Our review of The Hidden Fortress (1958) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published March 12th, 2014, is also available.
The life of a man
Akira Kurosawa. The very name evokes a sense of awe in film lovers around the globe. This legend of Japanese cinema gave the world such wonderful films as Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Sanjuro. His contribution to world cinema is hard to measure. His sense of composition and visual style, his dynamic, forceful editing, and his plots and characters have made a huge impact on filmmakers the world over. He has been endlessly, mercilessly imitated by other filmmakers, notably in the West, but more on that in a bit. I find that watching a Kurosawa film is always a joyful experience. To me his work represents that perfect combination of art and entertainment, style and skill that most filmmakers shoot for but rarely attain.
Like most Westerners, I am primarily familiar with Kurosawa's samurai adventure epics. These are marvelous, exciting films full of swordplay and derring-do, but also crafted with complex plots, vivid characters and solid filmmaking art. His samurai films provide a window into Japanese culture for Western audiences. More accurately, they provide a window into a romanticized, swashbuckling version of Japanese culture that draws from the best conventions and clichés of Japanese history and folklore.
This accessibility to Western audiences is due at least in part to the filmmakers who Kurosawa admired and imitated, in particular the great John Ford. However, this accessibility to Western audiences led many Japanese critics to disparage him as a filmmaker primarily interested in making movies for Western audiences. Like the proverbial prophet without honor in his own land, Kurosawa's reputation within Japan was never as exalted as it is in the rest of the world.
Given the great pleasures of Kurosawa's films and my love of them, I was very excited earlier this year when The Criterion Collection announced that The Hidden Fortress would be coming soon to DVD. Of all his films this is the one that I had been most eager to see, for reasons which I shall discuss later on in my review.
Facts of the Case
The story begins with two bedraggled peasants, trying to make their way home from a war. Mataschichi and Tahei had set out for adventure and fortune. However, they showed up to the war late, were mistaken for the enemy, and were forced to spend days burying the dead. As they stumble towards home they bemoan their fortunes; they have even lost the weapons they sold their homes to buy. They also bicker as they press on, each one blaming the other for their misfortunes. Soon they part ways; Mataschichi wants to take one last stab at adventure, while Tahei is determined to head home with his tail between his legs. Their parting is short, however, as they are both captured by soldiers and taken to a huge prison fortress. They soon escape as part of a huge prison revolt, but find themselves alone and despondent.
Their luck seems to change when they find a piece of gold hidden in a stick of firewood. Their excitement at this discovery leads them to a meeting with a mysterious stranger who claims to be the great samurai general Rokurota Makabe. He claims to know where a fortune in gold is hidden. The peasants' greed convinces them to help the stranger carry it across hostile territory to the safety of Hayakawa province. Joining the travelers is a mysterious girl, young and beautiful but apparently mute.
Unbeknownst to the bumbling peasants, the stranger really is Rokurota Makabe. The young girl is Princess Yuki, the sole survivor of the Akizuki clan. Rokurota must transport her and the gold safely to Hayakawa, where they will begin the task of rebuilding their clan from nothing. They must travel incognito, as their foes from the Yamana clan have placed a reward on Yuki's head and are leaving no stone unturned in their search for her and her gold. In order to survive Yuki must dress and act as a commoner, and refrain from speaking lest someone recognize her noble diction.
The group struggles on, facing one close shave after another. There are narrow escapes from enemy soldiers. There is a thrilling duel between Rokurota and another noble samurai opponent. There are tense moments as the group passes border checkpoints, and eventually gets entangled in a procession of religious pilgrims heading to a firewood festival. There are chaotic and thrilling scenes of the firewood festival itself. There are repeated attempts at treachery by the bumbling and greedy peasants. In short there are chases, escapes, fencing, fighting, and intrigue…enough excitement to keep viewers on the edge of their seats until the very end.
The Hidden Fortress has been called Kurosawa's lightest, funniest samurai film. The heroism and adventure of the story really shine through, making it one of his more enjoyable pictures; it is also probably the most easily understood by a typical Western viewer. In particular my wife, who has been forced to watch a number of Kurosawa films since we purchased our DVD player, found this much more enjoyable than any of the others she has had to sit through. The story is fast-paced and cleverly constructed, with healthy doses of humor, excitement, and drama.
This was Kurosawa's first widescreen picture, and his mastery of the frame is amazing. Every shot is perfectly composed and framed. Kurosawa can fill the whole anamorphic frame, but still bring the viewer's attention to the specific spot where he wants it. There are examples of this throughout the film, but a good early example occurs in Chapter 3 at the 1:40 mark, where an enemy soldier is giving orders to a group of prisoners. Kurosawa uses the structures around him to bring the viewer's attention directly to the perfectly framed, perfectly centered enemy guard. Later on, in the midst of the chaotic prison revolt, he is able to bring our attention to focus directly on Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara), and again is able to frame them perfectly in the middle of the screen, even in the midst of a swirling crowd. He also makes great dynamic use of the frame, with movement and action on several different planes at once. He also creates some incredible action scenes, from the jailbreak to the duel to the instruments and dancing of the firewood festival.
