Director: Akira Kurosawa
Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, & Akira Kurosawa
|Stars: Toshiro Mifune (General Rokurota Makabe), Misa Uehara (Princess Yuki), Minoru
Chiaki (Tahei), Kamatari Fujiwara (Matashichi), Susumu Fujita (Hyoe Tadokoro), Takashi
Shimura (The Old General)
|Year of Release: 1958
In the critical community during the 1950s, there were two paradoxical lines of criticism of
postwar Japanese cinema. On the one hand, some critics complained that Japanese films
were too exotic and densely layered, filled with exorbitant amounts of detail that weighed
them down. On the other hand, there were those who complained that Japanese cinema was
becoming too Westernized in its attempt to combine traditions of Eastern drama with
Hollywood stylings, thus losing the essence of what made them Japanese.
The latter of these complaints was generally attached to the films of Akira Kurosawa, who,
throughout the 1950s, revolutionized the Japanese cinema with one masterpiece after another
even though many of those films were not fully appreciated until they were shown outside
his native Japan. Writing in Cahiers du Cinéma in 1958, André Bazin argued that
Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) "can truly be said to have opened the gates of the
West to the Japanese cinema."
Today, Kurosawa is widely regarded as not only one of the greatest filmmakers to ever
emerge out of Japan, but one of the greatest filmmakers ever. While he was duly
influenced by the work of such American filmmakers as John Ford and Charlie Chaplin, his
influence over the "Film School Generation" of the 1970s, including Martin Scorsese,
Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas has been even more significant. Like Ford,
Kurosawa was gifted with the ability to take "entertainment" genres like the action-adventure
film and the Western and infuse them with bold themes about heroism and sacrifice and tell
them with the kind of visual audacity that elevated the material above its roots.
A perfect example of this is Kurosawa's 1958 film The Hidden Fortress, which is
justifiably well-known in the U.S. for having influenced the tone and narrative structure of
George Lucas's Star Wars (1977). The Hidden Fortress is first and
foremost an entertaining adventure story that fits neatly into the routine Japanese "Chambara"
genre, which are action epics set in the 16th-century and dominated by feudalism. The
narrative in The Hidden Fortress entails a brave samurai general named Rokurota
Makabe (played by Kurosawa's favorite actor, Toshiro Mifune), who is charged with
sneaking a feisty young princess named Yuki (Misa Uehara) and a huge treasure trove of
200 gold bars through heavily occupied enemy territory.
Makabe and Yuki are aided by unlikely allies: two bumbling, greedy peasants named Tahei
(Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara). While they play largely as comic
relief, with their constant bickering and greed-infected buffoonery causing the
serious-minded Makabe no end of difficulty, these two peasants are also wonderfully
endearing in all their humanistic flaws. Their humanity is emphasized in the fact that
Kurosawa tells the story largely through their eyes (the film both opens and ends with them).
One thing that has always set Kurosawa's action epics apart from so many others is his
humanism, his ability to draw out the recognizably humane elements in all his characters, no
matter how minor. Note, for example, in The Hidden Fortress, how Kurosawa
develops the rivalry between Makabe and his arch-nemesis, an enemy general named Hyoe
Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita). Kurosawa is not so much interested in them as enemies as he is
in them as two sides of the same coin--both noble men fighting for their cause. It is little
surprise, then, that they end up working together in the end, as they finally realize just how
much they have in common, most notably their respect for each other as warriors. In other
hands, this plot development might have felt forced or whimsical, but Kurosawa makes it
work by staying true to the characters.
Of course, The Hidden Fortress is, as mentioned earlier, primarily an adventure
film, and it is full of chases, near captures, sword fights, and epic battles, as well as plenty
of humor, both of the slapstick and wordplay varieties. There are moments of intense
violence (including the opening sequence), but much of the fighting is carefully
choreographed to achieve a kind of visual elegance that is all-too-often lacking in American
action films. At the same time, Kurosawa often lets the action run rampant, as in a
breathtaking chase sequence involving Makabe running down two enemy soldiers that could
easily be lifted right out of a Western.
