results of high-def remastering of cinema for the home, and for the wonkier of the consumers, a throwing around of numbers—4K, why to hell with that, what about 8K scanning, which will compel you to go out and buy a disc of a film you'd ordinarily not even want to see except that it's the first to be scanned in that humongous amount of detail, etc. Cinephiles being supposedly attuned to the minutiae of technical presentation—hey, what's the ideal throw for that projection lamp, anyway?—a fascination with remastering was assumed, and new tools led to new wonders and new complaints. How much digital noise reduction is too much? What's with that grain?

Some of the readers here will be irritated at my even bringing this person up, but Jeffrey Wells of the website Hollywood Elsewhere is kind of the king of Blu-ray savvy (or so he thinks) cinephiles (what are you gonna do) who seem to demand that each Blu-ray experience be a transformative one, and if it can't be, it's not worth having. So bear with me for quoting him just a little. "Why doesn't DVD Beaver's Gary W. Tooze let his hair down and just say it?" Wells grousedrecently of a new Criterion Blu-ray of Breathless that he of course hadn't yet seen.  "A Bluray of Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960), which was shot on the cheap using natural light for the most part, can't look that crisp or shimmering." One needn't go into the farrago of errors and unearned assumptions contained in the seemingly not-too-detailed clauses cited here, but merely note the attitude, which is that if something cannot shimmer on Blu-ray, it's just not worth having on Blu-ray. As if added detail in and of itself is of no consequence. Because, let us understand, that's all, really, that a Blu-ray disc is going to offer at the base line: a progressive—that is, non-interlaced—picture with detail of 1080 lines of vertical resolution. That's all. More detail. Shimmer optional. (And pancake makeup optional too: a recent Wells post on the Blu-ray disc of Psycho suggested that the fact that this version allowed you to see the cosmetics on actor Martin Balsam's face was a good thing.)

And of course how that detail looks is going to be reliant on both the source material itself and the condition it was in when it was brought to the telecine process. Which sometimes is not a telecine process as we used to understand it but a process of individual frame scans, which takes longer and is more costly and is (although this is hardly an actual rule) largely reserved for rescuing films that have undergone a fair amount of damage that can be repaired in the digital domain only once each individual frame has been scanned.

This all brings us to the Blu-ray of Tokyo Story. As I saw in my viewing of it, and as is amplified in some detail in the DVD Beaver review of it (not to mention its accompanying screen captures, one of which I reproduce above), it doesn't shimmer. It's not meant to. Ozu's style of filmmaking abjures the showy. This is not to say that his films are visually ugly, or even plain. They are beautiful. In a very unadorned way, a way that is both ostensibly true to the reality depicted and thoroughly composed. To say that Ozu's films are free of artifice is to miss, among other things, the particular way in which his visual storytelling style frequently goes against what's referred to as the 180º rule, and the attendant continuity "errors" that on occasion accompany those, and which are entirely arguably deliberate. But anyway: no, no shimmer, no glitter, no Technicolor razzle-dazzle. And in fact nothing too unfamiliar in terms of sources: as the notes on the transfer in each of the packages tell us, the masters for these films belong to the U.S.'s Criterion Collection, which is in the habit of creating high-definition masters for all its titles even if the company is only going to manufacture and market that material in standard def.

The other end of the spectrum in terms of cinephile expectation for Blu-ray discs or any home video manifestation was articulated by The New Yorker's Richard Brody, in a comment he left on a blog post by yours truly: "The most important thing about a DVD is its availability; even at its best, it's a faute de mieuxsimulacrum of the movie-going experience, and to obsess about the quality of a transfer without discussing the film that's being transferred--what its significance is, or why readers should even bother caring that it's available on DVD--is a kind of technical fetishism that's skew to movie-love. (So many of us have seen so many movies we love on TV, cut by commercials, in the wrong aspect ratio, or on low-fi 16mm. prints, or in theatres that did dreamlike-bleary rear-screen projection, and, though it matters, it doesn't matter as much as does the film itself.)" Some might argue this takes matters entirely too far. But in a sense, it helps me underscore for myself just what this BFI Blu-ray of Tokyo Story is good for: it is, in picture and sound, the best possible available home video presentation of a beautiful and nourishing film. Which is nothing to sneeze at.

