Kurosawa has fun: My Blu-ray review of Hidden Fortress

In Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa used the samurai genre to examine the limits of human knowledge and objectivity. In Seven Samurai, he told an epic story of small-scale war and a feudal system in crisis. In Throne of Blood, he adapted Macbeth to meditate on fate. In The Hidden Fortress, he pretty much just had fun.

The first of three samurai action comedies he would make very close together, Hidden Fortress is easily his most entertaining movie. Some of his basic themes of humanism and charity sneak through, but this is really just a sit-back-and-enjoy popcorn movie. No surprise that it was a major influence on George Lucas’ first Star Wars flick.

Watching The Hidden Fortress again–this time on Blu-ray–I was struck by how conservatively it accepts the Japanese feudal class system–at least on the surface. The most high-ranking character in the story, Princess Yuki, is also the most noble in the positive sense of the word. She’s willing to sacrifice for others, shows tremendous courage and stamina, and can’t bear to see her people suffer.

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By comparison, the two comic peasants who bring us into the film and through whom we see much of the story, are petty, greedy, untrustworthy, and usually stupid. The only other significant lower-class character–a peasant girl who comes in about half-way through the movie, is a good and trustworthy person. But she’s totally subservient to her betters. When wounded in a battle, she begs to be left behind because she’s not worth saving.

This is a far cry from the topsy-turvy class system of The Seven Samurai.

Or is it? Princess Yuki ‘s compassion comes off as an exception, not the rule for the ruling class. And she brings out compassion in others, shaming them into being less proper and more caring. This is especially true with the film’s main hero, a loyal general played by the greatest action star of them all, Toshiro Mifune. imageStrong, determined, and graceful as a big cat (and just as deadly), he holds the camera whenever he’s onscreen. He uses his wits more than his sword on this journey–smuggling the princess and a fortune in gold out of enemy territory. But when violence is called for, he’s in complete control. In one sequence he furiously gallops a horse at full speed, with both hands holding his sword aloft for action. In a theater with a good audience, that scene never fails to bring cheers.

Overall, The Hidden Fortress is more suspense than action. The main characters–growing from two to five over the course of the story–must sneak passed checkpoints, disappear into crowds, and go unnoticed by soldiers looking for them…as they contend with their own conflicting motives.

For more on The Hidden Fortress, see Kurosawa Diary, Part 15: The Hidden Fortress.

First Impression

imageCriterion packages The Hidden Fortress in the company’s standard-sized transparent plastic box, with an illustration of Princess Yuki on the cover.

Inside, on the left, you’ll find a small booklet, taken up mostly with an article by Catherine Russell called “Three Good Men and a Princess.” The booklet also includes a few paragraphs on the transfer, and other information on the Blu-ray release.

On the right side, a Blu-ray disc and DVD are stacked together. You have to remove the Blu-ray to get to the DVD. Within the limits of the format, they contain the same content.

How It Looks

The Hidden Fortress was the first of six consecutive films Kurosawa shot in Toho Studio’s Cinemascope clone, TohoScope. (These six were also his last black and white films.) Kurosawa and cinematographer Ichio Yamazeki were clearly having fun with the new, wide frame. They place the two arguing peasants on opposite sides of the screen. Or they line all four or five main characters together. They’re enjoying the new toy and binging us in for the fun.

But they’re also using it to tell the story and create location. the wide screen emphasizes the setting, and The Hidden Fortress used it to bring us the deserts, forests, and river crossings that make the story so compelling. Apparently, no one told them that shooting deep focus was impossible with the anamorphic scope lens, so they went ahead and did it over and over.

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Criterion’s 2K transfer is very good, but not exceptional. Details are sharp and clear most of the time, but occasionally they’re soft. Contrast is acceptable.

How It Sounds

The Hidden Fortress was originally released in Perspecta Stereo–sometimes called Perspecta Sound because it wasn’t real stereo. It was a standard mono optical soundtrack with sub-audio cues that could turn each of the three front speakers on and off. In other words, you could have different sounds coming out of different speakers at different times, but not different sounds coming out of different speakers at the same time.

Most theatrical audiences, in Japan, the US, and elsewhere, have only heard it in mono.

This release contains both mono and restored Perspecta versions. On the Blu-ray, the mono version is presented in uncompressed PCM; the Perspecta in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. I listened to the opening credits music in both versions, and preferred the Perspecta, which sounded fuller and more impressive.

As near as I can tell, Kurosawa used the Perspecta’s fake stereo twice. In both cases, it was for an important sound effect off to the side.

Overall, the sound was very good for a Japanese film of this era.

And the Extras

  • Commentary by Stephen Prince: One of Prince’s best commentaries. He goes into depth about widescreen, Kurosawa’s use of short lenses as well as the long ones he’s associated with, the film’s influence on not only George Lucas but also Sergio Leone, John Ford’s influence on the film, and the themes and moral view of what’s clearly Kurosawa’s least moralistic movie. This is a new commentary recorded in 2013.
  • Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create: 40 minutes. Just about every Criterion Kurosawa release has the appropriate episode from this 2003 Japanese documentary mini-series. This episode has little about the story and the use of widescreen. But it has some amusing stories about horses.
  • George Lucas on Akira Kurosawa: 8 minutes. The creator of Star Wars, who turned the two comic peasants of The Hidden Fortress into C3PO and R2D2, talks about how he discovered Kurosawa in college, his use of the camera, and, of course, the influence on his work. From the earlier DVD release.
  • Trailer

The Hidden Fortress Blu-ray goes on sale today.