The Hidden Fortress was one of the most expensive films made in postwar Japan
and also the first to use the CinemaScope widescreen process, and Kurosawa makes great
use of all the tools at his disposal. He utilizes the widescreen aspect ratio in innovative ways,
both to expand the epic scope of the action (most notably a prisoner revolt during the first
part of the film) and to frame his characters in ways that reinforce the emotional distance
between them and their gradual coming together. For much of the film, Makabe is deeply
distrustful of Tahei and Matashichi, as they are of him, and Kurosawa uses the depth of the
screen to emphasize this repeatedly.
The Hidden Fortress is not usually regarded as one of Kurosawa's greatest films.
It lacks the truly revolutionary nature of Rashomon or the cohesive epic grandeur
of The Seven Samurai (1954). Yet, to speak of this grand piece of entertainment
as "minor Kurosawa" speaks less about the status of the film than it does about the greatness
of its director.
Fortress: Criterion Collection DVD|
Dolby Digital 3.0 (Perspect-a-Sound) |
Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Exclusive interview with George Lucas about The Hidden Fortress |
Original theatrical trailer
Collection / Home Vision|
| The new anamorphic transfer in the film's original
Tohoscope aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is absolutely gorgeous. The transfer was made from what
appears to be a near-pristine 35-mm composite fine-grain master positive, which was further
enhanced through digital restoration with the MTI Digital Restoration System. The sharp,
black-and-white photography by cinematographer Ichio Yamasaki looks beautiful, with
incredible detail and an almost complete absence of any nicks, scratches, or other artifacts to
mar the picture. Kurosawa employed a great deal of deep focus in his first widescreen effort,
and this transfer does full justice to the scope and depth of his compositions. Black levels are
deep and rich, and the fine shadings of gray bring out all the nuances of the naturalistic
settings. Those who have monitors with a lot of overscan should be wary because Kurosawa
tends to use the far, far edges of the frame, which sometimes results in characters appearing
to be slightly cropped out.
| The Hidden Fortress was original released in a
long-extinct audio format called "Perspect-a-Sound," which was designed by Robert Fine.
Used throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s as an alternative to CinemaScope's four-track
stereo format, Perspect-a-Sound encoded three discrete low frequencies into a single
monaural optical soundtrack. During theatrical showings, these low frequencies were
decoded by a device called a Perspecta Integrator that then "steered" the sound into right,
left, and center speakers by increasing or decreasing the volumes. Thus, a monaural
soundtrack could be given the aural illusion of three-track stereo sound, even though it was
really just three-channel mono in which each individual speaker might play louder or softer at
any given moment.
To recreate the theatrical experience of hearing The Hidden Fortress in
Perspect-a-Sound, Criterion has encoded the DVD soundtrack into discrete three-channel
Dolby Digital. The result sounds like an expanded mono soundtrack, with the three front
speakers more or less active throughout the entire movie. There are some slight imaging
effects when sound moves across the front soundstage in accordance with a camera move,
but these effects are generally limited. In terms of general clarity, soundtrack is excellent
throughout, with good fidelity and a clean, clear sound.
The disc also includes a Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack.
| In an eight-minute interview filmed exclusively in January
2001 for the release of this disc, George Lucas speaks briefly about the connections between
The Hidden Fortress and Star Wars (something he has always proudly
acknowledged). However, while he addresses how Kurosawa's film influenced his own
(most notably the use of C-3PO and R2-D2 to tell the story), he seems more interested in
talking about Kurosawa's career and influence in general, and he offers some nice insights
into what made Kurosawa such a great director.
Also included is a widescreen original theatrical trailer, presented in Japanese with optional
English subtitles (which, by the way, vary slightly from the subtitle translation used in the
Overall Rating: (3.5)