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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 5/15/01

The Hidden Fortress
1958 (2001) - Toho Co., Ltd. (The Criterion Collection)

review by Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Hidden Fortress Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/A-

Specs and Features

139 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, Amaray keep case packaging, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:17:05, in chapter 19), Lucas on Kurosawa video interview with George Lucas, theatrical trailer, color bars, film-themed menu screens, scene access (32 chapters), languages: Japanese (DD 3.0 & mono), subtitles: English

"The life of a man
Burn it with the fire
The life of an insect
Throw it into the fire
Ponder and you'll see
The world is dark
And this floating world is a dream"

Isn't this just the proverbial bitch? Two ne'er do well peasant farmers (Matashichi and Tahei) decide to join a clan war, but they arrive a little late to the battle. Mistaken for the "other side", their own people put them to work in a prison camp burying the dead. Figuring enough is enough, they break free and start back home. This is right about where we, the audience, come in. As their bickering escalates, they go their separate ways and end up in - you guessed it - another prison camp burying the dead. But fate steps in when the camp is overrun and ambushed. Free yet again, these two take to the road, becoming petty thieves, stealing rice to support them on their journey. Lady luck loves these guys.

Matashichi and Tahei aren't just grabbing rice and dashing off, they're also keeping their eyes open for the missing Princess Yuki of the Akizuki clan. She's worth 10 gold pieces to whomever finds her and turns her in. But they might not need the bounty. One day by the river, they discover a twig with a gold piece stuck inside. Figuring they've finally cashed in, they grab each and every twig they can find, cracking them open and cursing when nothing is inside. That's when they bump into famed General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune). He claims he knows where the rest of the gold is stashed and, if they help him find it, their reward will be great. Our two greedy "heroes" approach the situation with caution, but the lure of gold is enough for them to take Makabe up on his offer. Little do they know that Makabe is really the Princess Yuki's chief samurai and he's looking for a chance to get her back to safety.

When a heartbreaking choice by Makabe and his sister causes their enemies to believe the Princess is dead, Makabe sees his one and only chance. Reasoning that the best way to hide something is out in the open, Makabe recruits Matashichi and Tahei to help carry the gold faggots (needed to rebuild the Akizuki clan) through the enemy lines, with the Princess tagging along disguised as a peasant girl. He tells them that she's a deaf mute and they bite - as long as there's gold waiting for them at the end of the road, they couldn't care less. Makabe is counting on the pair's greed to help return the Princess home, but, in the end, it's their unfathomable luck that just might save the day.

The Hidden Fortress is a killer flick. It may not be the all-time best Kurosawa film ever made, but it could quite possibly be the most influential, having spawned the idea for Star Wars in George Lucas' mind. Although the references are pretty slight - a princess, two bumbling comic relief types who serve as our surrogates (R2 & 3P0 anyone?) and heavy use of horizontal wipes - it's still pretty clear. What I like most is the pacing, because it's so dead on. This film just clocks by without you ever noticing that it's 2 hours and 19 minutes long. With all the battles, the comedy and the perfect characterizations, I don't think there's a film lover out there who wouldn't enjoy this movie. Personally, I know anything with Toshiro Mifune in it will be forever welcome in my home.

The Hidden Fortress was Kurosawa's first foray into widescreen filmmaking and it's important to note that, because this is one glorious looking film. Kurosawa knew how to fill a frame and, when given wide-open vistas, he told some remarkable stories. Criterion preserves the integrity of this film well by giving us a very nice anamorphic transfer in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Contrast is deep, whites are luminous and the detail is fierce. Even the print is remarkable, at least thanks to digital clean-up. There's little to no damage visible on this print, and we're all the better for it.

The sound is simply okay, but there's no reason to expect DTS quality here. We're given a very nice original release mono, as well as a Dolby Digital 3.0 reconstruction of the novelty soundtrack Perspecta, which utilized 3 separate bass tracks to give the front left, center and right channels a more natural and dynamic sound. It's really the way to go here, and it sounds very good, with active effects and nice clear dialogue. You'll hear a very small bit of analog hiss remaining, but that's to be expected on a film like this.

On the extras side, you're not going to find much. But what you do find is quite interesting. Of course, we get a liner note essay, color bars for proper calibration and the film's theatrical trailer. But also on board is a nifty 8-minute interview with George Lucas. I was sort of expecting more about his connection to Hidden Fortress, but he actually gives a very nice Lucas-style perspective of Kurosawa and his work. He has a lot of theories and proves to really know his film history. I guess it helps when you're part of it. It's definitely worth checking out.

Kurosawa has always inspired the maker and the watcher in all of us. Whether we simply love watching films, or we aspire to make them some day, his work always touches a special place in our hearts. I don't think I'll get much rest until all of his films have been released as quality DVDs. In fact, I'll sleep a lot better when Ikiru, in particular, comes out. Then, I might even be able to get rid of my laserdisc player...

Todd Doogan

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