The Hidden Fortress appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.39:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. While not the strongest image I’ve seen from Criterion, the transfer held up well given its age.
For the most part, sharpness satisfied. I noticed a few mildly soft elements, but these didn’t appear with any frequency. Instead, the movie tended to be accurate and concise. The image lacked jaggies or moiré effects, and it suffered from no edge haloes. The transfer didn’t seem to suffer from obvious noise reduction, as it looked smooth and cinematic.
Only a smattering of print flaws cropped up here. I noticed a few small marks and streaks, but those were modest and not intrusive. Blacks seemed dark and rich, while low-light shots demonstrated appropriate clarity and smoothness. This was a pleasing image without notable concerns.
In terms of audio, Fortress comes with two separate soundtracks, both of which could be considered “original”. In addition to the expected LPCM monaural mix, we got a DTS-HD MA 3.0 rendition. The latter replicated “Perspecta Sound”, a 1950s format that utilized a form of fake stereo.
The notion of artificial stereo didn’t sound promising to me, and the end result didn’t satisfy. On the positive side, the imaging lacked distracting elements; it didn’t use gimmicky panning or movement, so it didn’t create an annoying soundscape packed full of bad attempts at “range”.
On the negative side, though, the whole thing lacked much sonic purpose. The 3.0 mix tended to spread vaguely across the front without much specificity in terms of location. Sure, it filled the three front channels but to what purpose? The speakers gave us general “stereo” at best, so they didn’t add any obvious breadth to the proceedings.
Audio quality also took a hit when I listened to the 3.0 track, though not a major one. Music suffered the most, as louder pieces of score sounded a bit rough and distorted. Speech was decent; the lines could seem somewhat edgy, but they were reasonably clear. Effects were about the same; I wouldn’t call them accurate, but they failed to display notable problems.
Perhaps I would’ve felt more impressed by the quality of the 3.0 mix if I didn’t compare it to the more pleasing monaural track. The latter was smoother and more natural in all ways. It didn’t show greater depth or dynamic range, but it lacked the roughness of the 3.0 track. Unless you’re desperate to fill all three front channels, stick with the more satisfying monaural version.
As we shift to the set’s extras, we launch with an audio commentary from film historian Stephen Prince. He delivers a running, screen-specific discussion of cinematic techniques and widescreen framing, story, characters and themes, the movie’s impact and subsequent influence, cast and performances, historical components/reflections, music, connections to other Kurosawa films, and some additional topics.
For the most part, Prince gives us a good look at the film. On the negative side, he occasionally tends to simply narrate the movie, but that doesn’t happen too often. Instead, he usually digs into production and thematic issues well and makes this a useful take.
Next comes a 2003 documentary called Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. It fills 40 minutes, 54 seconds with info from Kurosawa as well as script supervisor Teruyo Nogami, filmmaker Masahiro Takase, production designer Yoshiro Muraki, set decorator Koichi Hamamura, cinematographers Saito Takao and Daisaku Kimura, producer Yoichi Matsue, actor’s son Shiro Mifune, and actors Misa Uehara, Takeshi Kato, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Toshiro Mifune, Masayuki Yui, Keiju Kobayashi and Yu Fujiki.
The show looks at aspects of Hidden Fortress such as cast and performances, stunts and action, sets and locations, cinematography and widescreen framing, the use of horses, and other topics. “Create” offers a positive overview of the production. It covers a nice variety of subjects and comes with plenty of fun anecdotes along the way to make it a lively, enjoyable program.
In addition to the film’s trailer, we get George Lucas on Akira Kurosawa. In this eight-minute, eight-second chat from 2001, the director discusses his early life experiences with Kurosawa’s work and his thoughts about the director’s style as well as the influence Fortress had on Star Wars. Lucas doesn’t tell us anything especially memorable, but this ends up as an enjoyable chat.
A second disc provides a DVD copy of Fortress. This set includes the same extras as the Blu-ray.
Finally, the package includes a 16-page booklet. It features an essay from film professor Catherine Russell as well as photos and credits. It completes the set in a satisfying manner.
Perhaps I need to watch The Hidden Fortress again without Star Wars in my head. Whether due to comparisons between those films or not, Fortress doesn’t do a lot for me; it offers decent entertainment but never quite comes to life as vividly as I think it should. The Blu-ray provides very good picture as well as more than acceptable audio and a mix of interesting bonus materials. Though not one of my favorite Kurosawa movies, this Blu-ray represents Fortress well.