Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Review: The Criterion Edition of 'The Hidden Fortress"

Considering the scope and scale of his films, it’s a little surprising that Akira Kurosawa didn’t explore widescreen—oops, I mean “Toho Scope”—until 1958’s The Hidden Fortress, a film that often fills the frame with vast, vacant vistas of sand and rock. That just makes us concentrate all the more on the four characters who are Kurosawa’s real interests. From the bottom of the class system are Tahei and Mataschichi (Minori Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara), a couple of greedy, endlessly scheming, and totally inept peasants. They want to score big by capturing the missing Princess Yuki Akizuki (Misa Uehara) and serving her up to the enemy that put a price on her head. Tahei and Mataschichi don’t realize she’s already in their company, masquerading as a mute girl under the watch of stern General Rokurōta (the ever awesome Toshiro Mifune). As the quartet traverse inhospitable landscapes and foes, there is much action and more comedic hijinks than you’ll find in any other Kurosawa picture, thanks to Chiaki and Fujiwara’s cartoonish capering. But this is still a Kurosawa movie and darkness pervades. Although the peasants are ostensibly comedic figures, they’re also really, really rotten, at one point drawing straws to decide who gets to rape the sleeping princess. While classism does play a role in the seedy portrayal of the peasants, their so-called betters can also be grey figures, as when the upstanding Rokurōta allows his own sister to be beheaded in the princess’ stead and doesn’t express nearly as much grief about it as she does. On the flip side, a character introduced as wholly villainous is also capable of noble heroism at a moment when he really seems to have gone completely down the dark path.

Kurosawa hadn’t made a big crowd pleaser since The Seven Samurai four years earlier, and this was his idea of a bit of good old entertainment. Indeed, The Hidden Fortress often is great fun even as the characters’ immorality or moral complexities make for uneasy fun. In fact, these days the film’s biggest claim to fame is that it was a major inspiration for the ultimate fun flick. George Lucas based R2-D2 and C-3PO of Star Wars on Tahei and Mataschichi. Wisely, Lucas didn’t have his droids contemplate raping anyone though.

As film historian Stephen Prince points out in his commentary on Criterion’s new blu-ray/DVD combo of The Hidden Fortress, the film was also highly influenced by and influential on American Westerns, which should also give extra inkling of its action-focused entertainment value. Prince’s commentary is the most significant new extra of this upgrade. The Hidden Fortress was one of Criterion’s early titles. This new blu-ray edition enjoys a 2K digital upgrade and the picture looks fabulous and blemish-free. Old features include the Hidden Fortress episode of the terrific 2003 series “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create”, which features interviews with the filmmaker as well as numerous cast and crew members, and an interview with George Lucas, who like Prince, plays down the direct influence Kurosawa’s film had on his. I’m not sure I agree that the influence was so slight, though, and I’ll admit that some of the fun of watching The Hidden Fortress is spotting the details that would play a part in Star Wars.

Get The Hidden Fortress on Blu-ray/DVD on here:

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