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DVD SAVANT

Savant International Dinner and a Movie Review:

The Hidden Fortress


The Hidden Fortress
Criterion 116
1958 / B&W / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 139m. / Kakushi toride no san akunin
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Misa Uehara, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara,Takashi Shimura,Susumu Fujita
Cinematography Kazuo Yamasaki, Ichio Yamazeki
Production Designer Kohei Ezaki, Yoshiro Muraki
Art Direction
Film Editor Akira Kurosawa
Original Music Masaru Sato
Writing credits Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni
Produced by Masumi Fujimoto, Akira Kurosawa
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

On Friday, November 30, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs will present The Hidden Fortress as the second film in their International Dinner and a Movie screening series. This sounds like a bargain - Cuisine by Design Catering, followed by this Akira Kurosawa masterpiece. This screening will be introduced by critic Jonathan Rosenblum of the Chicago Reader. The full details for those of you in the Chicago area, can be found at this link.

The Hidden Fortress takes a lot of viewers by surprise. BSW (Before Star Wars), the average viewer aware of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and other, even more serious modern dress films, didn't expect this lighthearted adventure, that had more in common with a folk tale than a Samurai saga. ASW, when George Lucas let it be known that Fortress was a major influence, a much larger audience has flocked to the film, and found not thin escapism, but a rich adventure experience that only superficially resembles the space saga.

Synopsis:

Sniveling failures at soldiery, peasants Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matakishi (Kmatari Fujiwara) try to stumble back home, constantly blaming one another for their ill fortune. Captured by The victorious Yamana clan, and forced with hundreds of other slave laborers to search a pit for missing pieces of gold, they escape when the mine is attacked, only to later find some of the missing gold hidden in sticks in a mountain spring. That's when they meet the formidable General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune), a resourceful warrior who's in a tight spot: stuck behind Yamana lines, Makabe has to find a way to smuggle both the gold, and the Princess Yukuhime (Misa Uehara) back into their own kingdom of Hayakawa. Much to their chagrin, the lowly Tahei and Matakishi find themselves aiding in a bold adventure.

Nowadays, you have a hard time finding an action-adventure movie that takes itself seriously enough to be about more than guns or martial arts; The Hidden Fortress is a superior entertainment in that its thrills are never predictable and its characters so amusing. Unlike Seven Samurai or his later giant productions Ran and Kagemusha, this story sketches a civil war in progress without actually showing giant armies clashing; although there's plenty of production value, the emphasis is on the individuals and not the war - there's actually a minimum of combat, yet the entertainment level is so high you don't miss it.

Kurosawa has a knowing wink for all of the characters, perhaps the kind of Western touch that earned him criticism from Japanese critics. Savant's taken all this home-country negativity at face value, as it's reported in all the books on Kurosawa.  1 The bickering pair of peasants are pitiful, stupid, loveable and incorrigible by turns, and provide excellent comic relief while grounding the story in an earthy credibility. Their complaints are exactly those any sane people would have if dragged along on a crazy jaunt like this one, and even their greed becomes endearing. Toshiro Mifune has the wiles of a fox, using deception and intimidation in equal measure to keep these two sad sacks on the team. The usually-sequestered Princess, for her part, is fascinated by life in the lower classes, and grows from a petulant snob, into a real appreciation for people noble and common.The General has more than enough trouble on his hands.

The story is deceptively simple, a series of well-developed episodes. The slave mine is an impressive setpiece, as is the extended scene in the fire festival later on. The story functions perfectly well without a romantic foil for the Princess. Toshiro has no problem presenting himself as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Obi-wan Kenobi all rolled into one. With not a single predictable occurrance or relationship, the surprises that perk up the story come through in wonderfully amusing scenes: Tahei and Matakishi miming taking the horses for a drink to the supposedly mute Princess; The General's charge on horseback, chasing two soldiers like the Raisuli from The Wind and the Lion, and the sudden defection of General Hyoe Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita), singing a song about tossing oneself into the fire.

One special reason you may really like The Hidden Fortress: with many Japanese Samurai films, a lot of time is expended in the pageantry of formal life among the nobility ... since the fugitive nobles in this film start with little but the clothes on their backs, they grow in our estimation by virtue of their actions, and not their pretty robes or armor. By the end of this delightful adventure, their formal postures and elaborate costumes seem earned. And the lowly peasant duo are given a comic farewell that even allows them some measure of respect!


Criterion again makes DVD better than going to the movies. Their The Hidden Fortress restores the film to its full 139 minutes, and presents it in full Tohoscope widescreen, anamorphically enhanced. Better yet (and thanks to the timely intervention of Stuart Galbraith IV, who has a book on Kurosawa and Mifune coming out soon), the original Perspecta-Sound multitrack audio configuration has been restored to the disc. This '50s phenomenon spread a mono track to three speakers in a fairly sophisticated faux-stereo using selected frequencies. Or so I've been explained.

The subtitles are newly translated and reportedly an improvement over the originals, that didn't keep the various names and warring provinces straight. This time, the principals say things like, "This sucks!" and "Whatever," contemporary jargon that will surely be an embarassment later when it dates. Also included is a trailer, and a video testimonial from George Lucas. Obviously Criterion could not resist, but even with Mr. Lucas' later involvement with Kurosawa, his insights are not all that dazzling.

Many sources cite this film as Japan's first anamorphic movie ... although Inoshiro Honda's The Mysterians (Chikyu Boeigun) from the previous year is in Tohoscope and color. The Hidden Fortress is yet another inspired choice for Chicago's International Dinner and a Movie) show.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Hidden Fortress rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer, George Lucas appraisal, original Perspecta-Sound 3.0 audio track.
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: November 20, 2001


Footnotes:

1. Kurosawa's fast cutting and kinetic action scenes were very Western in design. Also, it's possible that his emotional characters, who frequently collide with social class barriers, weren't typical in Japan. Finally, other Japanese genre films Savant's seen before 1960 tend to trumpet the value of group action over individual ego ... a virtue strongly evident in an oft-filmed story like Chushingura. Savant's certainly no expert, and hopes these observations aren't too far off the mark.
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