"When you realize/The world is dark/Life is just a dream/Lose yourself." This Buddhist hymn serves as the emotional crux of The Hidden Fortress; it also encapsulates the play of light and dark elements in what's arguably Akira Kurosawa's most broadly appealing and entertaining picture. Co-written by Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni and Shinobu Hashimoto, The Hidden Fortress suggests for most of its running time that there are two types of people in the world—those with honor and those without—but its pithy resolution holds out hope of positive social change at both the top and the bottom of the class structure.
Part of what makes The Hidden Fortress distinctive amidst Kurosawa's thirty-film output is how closely it sticks to the comical point of view of two bickering buffoons: feudal wartime opportunists Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara). Like Beckettian clowns on a blasted heath, the two emerge in a moment of horror that threatens to put them off their mission of making money as mercenaries. After witnessing the slaying of a lone samurai by soldiers of a rival clan, the pair splits on a point of morality: whether or not it's acceptable to pickpocket the dead. Thrust back together by fate, the meant-for-each-other duo discover a cache of gold, but reluctantly accept that they'll have to share it with the canny samurai general, Rokurota Makabe (the great Toshirô Mifune), who has crossed their path at an opportune moment. Still fiercely loyal to the defeated and deposed Akizuki clan, Rokurota has a higher calling: to protect the Akizukis' sixteen-year-old Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara, in an impressive debut) and guide her through enemy territory to safety and a restored reign.
A somewhat lighter, more action-oriented spin on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Hidden Fortress explores a dichotomy of the idiocy of greed and the rewards of sacrifice. The stalwart Rokurota and Yuki's ladies in waiting show unquestioning fealty to their princess, inspiring her to her own moral and feminist self-empowerment. Yuki starts out as a formidable character, embracing her tomboy disguise with stubborn strength, but she achieves a kind of enlightenment by traveling amongst commoners and witnessing the depths to which civil war has brought her people. "I've seen people as they are, without pretense," she explains. "I've seen their beauty and their ugliness with my own eyes." Though she's conscribed into muteness to hide her accent, she insists—with the gusto of Shakespeare's wronged woman Katherina—upon buying back an enslaved girl (Toshiko Higuchi): "You cannot make my heart mute too!".
Naturally, The Hidden Fortress also stands as a testament to Kurosawa's peerless craft. It's shot almost entirely out of doors, and the filmmaker takes after his hero John Ford in ever-striking use of landscape. In large part due to the experienced actors and in part due to Kurosawa's gift for staging, there's a kind of theatrical sensibility underlying the cinema of it all. In each beautiful composition, Kurosawa boldly arranges his characters within the widescreen TohoScope frame for maximum visual and thematic impact (this was Kurosawa's first use of the TohoScope format). The Hidden Fortress deploys its spectacle wisely, with action arising unexpectedly and swiftly when it comes. Even in stretches of relative quietude, Kurosawa always gives the viewer arresting settings to take in, from lovely tree-lined slopes to post-war ruins evocative of Japan's recent memory of postwar rebuilding years.
It's unfortunate that The Hidden Fortress has largely become known as "that one that inspired Star Wars," but indeed the influence on George Lucas is clear, in a few broad strokes of plot and in certain visual and action elements (from the "wipe" transitions to an amazing wooded gallop that clearly inspired Return of the Jedi's speeder bike chase). More importantly, The Hidden Fortress is stocked with greatness that stands the test of time, from its brilliant Mifune performance to its playful score by Masaru Sato. Like its coveted treasure, the picture is pure gold.
Criterion adds to its fantastic Akira Kurosawa library with the Blu-ray debut of The Hidden Fortress in a new "Dual-Format Edition" comprised of one Blu-ray disc, two DVDs (one with the feature, one with extras), and a significant new bonus feature to go with the HD upgrade and the terrific slate of previously issued extras. The hi-def transfer looks great, with a nice chiaroscuro balance and a definite step up in detail. Audio options include LPCM monaural mix and a DTS-HD MA 3.0 mix based on the original “Perspecta Sound” format. Surprisingly, the LPCM track is the way to go, with a slightly smoother sound to the aging audio; to my ears, there was no discernable to the 3.0 track, which—despite my conscious listening, revealed no significant separation but a rather a wash of sound across the front speakers.
Kudos to Criterion for ponying up for an all-new commentary by film historian Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa. Prince has contributed similar commentaries in the past, and this one doesn't disappoint in its analytical attentiveness to characters and themes, as well as plenty of commentary on Kurosawa's first-time use of TohoScope and the film's place in the careers of the artists involved.
Naturally, we also get the 2003 Hidden Fortress entry in the beloved Toho Masterworks documentary series "Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create" (40:54, HD). These are always terrific pieces, with great anecdotes from the men and women who worked with "the Emperor" and comments from the filmmaker himself. Interviewees include Kurosawa, script supervisor Teruyo Nogami, filmmaker Masahiro Takase, production designer Yoshiro Muraki, set decorator Koichi Hamamura, cinematographers Saito Takao and Daisaku Kimura, producer Yoichi Matsue, Shiro Mifune (Toshirô's son), and actors Misa Uehara, Takeshi Kato, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Toshiro Mifune (in archival audio), Masayuki Yui, Keiju Kobayashi and Yu Fujiki.
Criterion's exclusive 2001 interview with filmmaker "George Lucas on Akira Kurosawa" (8:09, HD) allows Lucas to give perceptive remarks about what makes The Hidden Fortress so striking, and the ways in which it inspired Lucas' own work.
Lastly, there's the theatrical "Trailer" (3:47, HD), as well as a booklet featuring credits, tech specs, film stills, and a fine essay by film scholar Catherine Russell.
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