Plot: What’s it about?
Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matakishi (Kamatari Fujiwara) are peasant farmers who’ve escaped from a prison camp, now in search of food, shelter, and of course, gold. The two might be together at the present, but they bicker and squabble like you’ve never seen. Soon, Tahei and Matakishi encounter General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune), who is on a most important mission indeed. He is trying to escort a young princess named Yuki (Misa Uehara) to her homeland and once there, she can stake her claim to the throne. But there’s a lot of regional battles in between there & here, so Makabe knows he needs all the help he can muster. So he then tricks the two peasants into joining his party, which means a little more assistance, but also some conflicting personalities to endure. As the four trek across the lands, they see all sorts of rebellions and intense danger, but they remain hidden and push forward. They also have to deal with each other and their differences, such as the class differences and of course, Tahei and Matakishi’s hilarious antics. Will this band of travelers be able to survive the warring factions along their path and more to the point, can these four people manage to survive each other?
The Hidden Fortress is one of my favorite films of all time, with such great characters, adventures, and of course, unbelievable visuals. This is a film by Akira Kurosawa however, so those elements are to be expected and here, the emphasis is on the characters, though not the usual ones, to be sure. In this case, the story is told from the perspective of the two weakest characters and of course, this is where George Lucas drew the idea of having Star Wars told from a similar perspective, with two droids instead of two peasants. But all the comparisons to Star Wars aside, The Hidden Fortress is a fun and very well made picture, one I could return to often and I am sure, never tire of watching it unfold. Kurosawa delivers his usual excellent direction and the cast is fantastic, including another fine effort from Toshiro Mifune. I was very pleased to learn Criterion was handling this release and of course, they deliver the goods with another excellent treatment for a terrific picture. This disc is given my highest recommendations and though lax in the extras, the film is presented in superb form, which is enough to make this release worthwhile.
When you discuss the cinema’s greatest directors, the talks wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Akira Kurosawa. His films have become timeless and while varied in quality at times, all have worthwhile aspects, if simply stunning visual composition. Kurosawa knew how to use a frame to the fullest extent, with each inch serving some larger purpose in the grand scheme. I’ve always gravitated toward visually inclined directors, but not so much the flashy ones, instead the ones like Kurosawa, who used intense composition designs. I liken his visual presence to David Lean, another director who always made good use of the frame, though I think Lean has a slight edge in most cases. I don’t think The Hidden Fortress is Kurosawa’s greatest picture, but I have to say, it is the one I like the most. Other films directed by Kurosawa include Yojimbo, Seven Samurai, High and Low, Sanjuro, Ran, and Kagemusha. The cast here includes Toshiro Mifune (Hell in the Pacific, Chushingura), Misa Uehara (Age of the Gods, Attack Squadron), Minoru Chiaki (The Return of Godzilla, The Inheritance), Susumu Fujita (Godzilla vs. Mothra, Light Snowfall), and Kamatari Fujiwara (Double Suicide, The Bad Sleep Well).
Video: How does it look?
The Hidden Fortress has been given a brand new 2K restoration by the folks at Criterion and it shows. This image has been restored & remastered and it shows, as this is a stunning visual presentation. The visual impact is vital to this picture, as the pictures tell part of the story also, as is the case with most Kurosawa flicks. The gorgeous black & white photography shines here, very sharp and well detailed, I simply can’t believe this film was made in 1958, not by looking at this transfer. The contrast is always smooth and very stark, some of the best black & white images I’ve seen on home video…ever. I think fans will be thrilled to no end and newcomers highly impressed also, as Criterion has outdone themselves with this incredible treatment.
Audio: How does it sound?
This release features a Dolby Digital 3.0 option, which recreates the film’s Perspect-A-Sound presentation in theaters as well as a new DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack. I was unsure what to expect here, but the results are quite good and I was pleased with the overall experience. The track is not as dynamic as more modern ones of course, but the elements come through well, with no serious flaws. You won’t hear any directional effects or pans here, but the channels are well used and to be sure, this is much more immersive than a simple mono presentation. The dialogue is clean and never hard to understand, presented of course in the original Japanese language, as it should be. This disc also includes an uncompressed mono choice, as well as optional English subtitles that have a new translation.
Supplements: What are the extras?
Criterion released this as a standard DVD issue about a decade ago, and I’m happy to report that there have been some new things added as well as a new video and audio transfer.
- Audio Commentary – New to this Blu-ray is a track by film historian Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa. Suffice it to say that Prince knows his stuff and it shows. His sheer knowledge of the film, Kurosawa in general make for a great listen.
- Documentary – From 2003, this is part of the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. It’s a nice piece to have to accompany this movie and we’re treated to a wealth of information, though some is a bit redundant if you’ve listened to Prince’s commentary.
- Interview with George Lucas – This was present on the previous DVD version and circa 2001. Lucas gives his insight and input on how much of an influence Kurosawa was with his films.
- Theatrical Trailer
- Booklet – A booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Catherine Russell
- DVD Copy