Judge Gordon Sullivan bought a fortress...and he's still looking for it.
Our review of The Hidden Fortress: Criterion Collection, published June 20th, 2001, is also available.
"A grand-scale adventure as only AKira Kurosawa could make one"
Pop quiz: there's a film about a backwater peasant who has to smuggle a princess through hostile terrain as an evil empire searches for them, as the princess (and her trusted commander) have the keys to take down the corrupt government. You'd be right if you answer Star Wars: A New Hope, but you'd be even more right if you answered Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress. Though the connection between Star Wars and The Hidden Fortress has been overstated, it's hard not to see Kurosawa as influential; The Hidden Fortress comes right in the middle of a decade that stretches from Seven Samurai in 1954 to High and Low in 1963 and includes the classic Yojimbo as well. Though Kurosawa made great films early in his career, and would go one to make classics later, in this period he was untouchable. Though not as famous as Seven Samurai nor as imitated as Yojimbo, The Hidden Fortress stands out as Kurosawa's first experiment with the widescreen frame. Criterion has upgraded their previous DVD to a dual-format release with a great-looking The Hidden Fortress (Blu-ray).
Facts of the Case
The Hidden Fortress opens on a pair of greedy peasants who hope to get rich fighting in one of Japan's frequent feudal conflicts—but they're too late. Instead, they run into the defeated samurai general Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune, Seven Samurai), who is escorting Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), along with a trove of her family's gold. In exchange for helping the general and the princess, the peasants will be rewarded, but only if they survive the perilous journey.
The first thing to be said about The Hidden Fortress is that its plot is a simple, well-oiled machine that gets things moving quickly and doesn't let up despite the 139-minute running time. Sure, it might help to know a bit about feudal relations in Japan, but really what's important is our four characters have a mission and they're going to complete it. Of course they face challenges along the way, but the basic idea keeps things moving along briskly. The quickly moving plot also helps the sense of adventure. If we had more time to dwell on Yuki and her predicament, The Hidden Fortress could take a much darker turn. Instead, adventure seems the primary goal, with the successful shepherding of the princess almost a byproduct rather than the goal.
The plot also works because of the fine balance of characters. Our two peasants are not the good-natured, wholesome guys that many stories would feed us. Instead, they're greedy and contemplate some ugly things (like raping Princess Yuki). They're not just oafs, but instead caught up in a wider world they can't understand, one that doesn't seem to care much for peasants. Similarly, General Makabe could just been another stoic samurai, but in Mifune's hands he's also a bit of a cad and isn't above the occasional laugh at the expense of others. This is Mifune pitched halfway between the wild man of Seven Samurai and the tense businessman of High and Low. Yuki, too, isn't just a shrinking violet: she plays a mute to help her navigate the journey, and strangely that choice gives her a surprising amount of power in a world of men.
Then, of course, there is Kurosawa, master of the visual. He commands the widescreen frame here like few could in 1958, always choosing the best shot to convey the dramatic tension of the dialogue or the kinetic action of a fight. Putting the film on mute gives viewers a chance to see a series of black-and-white shots that are each perfectly composed and yet fit together to form a seamless whole.
Those images get a perfect platform with the 2.39:1/1080p AVC encoded transfer on The Hidden Fortress (Blu-ray). The source is a fine-grain master positive (the negative is lost), and it has been digitally cleaned up. The result is a transfer that looks pretty stunning. Detail is strong throughout, with grain looking film-like and appropriately rendered. Black levels are deep and consistent, with a nice compliment of grays. Contrast stays pretty steady, as does brightness. Overall, the film looks great and this is a definite improvement over the previous DVD release. We get two audio track options—the original mono track as an LPCM mono mix, and a 3.0 "Perspecta" track that's been converted (with only three channels of sounds) to a DTS-HD 5.1 mix. Both sound good for their age, with dialogue clean, clear, and well-balanced. The 3.0 track adds a bit of directionality (through simulated stereo), but overall is more of a novelty.
Ported over from the previous release, we get a trailer for the film, along with an interview featuring George Lucas discussing the influence of Kurosawa on his own work. New to this release is a selection from Akira Kurosawa: It's Wonderful to Create that runs 41 minutes, including a discussion of Kurosawa's debt to John Ford. Also new is a commentary by scholar Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa. While he might be a bit dry for some, he's obviously very familiar with Kurosawa's work and carefully explains a lot of the background of the film. A DVD copy of the film is also included (which mirrors the supplements as well), and the usual Criterion booklet includes an essay by Catherine Russell.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Hidden Fortress must be taken on its own merits. Those expecting the social commentary of Rashomon, the epic samurai battles of Seven Samurai, or the tense drama of Kurosawa's crime thrillers will be disappointed. The Hidden Fortress is a beast in its own category, part fairy tale, part samurai film, with drama and comedy sprinkled liberally throughout. That mix might not be to everyone's taste, especially for 139 minutes.
The Hidden Fortress is not Akira Kurosawa's best film, but it is a great mix of the things he does best. Those who enjoy the film will definitely want to upgrade to this Blu-ray/DVD combo to get the improved picture and sound, along with the new extras. For those unfamiliar, Criterion's Blu-ray is the perfect way to see one of the more influential films of the twentieth century.
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