Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Takashi Shimura, Toshirô Mifune, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Susumu Fujita
Length: 139 min
Disks: 2 (1 BD, 2 DVD)
Label: Criterion Collection
Release Date: March 18, 2014
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Type: Black & White
Audio: Japanese: LPCM Mono 1.0, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
- New audio commentary by film historian Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa
- Documentary from 2003 on the making of the film, created as part of the Toho Masterworks seriesAkira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create
- Interview from 2001 with filmmaker George Lucas about Kurosawa
- PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Catherine Russell
In 1958, Akira Kurosawa needed a commercial hit. Four years had passed since his last success, Seven Samurai (1954), which was Toho’s most expensive and profitable production to date. Kurosawa’s subsequent three films—I Live in Fear (1955), Throne of Blood (1957), and The Lower Depths (1957)— were met with critical praise, but failed to catch wide audiences. So, Kurosawa got together with a team of his favorite writers, (Ryûzô Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, and Shinobu Hashimoto), and concocted a rip-roaring samurai adventure, set amidst the war between two rival clans in 16th century Japan. To make things more interesting for himself, Kurosawa experimented with widescreen filmmaking for the first time, creating some of the most magnificent visual compositions of his career. The combined efforts resulted in one of Kurosawa’s most prolific works The Hidden Fortress (1958).
The story is told from the point of view of two hapless vagabonds (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) scrounging to stay alive during the ongoing war. Through a series of misadventures, they unwittingly wind up in the service of the legendary Akizuki General Rokurota Makabe (Toshirô Mifune). The three of them attempt to smuggle a load of gold and a headstrong young Princess of the Akizuki clan (Misa Uehara) under the nose of her enemies, to a safe territory. Along the way, they are met with adventure, battles, and swordplay; made the more spectacular by Kurosawa’s shrewd use of the widescreen format.If any of this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because both George Lucas and Sergio Leone were heavily influenced by the film; many of The Hidden Fortress’ plot elements eventually made it into Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) and Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966).
“A truly good movie is enjoyable too. There’s nothing complicated about it,” was one of Kurosawa’s tips to young filmmakers, advice he followed rigorously in producing The Hidden Fortress. That’s not to say that the film lacks depth, Kurosawa is, as always, a keen observer of human behavior. He is at his most astute in the way he builds the rivalrous and interdependent relationship between the two vagabonds.Additionally, the brutal aspects of the Japanese Feudal era are kept at the forefront. But, The Hidden Fortress is, above all, grand entertainment in the tradition of Hollywood swashbucklers and the best Westerns of John Ford, whom Kurosawa greatly admired.
Criterion’s new Blu-ray of The Hidden Fortress was mastered in 2K resolution from the original 35mm fine-grain master positive; the original negative for this film no longer exists. And what a terrific mastering job this is. Grain structure is fully intact, yet the grain is very fine and unobtrusive. There is no evidence of overt edge sharpening, or digital manipulation, save for the standard flicker and jitter stabilization, and dirt and scratch removal. The result is a beautiful, clean image allowing the film to gloriously come to life again, while preserving the look of celluloid.
Both the uncompressed mono LPCM 1.0 and the alternate DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track, which preserve the original Perspecta simulated stereo effects, sound excellent on Criterion’s Blu-ray. As with the image, the sound has been cleaned up without being unrealistically over-processed. Hiss and other age-related distractions are not a problem.
Criterion gives us a very nice selection of extras on this release. One feature that stands out is the audio commentary by film historian Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa. Putting the film in a historical perspective, he does a splendid job of dissecting Kurosawa’s visual language, his use of different lenses and the effects they produce. Also available is the 2003 documentary It Is Wonderful to Create, which covers the making of the film. The documentary, created as part of the Toho Masterworks series on Akira Kurosawa, contains informative interviews with some of the cast, crew, and Kurosawa himself, plus archival production images. Next, an interview from 2001 with filmmaker George Lucas, focuses on Kurosawa and how he influenced Lucas’ career. Additional content includes a theatrical trailer, new artwork designed by F. Ron Miller, and a booklet essay by film scholar Catherine Russell.
Kurosawa aficionados and cinefiles alike should consider Criterion’s Blu-ray release of The Hidden Fortress a mandatory purchase. There is currently no better way to see this film. It remains entertaining. Additionally, it is exciting to see the precipise for many of the ideas that went on to form the basis of Star Wars and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. In terms of its visual economy in telling a sprawling story, it also serves as a wonderful lesson for current filmmakers. So yes, this is a great Japanese art film, and yes Kurosawa fashions some of his greatest visual compositions in it, and yes the film is hugely influential to other filmmakers, but you don’t have to think about any of that: just watch the film because it’s so much damn fun.