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CRITERION

MOVIE INFO

Director:
Akira Kurosawa
Cast:
Toshiro Mifune, Misa Uehara, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara.
Writing Credits:
Ryûzô Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto and Akira Kurosawa.

Synopsis:
A grand-scale adventure as only Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai) could make one, The Hidden Fortress stars the inimitable Toshiro Mifune (Yojimbo) 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.

MPAA:
Not Rated

DISC DETAILS
Presentation:
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
Audio:
Japanese LPCM 1.0
Japanese DTS-HD MA 3.0
Subtitles:
English Supplements Subtitles:
None

Runtime: 139 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 3/18/2014

Bonus:
• Audio Commentary With Film Historian Stephen Prince
• “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create” Documentary
• “George Lucas on Akira Kurosawa” Interview
• Trailer
• DVD Copy
• Booklet


PURCHASE @ AMAZON.COM

EQUIPMENT
Panasonic TC-P60VT60 60-Inch 1080p 600Hz 3D Smart Plasma HDTV; Sony STR-DG1200 7.1 Channel Receiver; Panasonic DMP-BD60K Blu-Ray Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.

RELATED REVIEWS


The Hidden Fortress: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1958)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 5, 2014)

While many works influenced 1977’s Star Wars, 1958’s The Hidden Fortress became known as a primary source. As a supposedly self-respecting Star Wars fan, this meant it was about time I finally watched Fortress and examined the similarities and differences.

Set in 16th century Japan, two selfish peasants named Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) thought they could profit from the pain of war between the Yamana and Akikuzi territories – and failed miserably in their attempts. This leaves them dirty and destitute as they make their way home.

The pair bicker and split up along the way. On his own, Matashichi learns that the Lord of Yamana offers a gold reward for anyone who captures Princess Yuki of Akikuzi (Misa Uehara). Before long, he finds himself as slave labor – and reunited with Tahei – but the prisoners eventually rise against their captors.

Of course, the cowardly Matashichi and Tahei have nothing to do with the rebellion, but they benefit from the clamor and make their way to freedom, where they return to their way as thieves. Desperate for money, they happen upon some gold owned by the Princess’s clan.

The thieves try to find more treasure but encounter a twist when a mysterious stranger winds up in their camp. This turns out to be General Rokurota Makabe (Toshirô Mifune), and he acts as guide and protector to Princess Yuki. After General Makabe forces Matashichi and Tahei to dig up more of the gold, the foursome embarks on a quest to escort the Princess and the treasure to a secret location – all while our bickering leads remain unaware of her identity. We follow adventures along the way.

Right off the bat, let’s get the Star Wars comparisons out of the way. Perhaps because George Lucas openly acknowledged the influence of Fortress, I think some people have come to believe Star Wars essentially remade it.

That’s not the case. To be sure, obvious connections exist. Take the POV of the bickering peasants here; they led to R2-D2 and C-3PO. We also have a need to return a feisty teen princess and hide her through a trek across enemy territory, and another character potentially presaged aspects of Darth Vader.

While I see and acknowledge those similarities, in my opinion, they remain fairly skin deep. For every Fortress element reflected in Star Wars, we can find many more with no relation between the films. I view Fortress as a clear influence but not more than that; Lucas didn’t simply regurgitate the Kurosawa film.

Ignoring the Star Wars connection, does Fortress hold up on its own? Yes, though not quite as well as I’d hoped – and not because I expected something just like Star Wars. As I watched Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, I maintained images of its many imitators, too, but these didn’t affect my impression of it, as I found Samurai to offer a lively, engrossing experience.

While it has its moments, I don’t think Fortess holds up as well, partially because for an adventure, it doesn’t seem to move especially quickly. Perhaps I’m alone in that assessment, as others appear to regard it as a rip-roaring action-fest, but I think the movie tends to proceed at a surprisingly slow pace.

Take the first act, for example. It starts well – especially when we see the dramatic uprising of the slaves – but then we find ourselves with interminable shots of mining for gold. These scenes serve a dramatic purpose and do help develop the characters, but they don’t exactly leap off the screen. A lot of additional slow development follows along those lines, so I couldn’t help but wonder when I’d get the “grand-scale adventure” the Blu-ray’s case promises.

The answer ends up as “during the third act”, for the movie does come to life fairly well once we approach its finish. I particularly like a duel between Makabe and a rival general, and a mix of other good action pieces occur across the final third or so.

And it’s not like Fortress offers a snoozer even before we get to the more dynamic action toward the end. Honestly, I don’t think Kurosawa could’ve made a genuinely dull film if he tried, so even when the story appears to move at a slow pace, the film remains pretty engaging. Kurosawa’s impeccable taste in visual styles keeps our eyes involved, and the characters provide personalities to occupy us reasonably well.

Still, I can’t help but view Fortress as a moderate disappointment. While I haven’t seen a slew of Kurosawa films, I really enjoyed all the others; even when they focused on subjects that didn’t much interest me, the movies themselves were terrific.

I guess this makes it ironic that Fortress boasts the raw material to create a film more in my wheelhouse and yet it leaves me somewhat cold. The Hidden Fortress shows the eye of a cinematic master and occasionally comes to life, but it just seems a little too slow and flat to me. It’s not bad, but it’s not Seven Samurai or Rashomon.


The Blu-ray Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B (Monaural) C (Perspecta Stereo)/ Bonus B

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.

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