While all of this takes place through the eyes of the peasants, the emotional pillar of the film is the great Toshirô Mifune (Rashomon, High and Low, Seven Samurai). It is hard to overestimate the importance of Mifune in Japanese cinema; imagine Errol Flynn, John Wayne, and Laurence Olivier rolled into one and you begin to get a sense of his stature and talent. Here Mifune plays a variation on a role he played many times for Kurosawa throughout their long collaboration: the valiant, honorable samurai warrior willing to sacrifice everything, even his life and his family, in the name of honor. He conveys more emotion just silently, slowly sitting down than most actors do in their lifetimes.
Misa Uehara is a name I am less familiar with, but she brings an amazing fire to her role as Princess Yuki. Yuki is young and headstrong, experiencing life among commoners for the first time and learning about the lives of her people; this is particularly poignant in the context of the rigid Japanese class structure of the day.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the great Susumu Fujita (Yojimbo, The Bad Sleep Well, Tora! Tora! Tora!), who appears as General Tadokoro, Rukorota's honorable and skilled opponent. Also present is Takashi Shimura in a small role; he is best remembered as the wise samurai leader in Seven Samurai. Like Mifune, both of these men have a long history of work with Kurosawa and are very respected Japanese actors.
Criterion presents The Hidden Fortress in 2.35:1 anamorphic format. It is incredibly beautiful. The sharp black-and white contrasts and the deep focus photography are faithfully reproduced. There are a few occasional blips and specks, as is to be expected, and there is the occasional "cigarette burn" to indicate a reel change. There are a few scenes that are a bit grainy or otherwise show their age, but these are few and the problems are minor. Other than that the image is basically flawless. Details are sharp and clear; check out Chapter 6, where you can see every wisp of smoke rising from the peasants' campfire. The good people over at Criterion really outdid themselves this time.
The audio is of course presented in the original Japanese—no blasphemous English dubs to be found here. It comes in two options. There is a Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono track, and a Dolby Digital 3.0 audio track that replicates the novelty "Perspect-A-Sound" format. The Perspect-A-Sound system was an early attempt to create a quasi-stereo or surround experience, and involved sending encoded bass signals to speakers in different parts of the theater. It works surprisingly well here, giving some sense of directionality across the front soundstage. I also thought the Dolby 3.0 presentation had a bit more life overall, and seemed to benefit from the extra low-end sound signal. Both tracks are quite sharp and pleasant, with dialogue easily heard and a good mix between sound effects and the exciting musical score. I detected very little if any hiss under the soundtrack, which is quite a feat with material this old.
There are two extra features on this DVD. The first is a theatrical trailer. It is presented in its original aspect ratio and is in surprisingly good condition; it appears that the folks at Criterion took some time and care to clean it up a bit. It runs for 3 minutes 40 seconds, but seems much shorter due to its editing and the fact that the movie itself is so good.
The second extra feature is an interview entitled "Lucas on Kurosawa." Yes, you read that right, George Lucas has finally made it to DVD. In this eight minute presentation, Lucas talks about the influence that Kurosawa had on him as a filmmaker, including several elements from The Hidden Fortress that found their way into his script for Star Wars. Of these the most obvious are the peasants Tahei and Matashichi, who in Lucas's version became R2-D2 and C-3PO. More importantly, Lucas talks about Kurosawa's influence on his overall filmmaking style. Lucas has always been known as an avid student of film lore, and he is able to discuss the minutiae of Kurosawa's work in detail. His presentation is very interesting. It made me wish he had done a full commentary track for the film, which would have been fascinating. One tidbit that I found particularly interesting was that Lucas and John Milius were good friends in their film school days, and it was Milius who first introduced Lucas to Kurosawa's work, dragging him to a showing of Seven Samurai. After that Lucas was hooked, and the rest is history.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I held off mentioning the connection between The Hidden Fortress and Star Wars as long as possible, partly because I didn't want to be seen as an overzealous fanboy, but mostly because I feel that Kurosawa's film needs to be seen on its own merits. To watch it looking for hints of Star Wars to come is to miss the point. I'll admit that the Lucas connection is what initially spurred my interest in this film, but it is a wonderful story in its own right and can only be disfigured by looking at it through a Star Wars lens. It is far too easy for nitpicking fanboys to exaggerate the similarities between the two.
I have only one real criticism of the DVD. For this release Criterion created a set of "new and improved" English subtitles. They are very good and add a lot to one's enjoyment of the film, especially if one doesn't speak Japanese (I don't). However, it seems to me at times that the language they used was just a bit too modern, especially when the peasants were talking. At various times one or the other of them says "Give it up," "Get a clue," "We're screwed," and "This sucks." Phrases such as these made it easy to relate to these two characters and understand their state of mind, but I wonder if these phrases aren't just a little too contemporary.
The Hidden Fortress may not be Kurosawa's greatest film, but it is certainly one of his most enjoyable. Sit back, relax, and let yourself be absorbed by the adventure, the characters, and the gorgeous cinematography. It's an entertaining film and seems much shorter than its 139-minute running time. Watch it in its own right; try not to see it as a proto-Star Wars and you will appreciate it much more. I'd recommend this DVD to just about anyone, either for rental or purchase.
This is the second time that the great Akira Kurosawa has appeared before this humble judge, and he is again fully acquitted and released with the thanks of the court. The court thanks Criterion as well for bringing this delightful film to DVD. I hope they will bring more of Kurosawa's films before this court in the future, although preferably with a commentary track next time.
We stand adjourned.
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