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Someday The Hidden Fortress will again be discussed without mention of George Lucas, as Akira Kurosawa's fine film is much more than merely the inspiration for the original Star Wars movie. But even the Criterion Collection knows the value of effective marketing, as Lucas is given an interview to respectfully catalogue his borrowings from Kurosawa's film. Amusingly, he mentions that his USC cohort John Milius was the super-fan who introduced him to the director. Writer-director Milius didn't balk at restaging some of Hidden Fortress's more exciting scenes, either.
Some critics noted that Kurosawa's Seven Samurai had a distinctly American style and flavor, and indeed the great film balances drama with riotous comedy in way mostly unseen in previous Japanese tales with a historical setting. The Hidden Fortress takes many viewers by surprise -- its sense of humor is so pervasive that it often seems more of a comedy than a drama. The relatively lighthearted adventure has more in common with a folk tale than a Samurai saga. It's a rich and satisfying adventure experience that only superficially resembles the later space opera.
Civil war has left survivors scrambling for shelter in hostile territory. Sniveling failures at soldiery, peasants Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matakishi (Kamatari Fujiwara) stumble homeward. They whine like children, constantly blaming one another for their ill fortune. Captured by the victorious Yamana clan, they're forced to join hundreds of other slave laborers searching a pit for missing pieces of gold. The two misfits escape when the mine is attacked, only to later find some of the missing gold in a mountain spring, hidden in sticks. That's when they meet the formidable General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune), a resourceful warrior in a tight spot: stuck behind Yamana lines, Makabe must find a way to smuggle both the gold and his Princess Yukuhime (Misa Uehara) back to their own kingdom of Hayakawa. Much to their chagrin, the lowly Tahei and Matakishi find themselves aiding in a bold, heroic adventure.
One of Kurosawa's first feature films was Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, a charming adventure about a nobleman who disguises himself and his retainers as monks to sneak through enemy territory. The Hidden Fortress spins a similar idea into a robust adventure worthy of Rudyard Kipling. Even more than Seven Samurai, the escapist tale steers away from an emphasis on technical and historical accuracy. The civil war is a pretext for roaming patrols and border checkpoints. The easily understood story sees the intrepid general Rokurata using every trick he knows to spirit his princess, and a fortune in gold, past formidable enemies, some of whom were his comrades in battles of the past. Unlike Seven Samurai or the later giant productions Ran and Kagemusha, this episodic tale sketches a civil war in progress without actually showing giant armies clashing. The emphasis is on the individuals and not the bigger picture.
Kurosawa has a knowing wink for all of the characters. The bickering peasants are by turns pitiful and stupid, lovable and incorrigible, and provide excellent comic relief while grounding the story in an earthy credibility -- much the same way Shakespeare's clown characters provide a common man's reaction to the grand gestures of the leading players. Tahei and Matakishi's complaints are exactly what any sane person would share if dragged along on this sort of crazy, hazardous jaunt. 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. For her part the previously sequestered Princess is fascinated by life in the lower classes. She begins as a petulant snob but acquires an appreciation for common people.
As with any good road picture, the story is a series of well-developed episodes. The slave mine with its giant steps is an impressive set piece, as is an extended scene in a fire festival. The story functions perfectly well without a romantic foil for the Princess. Toshiro is a dashing comrade and protector, but his role requires that he maintain a respectful position apart from Yukuhime. Tahei and Matakishi's interactions with the Princess are played almost like slapstick. At first assuming that she is a mute, they look like fools as they mime their intention to take the horses for a drink. The General's charge on horseback is an action highlight. He chases two soldiers down a road a gallop without holding hands, his sword aloft. We're told that Toshiro Mifune performed the stunt personally. John Milius recreated it on a beach with Sean Connery's in his The Wind and the Lion. Another fine episode concerns enemy general Hyoe Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita), who is so pleased to see General Rokurota again that he immediately challenges him to a duel. Hyoe later happily sings a song about tossing himself into the fire.
The Hidden Fortress is a costume picture but the emphasis is always on action. No passages are set aside for the display of somber pageantry. The escapist attitude doesn't exclude associations that might be construed as anachronistic. The fiery Princess Yukuhime has something of the new, liberated Japanese woman about her. She's directed to be almost masculine when she struts like a warrior, moving in sharp, focused bits of action.
Always progressive, Akira Kurosawa chose The Hidden Fortress to be his first film in Tohoscope, the widescreen format that almost overnight became the standard for Japanese filmmaking. His 'scope compositions are excellent, and he doesn't let the wide frame cramp his kinetic camera pans and fast cutting. Kurosawa continued making films in various styles and genres, but his subsequent samurai action sagas Yojimbo and Sanjuro led the way for a new kind of violent, escapist action-oriented cinema, which had a huge influence at home and overseas. When Sergio Leone made his first Italian western, he reportedly copied Kurosawa's Yojimbo shot for shot. Sam Peckinpah was greatly influenced by the style of Kurosawa's spectacular adventure thrillers, especially his graphic bloodletting and use of both fast- and slow motion cameras in action montages.
Criterion's Dual-format Blu-ray + DVD of The Hidden Fortress improves greatly on their first DVD release from 2001. Kurosawa's natural exteriors and landscapes benefit greatly from Blu-ray's enhanced sharpness and contrast range. Masaru Sato's exciting music score sounds great in the original monaural track; Criterion has also provided a simulated Perspecta Stereo track as an option that will be appreciated by audiophiles.
The earlier release was somewhat extras-challenged. Its 2001 interview with George Lucas is repeated here. New to the title is a full commentary by Japanese film expert Stephen Prince, along with a fascinating Japanese TV show focusing on the making of this particular movie. In an archived video interview Kurosawa talks about his crew and his American idol, director John Ford. Several of the film's actors give testimony about the shoot as well. Actress Misa Uehara is heard describing the way her undergarments were padded to make her look more muscular.
A trailer is included, and the insert booklet essay is by scholar Catherine Russell. We're told that the English subtitles are newly translated.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Hidden Fortress Blu-ray rates:
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