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THE HIDDEN FORTRESS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Toshiro Mifune, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwama, Misa Uehara
Director:  Akira Kurosawa
Audio:  Dolby Digital 3.0, Dolby Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  George Lucas interview, Theatrical Trailer
Length:  139 Minutes
Release Date:  May 22, 2001

Film ****

No director could tell a story on film quite the way Akira Kurosawa did.  His movies are masterpieces of technique, visual style and cinematic vocabulary, yet he never constructed a single shot out of braggadocio or ego.  Every frame supported the story; not one was wasted simply for the flexing of artistic muscle.

His instinct for visuals was uncanny, and in The Hidden Fortress, his first film shot in a Scope aspect ratio, he showed no sign of intimidation with the wider screen.  From the opening moments, he used the Toho Scope framing to expand his narrative possibilities:  when we are introduced to Tahei (Chiaki) and Matakishi (Fujiwama), we are aware from the dialogue that we are looking at two peasants who have fallen through the cracks of life.  The wide, perfectly focused landscape of dry roads and distant mountains add an even greater sense of helplessness to their situation.

We learn quickly of their story:  hoping to make some money in the recent feudal wars, they arrived too late, were mistaken by their own side as the enemy, and forced to dig graves.  They have made their escape, but they have no home to go back to.  They bicker and fight in broad slapstick style, and in just a few moments time, we have everything we need to know about these two rogues to follow them through the rest of the story.

As fate would have it, they stumble across the large, sullen samurai warrior, General Rokurota Makabe (the legendary Mifune) and end up in his employ at a hidden fortress.  The two discovered a gold piece hidden in a stick of firewood; greed propels them to stay and try to find more. 

The general is actually the loyal servant pf Rincess Yukihime (Uehara), who is the last remaining member of her clan…the rest were wiped out in the wars.  Buying his princess a chance at survival through a great personal sacrifice, Makabe’s only hope is to escape into friendly territory with the girl and the tribe’s gold.  Like it or not, he’ll need the help of our two bumbling antiheroes. 

The story is filled with action, drama and humor, and never ceases to be absorbing.  The two hour twenty minute running time actually flies by…a testament to the master storyteller Kurosawa was.  The journey is fraught with danger…Makabe has to deal with two peasants who’d rather run than fight, and a feisty teenage princess who, in order to save her secret identity, must pretend to be mute.  One scene where a couple of men mistake her for a prostitute is priceless…the silent princess burns, but holds her tongue.

Every frame of the film is masterful in its composition.  Kurosawa, a technical perfectionist, constructed many shots that were as deep as they were wide, maintaining focus from the foreground to the background…not easy to do.  But he used space as a narrative tool, as with every other camera angle and movement.  We get to know the ins and outs of the hidden fortress, which helps our appreciation of the story.  We never have to guess what character relationships are…a high angle or a low angle shot speaks volumes.

It’s been said that The Hidden Fortress was a major influence on Star Wars.  Truth is, the similarities are mostly cosmetic…Lucas learned the value of the horizontal wipe from Kurosawa, and confessed that the idea for his landmark sci-fi fairy tale began with the same notion the Japanese director used:  telling a grand, epic story from the point of view of the two lowest characters.

His influence on Lucas notwithstanding, Kurosawa helped shaped the course of modern movie making with his films.  The Hidden Fortress is an imaginative, landmark effort in cinematic storytelling.  It’s entertaining on every level imaginable, to those who simply want an enjoyable night of movie watching to those who would scrutinize, discuss and celebrate every masterful technical detail.  It’s a true classic in every sense of the word.

Video ***1/2

Criterion delivers the goods once again with a splendid black and white anamorphic transfer.  For starters, you can’t possibly watch this film in any other way but widescreen, unless you’re the kind of person that could enjoy looking at only half of the Mona Lisa.  The image detail and sharpness is superb throughout, maintaining the integrity of Kurosawa’s deep focus and wide angled shots.  The print shows an occasional but forgivable bit of aging debris…a speck here, a scratch there…but these are few and not distracting.  Overall, fans should be very pleased with this DVD offering.

Audio ***

The disc offers an unusual choice of audio tracks…there is an original mono one for purists, and there is a 3.0 remix (the front stage speakers) designed to simulate the Perspect-a-Sound audio of the original Japanese presentation.  I prefer the new mix, myself, as it is livelier and with more dynamic range.  It’s not overly bold, and it enhances the viewing experience tastefully.

Features **

The disc features an original trailer, plus a short video interview with George Lucas on his appreciation for Kurosawa, and the influence of the legendary director on Western filmmakers.

Summary:

DVD fans and serious movie lovers can rejoice, as Criterion’s offering of The Hidden Fortress has certainly been worth the wait.  This is another entertaining, brilliantly constructed offering from one of cinema’s true master storytellers, Akira Kurosawa.  Highly recommended.