[10 April 2014]
Most cinephiles will name Rashômon (1950), Ikiru (1952), and Seven Samurai (1954) as the essential Akira Kurosawa films. The legendary Japanese director made 30 films in his lifetime, but like many influential filmmakers from an earlier time period, the classics remain at the forefront while the other “minor” works await rediscovery.
Rashômon is admired for its inventive narrative structure, Ikiru for its humanism, and Seven Samurai for its epic, grandiose set pieces. Why watch the rest, younger generations wonder, when they aren’t cited in text books or situated within the canon?
At best, The Hidden Fortress (1958) is known to Kurosawa completests, and at worst, it is a vague memory for fans of George Lucas’ Star Wars franchise, who most likely watched the film once Lucas publicly acknowledged that The Hidden Fortress strongly influenced his futuristic space saga.
It is fitting, then, that Criterion has re-released the film with a new 2K digital restoration on Blu-ray. As Catherine Russell writes in an essay that accompanies the duel-format DVD package, The Hidden Fortress is “widely viewed as a key film in the history of action-adventure cinema, encapsulating the American-Asian roots of the genre as it has evolved since the 1970s.”
The film follows two greedy, dim-witted peasants, Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara), as they escort a general and princess across enemy lines into allied territory in feudal Japan. General Rokurota Makabe (Toshirô Mifune) and Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) have been defeated by a neighboring clan, and they need to rebuild their tribe with a large supply of gold they stumble upon. As a result, they trick the two peasants into helping them escape in exchange for a share of gold once the destination is reached.
Unlike other Kurosawa films, The Hidden Fortress offers comedic relief in the form of the two peasants. This is not to say, however, that it lacks the usual craftsmanship often associated with the filmmaker. The film is certainly more “accessible” and “entertaining” than Rashômon, but the artistry is ever present.
Consider, for example, Kurosawa’s first use of TohoScope, and the long lenses and wide frames he chooses to illustrate the vast landscape. It’s a brilliant artistic move, and the action sequences in the film are just as epic and sophisticated as the ones in Seven Samurai. Moreover, the art direction—especially the destroyed fortress—rivals any set designs you’re likely to see in contemporary cinema, and it’s all the more impressive considering that Kurosawa and his team couldn’t resort to computer generated digital effects.
Those who already own Criterion’s original DVD release of The Hidden Fortress may not see the use in purchasing this new duel-format edition, but it’s a must-have for those who have never seen the film or who want to own it for the first time. The quality of the restoration is truly fantastic, and in addition to the crisp soundtrack, film historian Stephen Prince offers an engaging and enlightening audio commentary.
Further, Criterion includes an extract from the documentary Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create, which focuses on the making of the film and Kurosawa’s use of TohoScope. Also included is a brief interview with Lucas that doesn’t exactly enhance the experience, but it’s still noteworthy for the Star Wars parallels. Finally, Russell’s essay is informative and accessible and should contextualize the film for newcomers and remind familiar viewers of its significance.
Overall, The Hidden Fortress is an important contribution to the cinematic medium, and although Kurosawa is more appreciated for his other films, this one is by no means a lesser achievement. It demands to be rediscovered by a mainstream audience, if only to demonstrate what quality action-adventure cinema looks like when filmmakers devote equal attention to story, characters, and cinematic style.