A grand-scale adventure as only Akira Kurosawa could make one, The Hidden Fortress stars the inimitable Toshiro Mifune as a general charged with guarding his defeated clan's princess (a fierce Misa Uehara) as the two smuggle royal treasure across hostile territory. Accompanying them are a pair of bumbling, conniving peasants who may or may not be their friends. This rip-roaring ride is among the director's most beloved films and was a primary influence on George Lucas's Star Wars. The Hidden Fortress delivers Kurosawa's trademark deft blend of wry humor, breathtaking action, and compassionate humanity.
Let me describe a movie for you: Two bumbling sidekicks who are always at each other's throats; an aging warrior who's still handy with a sword; a beautiful princess; and an imperial army that they must evade and outwit. No, it's not George Lucas' Star Wars, but rather Akira Kurosawa's 'The Hidden Fortress', a film Lucas has never been shy about crediting as one of the primary inspirations for his original tale set in a galaxy far, far away.
The setting of 'The Hidden Fortress', however, is much closer to home, as the story unfolds in feudal Japan – the setting for more than a few of Kurosawa's features. Rather than making the warrior or the princess the primary stars of the movie, Kurosawa instead gives that honor to the two lowliest characters – a pair of peasants named Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) and Tahei (Minoru Chiaki), who have barely entered the frame during the opening shot of the film when their bickering begins (it rarely lets up for the remainder of the movie).
A dispute over whether they should ransack a dead body (after watching the warrior get killed in front of their eyes) leads the two to split up, but they soon find themselves both captured and put into slave labor by the Yamana army (the bad guys in the story) and forced to dig for missing gold in an abandoned castle that belonged to the Akizuki clan (where the princess we'll soon see originates from). The slaves soon revolt against their captors, and Matashichi and Tahei find themselves free again, although no better off.
While building a fire, one of the wood pieces they've gathered breaks and reveals a hidden piece of gold. Quickly checking areas where they got the wood, they find a second piece, but also notice a mysterious stranger has begun to follow them. The peasants will soon learn that the stranger is General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) and he'll take the two to a hidden location (the 'Fortress' of the title), where he's been protecting Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) from capture by the Yamana. Together, our four devise a plan to sneak through enemy lines to make it across the border to a territory that is run by allies of the Akizuki clan. However, thinking the real princess has already been killed, neither Matashichi or Tahei know that they're traveling with the real princess, nor are they exactly the trusting kind, being more obsessed with getting their hands on more gold than necessarily helping Makabe and Yuki.
In terms of what Kurosawa did in many of his other movies – several of which can be considered little less than masterpieces – 'The Hidden Fortress' perhaps pales a bit in comparison. However, in terms of pure entertainment value, this might just be the director's best work. The film – even at 139 minutes – is briskly paced, particularly for a movie of its era. There's also a wonderful lightheartedness to it all, with a storyline that never takes itself too seriously and more than a few jokes that still work, despite both the age of the film and the fact that it's being translated from its original Japanese.
Also for its time, the movie presents a rather formidable female character in the form of Princess Yuki, who is neither a damsel in distress nor a typical movie siren, but a strong co-star just as capable as the men around her. The plot passes off her more male-like attributes by saying that she was raised more like a boy than a girl, but Kurosawa is obviously trying to break some stereotypes here, and the result is one of the more memorable female characters in any of his films.
But perhaps the most notable thing about watching 'The Hidden Fortress' all these years later is how accessible it remains. While the movie obviously looks dated (although this new transfer makes it look better than it ever has before), it doesn't really feel dated at all. There's still a universal quality to the storytelling here that should appeal to the masses. While I wouldn't rank this as the director's greatest work, I do think it's the one that is most fan-friendly to the vast majority of movie lovers out there. For that reason, it's worth picking up.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Hidden Fortress' battles its way onto Blu-ray in one of Criterion's clear standard cases (Spine #116) with a 14-page booklet containing an essay on the movie by film scholar Catherine Russell (an interesting note here – Criterion's original DVD release of this movie featured an essay by the controversial critic Armond White – no bonus points for guessing why Criterion decided to go with a different writer this time around). The case houses both the Blu-ray and the DVD on a dual hub on the inside right cover. Both discs are region locked (the Blu-ray for Region A, and the DVD for Region 1). As is the case with almost all Criterion movies on Blu-ray, there are no front-loaded advertisements or trailers. The main menu also follows Criterion's standard format, with selections along the left of the screen, most of which open up to reveal additional information when you click on them. A still photo of Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) on a horse is featured on the main menu.
'The Hidden Fortress' gets a new 2K digital restoration with this release, and the results are pretty impressive. As the liner notes in the insert booklet indicate, this scan was taken from the 35mm master positive, as the original negative for the movie no longer exists. The results, while not perfect, are pretty impressive for a film that is over 55 years old.
While not every instance of film dirt and debris has been removed from the final version, it's obvious that someone took great care in making this presentation look as best as it could. Occasionally, you'll see a scratch here or a fleck of dirt there – but, for the most part, the new restoration looks remarkably good. The most glaring problems seem to occur during transitional wipes or scene changes, where the image will flicker for a second or two and/or bloom in brightness for just an instance.
Details are pretty stunning on this transfer, both in terms of background clarity as well as close-up things like facial features and clothing. Throughout all this, a healthy dose of grain is evident, so the movie maintains its film-like appearance. Contrast is well-balanced throughout, and black levels are surprisingly inky and deep, resulting in many of the darker scenes still having wonderful clarity.
'The Hidden Fortress' was the first use of 'TohoScope' by Kurosawa, and the film is rendered here at the 2.39:1 aspect ratio. The Blu-ray is coded for Region A .
This Criterion release gives us two very nice audio tracks to choose from, both with their merits.
First, there's a Japanese LPCM 1.0 mono track that delivers exactly what one would hope, with crisp and distinct audio, despite the obvious lack of directionality. Everything is well balanced and free of any popping, hissing or the like. The more interesting listen (although maybe not the most preferred) is the 3.0 surround track (actually coded as a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track – to avoid potential compatibility issues with various receivers), which attempts to replicate the Perspecta directional sound system that many theaters used for the 1958 presentation of this movie (as well as other releases in the mid-to-late 1950s and early 1960s). The 3.0 track doesn't really provide as much difference as you might think from the mono track, although it does add a touch of directionality to the proceedings, making the film viewing experience just a little more immersive.
English subtitles are, of course, available – and note that they appear within the 2.39:1 frame (as opposed to the black area below it).
Since the DVD in this set contains all the bonus materials that the Blu-ray does, I've listed all of the supplements below as 'non-exclusive' when it comes to the Blu-ray disc. However, there are a number of bonus materials that are exclusive to this release and did not appear on Criterion's 2001 DVD release of 'The Hidden Fortress'. I've made notations below as to whether each feature is new or not to this release.
Most movie fans might veer away from a film that's over half a century old…and in Japanese…and in black and white – but, then again, Akira Kurosawa was no average filmmaker, and 'The Hidden Fortress' might be his most 'mainstream' accessible movie. While it doesn't match his best work in titles like Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Ran, it is, perhaps, the best 'starter' title for those new to Kurosawa's library of movies. For an older film, it's remarkably well paced, entertaining, and holds up quite well. Recommended.