THE HIDDEN FORTRESS
Review by Michael Jacobson
Toshiro Mifune, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwama, Misa Uehara
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Audio: PCM Mono, DTS HD 5.1 (a 3.0 simulation)
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Features: See Review
Length: 139 Minutes
Release Date: March 18, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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.
general is actually the loyal servant of 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 is cleaner than ever before, and the high definition really makes this experience fresh and new, even for longtime fans like me!
disc offers an unusual choice of audio tracks…there is an original uncompressed mono one
for purists, and there is a DTS 5.1 mix used to deliver 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.
The disc features an excellent commentary from historian Stephen Prince, filled with entertaining insights and information. There is also the 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. The DVD version of the film is also included
Blu-ray 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.