The Hidden Fortress (Criterion Collection) (Blu-ray)

The influence of Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress can be seen in several films, but none has been more talked about than George Lucas’ Star Wars. Lucas has expressed his admiration for the film, openly admitting that the droids C3PO and R2D2 are based on the two would-be mercenaries that drive Kurosawa’s story.

Set against the backdrop of wartime feudal Japan, we are introduced to peasant farmers Tahei and Matashichi (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara respectively), who have escaped from a prison camp. The two flee to the mountains, hoping to reach the safety of the guarded Akizuki land. Shortly after finding two pieces of gold, they encounter General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) who they believe to be a bandit. The stranger claims to have the rest of the gold, and promises them a share if they can find a way to get it to the peaceful province of Hayakawa. As it happens, the two men already have a plan for that; go through Yanama province, thus avoiding most of the enemy army. The idea clearly humors the “stranger,’ who gives his name as Rokoruta Makabe. Tahei and Matashichi still have no idea that they are in fact, in the presence of a great General.

In reality, General Makabe has been charged with transporting the clan’s fortune, and surviving heir, Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), from their hideaway in the mountains to safety in Hayakawa. The two share a tragic bond: Makabe’s sister surrendered, claiming to be Yuki, and was summarily beheaded. A very proud young woman, Yuki lets her anger over the incident show, as the general stays focused on the difficult mission ahead. Their travels are fraught with difficulties; battles with enemy soldiers, and barely slipping through checkpoints. At Yuki’s insistence, they rescue a girl who has been taken from an Akizuki farm, and bought as a sex slave. The girl repays Yuki’s kindness by aborting Tahei and Matashichi’s repeated attempts to take advantage of the sleeping princess. She threatens the men with a log, leaving them cowering in fear.

In some ways, The Hidden Fortress represents a departure from the Kurosawa style. While there’s while there’s plenty of action, it’s as much a comedy as it is an action/adventure film. The story is presented from the point-of-view of two secondary characters—Tahei and Matashichi—eliminating the need for the central characters to be fully developed, or three dimensional. General Rokurota Makabe is defined by his courage and valor, Princess Yuki is strong willed, Tahei and Matakishi are clumsy and greedy.

The Hidden Fortress is a social commentary on the haves and have-nots. A princess is forced to come face-to-face with the daily struggles faced by the lower castes when circumstances require her to act as a mute peasant. For some Western viewers thus may seem secondary, but this is more significant for the Japanese, who are well aware of the historical and contemporary class divisions within their society.

While it should come as no surprise that the rest of the actors work in the formidable shadow of Toshiro Mifune, everyone does a good job. Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara work very well together, mustering the kind of friendly, yet prickly chemistry that makes things interesting. Misa Uehara meshes strength, regal authority, and conceit that leaves no doubt about her standing in society. While I wouldn’t rank this ahead of Rashomon and The Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress is a great film that belongs in the library of any serious film collector.

Presented in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio, Criterion’s new 2K restoration is impressive. The restoration shows in the stunning visual look. The gorgeous black and white photography absolutely shines throughout, with tight sharpness and excellent detail. Contrast is smooth throughout, creating some of the finest black and white images currently available on Blu-ray. Criterion has produced yet another superior transfer.

This release features a Dolby Digital 3.0 option, which recreates the film’s Perspect-A-Sound presentation in theaters as well as a new DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack. When listening to the DTS HD Master track, some separation is apparent, and shows some impressive depth. The depth really comes into play whenever Masaru Satô’s score is played. Voices are clean and clear throughout.

English subtitles are available.

The following extras are included:

  • Audio Commentary: Recorded exclusively for Criterion in 2013, film historian Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, discusses the distinctive framing of The Hidden Fortress, Akira Kurosawa’s first widescreen film, its influence on Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, etc.
  • Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create (SD, 40:54) Created as part of the Toho Masterworks series; this 2003 documentary finds the Japanese director discussing how John Ford influenced his career. He also discusses his filmmaking style, approach, cinematography of The Hidden Fortress, etc.
  • George Lucas on Akira Kurosawa (SD, 8:09) In this 2001 interview, George Lucas discusses his admiration for Akira Kurosawa and how the Japanese director has influenced his work.
  • Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3:47) In Japanese, with optional English subtitles.
  • Booklet: An illustrated booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Catherine Russell.
  • DVD Copy of the film.
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