The Hidden Fortress Review
The Hidden Fortress is a 140-minute epic feature from Japanese Director Akira Kurosawa that focuses on four main characters and their adventure set against the backdrop of feudal wartime Japan. Introduced to us at the very start are two of our four characters, Tahei and Matashichi (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara respectively), they are farmers who have escaped a prison camp and while on their journey home they are attempting to find gold so as not to return as complete failures. When they actually happen upon some gold they meet General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) who sets about testing these farmers (without them realising it) so as to eventually enlist their help to safely escort a young Princess (Misa Uehara) through enemy territory and eventually back to her ruling province.
As with the majority of great films the basic storyline is deceptively simple, of course there is a variety of obstacles in our characters path as they set upon their travels but it is the way they tackle these challenges that makes for compelling viewing. It all comes down to the excellent selection of characters and their outstanding portrayal onscreen. The two farmers are constantly bickering with each other, and when they find the gold (of which there is more than enough to satisfy their needs) they are fighting over who gets to keep the majority. It is this overwhelming sense of greed that General Rokurota Makabe uses to his advantage, so as to enlist the farmers help on his and the Princess' long journey ahead. The character interaction between the farmers and the General makes for some great comedy that will bring a smile to even the most jaded viewers face, and for any fans of the genre it will spark a few laugh out loud moments. Mifune is of course on top form, bringing a sense of honour and veneer to the character as only he can. Whenever onscreen Mifune demands attention, but he is perfectly complimented by the other main actors who all put in some outstanding performances. Of particular note is Misa Uehara who portrays the troubled 16-year-old Princess Yuki with a class rarely seen among young actresses. She, like Mifune, has a sense of nobility about her and for that reason is completely believable as a young princess, but she also manages to show a growing maturity as the film progresses.
Visually Kurosawa films are always something special, but The Hidden Fortress was Kurosawa's first foray into widescreen filmmaking and it really shows, this was truly a labour of love for the director. Every scene is worthy of inclusion in a cinematography class, each and every composition makes the utmost use of the widescreen format and it really does make for some wonderful visual storytelling. Set to this wonderful visual feast is a superb score that compliments the onscreen action extremely well, from a traditional suttle orchestral suite in the lighter moments to those classic Japanese percussion tracks in the action sequences this film truly is a classic black and white audio-visual feast.
Put simply The Hidden Fortress is another must see film from Akira Kurosawa, a superb adventure with compelling characters who, much like the viewer will have learned a great many things after their adventure is over. With direction, acting, writing and cinematography to put most modern films to shame this is a classic you should not be without.
As this was the first Kurosawa feature to be filmed in widescreen it is quite fitting that Criterion have provided us with an absolutely stellar anamorphic widescreen presentation of 'The Hidden Fortress' at its original 2:35:1 aspect ratio. Framed perfectly, the print is in phenomenal condition and has undergone extensive restoration to provide us with an image that belies the films age. Apart from the occasional speck or line here and there the image is exceptionally clean, but you will hardly notice these minor imperfections thanks to the gorgeous level of detail and clarity on display. There is not a single hint of compression problems, barely any grain (the only time grain is visible is during the single foggy scene early in the film) and just the one fluctuation in brightness in the opening scenes. The only slight problem that shows the films age is also a problem that Criterion could not really have fixed without spending several months and a small fortune on this one small area. This problem occurs at the occasional screen wipes and fades, upon where we see the film briefly (all of 2 seconds) revert to its original unrestored state showcasing poor colour (well, greyscale) levels and picture definition.
Criterion have provided us with another superb quality original Japanese Language soundtrack preserving the films original Mono state. Both dialogue and music is clear, the music in particular sounds natural without ever becoming harsh on the ears (like the scores found on the Yojimbo and Sanjuro Criterion DVDs). The Hidden Fortress apparently used a unique sound format upon its original theatrical release, Criterion have also preserved this version of the soundtrack (the Perspect-A-Sound Simulated-Stereo track) and have showcased it using a Dolby Digital 3.0 Stereo track that only really seems to widen the soundstage. Still, this is a nice addition that shows their dedication to classics that has gained them the respect they deserve. The subtitles are, as we have come to expect from Criterion, extremely well presented. The font choice is much larger than that seen in Yojimbo (or Sanjuro) but it never intrudes with the onscreen action and is very easy on the eye. There are no spelling or grammatical errors, and only one line within the film goes by untranslated (when Tahei hurls some verbal abuse at Makabe after being kicked into the spring).
The original Theatrical Trailer has been provided, presented in non-anamorphic 2:35:1 widescreen it is worth a look if only to see the quality of the restoration on the main feature. The second addition to this disc is quite unique, an 8-minute interview with George Lucas where he talks about his love for Kurosawa and of course the influences that The Hidden Fortress (and Kurosawa's other films) had on his own films. We have yet to see a true Special Edition Kurosawa DVD and it is a shame that Criterion could not have found a Japanese film expert to add an Audio Commentary as that would have really rounded off this already quite superb release, as it is the single unique extra is a worthy addition that is just crying out for a companion.
I am running out of words to compliment this film, so I shall end it all very simply. Great film, great DVD, buy it!