I recently found an old VHS copy of Woman in the Dunes, put out by Good Times Video. It was a horribly dark, blurry print. The amount of black in every shot was depressive. But it was beautiful! I found myself totally absorbed in the characters’ minds… Though the clean, crisp, bright Criterion transfer is objectively superior in quality all around, and certainly better for active viewing and scrutiny, when I think of the film in my mind’s eye, the VHS version wins.
Marketing has certainly created this expectation that a Blu-ray copy of a film will have a “shiny” factor that is not available on DVD. There’s much grousing in the review sections of sites like Amazon from consumers who bought a Blu-ray disc only to find that it didn’t look leaps and bounds better than that DVD copy they already owned. This is especially true of newer films where the movie was released to both formats simultaneously. In such cases, the release to Blu-ray didn’t come with a shiny new transfer of previously released material. What gets lost in the conversations about Blu-ray is the fact that the primary outcome of a higher-definition copy of a film (that is, a higher pixel count) is that the film will retain its quality when projected to larger dimensions. Wells notes that “Breathless” doesn’t “look that crisp or shimmering,” but he’s clearly missing the point. Criterion has used the same master on both the DVD and the BD. Putting the film on BD isn’t suddenly going to make it something that it isn’t. The gain in quality can only be seen by those who are either sitting really close to their 50"+ televisions or by those who are projecting the film on a 100"+ screen. So then, the real benefit of such a BD is that the image will RETAIN quality when projected to a larger size whereas projecting the film from the DVD to such a large size would degrade its quality.
One of my first Blu-Ray purchases was the BFI’s Jeff Keen boxset, and it immediately got me excited about the format (I had been a skeptical purchaser at first). Projected onto a screen, it looked amazing not for any “shimmer”, but for how far it preserved the grain, the scratches, the feel of 16mm. This is how it should be used – to simulate the appearance of film, rather than to botox old movies for a new audience.
And what a lot of people do is they will by a blu ray disc player, but not upgrade their television. For whatever reason they think they should get the benefits of a blu ray on non-hdtv. And some people judge films that are too old to do anything about when transferring to blu ray. My favorite film of all time, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is going to look the same on DVD as it does on blu. However-to use a modern example- most films by Robert Rodriguez are going to look great on blu ray connected to an hdtv because he shoots using digital “film” when making a movie.
BR isn’t for everybody, in fact I would say that it isn’t for most people. In order to perceive the difference you need a large screen full HDTV to notice the differences with an upscaled DVD (or watching at a very close distance from the screen). At 3ft/1mt a 24" 1080p screen I can very easily tell how good the source is but at 9ft/3mts on a 42" I can’t, and I would possibly have to go to a 52"or 60"+ to tell the difference. Add the zones and the expiration of the keys and I’m seriously non plused with the format.
“Criterion has used the same master on both the DVD and the BD. Putting the film on BD isn’t suddenly going to make it something that it isn’t. The gain in quality can only be seen by those who are either sitting really close to their 50”+ televisions or by those who are projecting the film on a 100"+ screen. " It really doesn’t sound like you have actually sat down and watched a blu-ray. I can easily see the difference sitting 5-6 ft away from a 32in 720p television. Sure it doesn’t add anything to what was filmed, it restores what was taken away in the DVD version. And it isn’t just small details either, the higher resolution and bitrate gives you a truer representation of the color and brightness. So unless you are talking specifically about this film and its transfer (which I have not seen,) it’s safe to say you don’t know what you are talking about. “And some people judge films that are too old to do anything about when transferring to blu ray. My favorite film of all time, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is going to look the same on DVD as it does on blu.” That is completely false. 35mm has always had a greater “resolution” than blu-ray. Just watch 2001 or the Searchers to see a fantastic upgrade. I’ve never heard of Jeffery Wells, but most blu-ray cinephiles, including me, demand that every transfer be as accurate as possible in all of the film’s perfections and imperfections.
I think all can agree that the optimal screening preference for a movie is to see it projected in a movie theatre. [The exception maybe being some old scratched faded print that has no purpose being projected]. After that Blu-Ray is as close as you can get to the theatrical experience if you have a big enough screen and a good transfer to experience it. After that I am with Richard Brody; I’d rather see a bad VHS copy than nothing at all. I basically grew up discovering Antonioni, Bergman, Truffaut via VHS. Still, I like Blu-Ray and in many cases seeing a movie in Blu-Ray does add to the experience over other non projected formats. Case in point is Pierrot le fou. The VHS was good but one can see the greatness of the film on Blu-Ray.
I keep waiting for someone to put Detour on Blu—Ray. That’s a movie that has always seemed to get better in inverse proportion to the quality of the print.
“I can easily see the difference sitting 5-6 ft away from a 32in 720p television.” Sure you can. You can also see the difference on a 24" HDTV if you were sitting around six feet away. My 50" – 100" statement was a generalization. I’m sure the detail can been seen in a 101" screen just as with your 32" (or a 49"). “It really doesn’t sound like you have actually sat down and watched a blu-ray… It’s safe to say you don’t know what you are talking about.” You’re right. You figured it out. So, what do you want? A cookie?
“My favorite film of all time, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is going to look the same on DVD as it does on blu.” Only if the Blu-ray was accidentally sourced from an SD video master – which isn’t impossible, but it’s a tad unlikely. The fact is that virtually all films shot on celluloid for which materials survive in decent condition will look better on Blu-ray than they do on DVD – their age is irrelevant. In fact, I can personally assure you that Humphrey Jennings films from the 1940s and Mitchell & Kenyon films from the 1900s look stunning in high-def digital transfers, as I’ve been lucky enough to see them projected. I also particularly love seeing lower-resolution formats like 16mm and 8mm being transferred to Blu-ray, because the grain is reproduced so accurately that it’s like watching an actual print being projected. DVD, by contrast, smooths this out – ironically, in a similar way to what Jeffrey Wells favours for Blu-ray authoring. Not to mention the improvement Blu-ray offers for hand-drawn animation – the new Masters of Cinema release of Rene Laloux’s ‘Fantastic Planet’ is like night and day compared with the old DVD, because you can now make out each individual brushstroke and appreciate the artwork to an extent impossible before (except from a 35mm print, and with that you didn’t have the option of freezeframing it unless you were studying it on a Steenbeck).

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