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The Criterion Collection presents
The Hidden Fortress (1958)

Matashichi: "Then where is Princess Yuki?"
Makabe: "I captured her and handed her over to the Yamana authorities."
Tahei: "Careful, I think he's full of crap."
Makabe: "Here's the reward of 10 ryo. Still think it's a lie?"

- Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara), General Rokutara Makabe (Toshiro Mifune), Tahei (Minoru Chiaki)

Review By: Daniel Hirshleifer  
Published: May 12, 2001

Stars: Toshiro Mifune
Other Stars: Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Susumu Fujita
Director: Akira Kurosawa

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (mild violence, some foul language)
Run Time: 02h:18m:42s
Release Date: May 22, 2001
UPC: 037429135129
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

It is rare to see a movie that you know with certainty will become an all-time classic. So it must have been a surprise to live in the 1950s, and to see Akira Kurosawa's films when they were still brand new. Starting with Rashomon and Seven Samurai, Kurosawa made classic a series of classic films. The Hidden Fortress, Kurosawa's 1958 film, is not only a classic, but holds extra distinction as the main inspiration on George Lucas in writing Star Wars.

Viewed outside the context of Star Wars, The Hidden Fortress is still a masterful film. The film opens with two peasants, Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) and Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) cursing their bad luck in trying to win a fortune. Soon General Rokutara Makabe (Toshiro Mifune), a wise samurai general and one of the few survivors of the Akizuki clan, who have just recently been routed by the neighboring Yamana clan, pick up the two peasants. Makabe uses the Tahei and Matashichi to help him carry 200 pieces of gold into the territory of another, friendlier clan. However, to get to this territory, the group must pass through Yamana country, with the Yamana hot on their heels. A mysterious mute girl also accompanies the group, and she may be more than she appears.

This simple idea of being caught behind enemy lines is taken to epic proportions by Kurosawa. The film is shot in Tohoscope (aka Cinemascope) at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Kurosawa utilizes this wider frame (his previous films had been in 1.33:1) to its fullest extent, creating a visual palette that is still stunningly innovative. Kurosawa uses long shots, and then lets a scene develop within these few shots. Often important action occurs at the top of the frame, or is in the background, or obscured in some other way. Considering that most directors put the most important character or event in the center of the frame, because that's where the audience's attention is most often focused, such unusual framing comes off as refreshing and invites repeated viewings to fully appreciate all the details. But such framing is best used in scenes of exposition, and The Hidden Fortress has its share of action sequences. Kurosawa handles these with an assurance that is only exceeded by The Killer-era John Woo. As any fan of Ran could tell you, not even age could keep Kurosawa from creating some of the most visceral and exciting action sequences in cinema history, and The Hidden Fortress' action sequences rival Ran's in terms of sheer excitement and suspense. In particular, there is a duel between Makabe and his nemesis, the samurai Hyoe Tadokoro (Misa Uehara) that is one of the most intense I have ever seen.

The film is also blessed with endearing performances from Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara as the two peasants. They play the peasants with sincerity, but we're left with no doubt as to their greedy natures. They also provide most of the comic relief in the film, and when they want to, they can be truly hilarious. Their chemistry is also very warm and humorous, and they steal many of the scenes they're in. Still, if there's one actor they can't steal a scene from, it's Toshiro Mifune. The Kurosawa/Mifune coupling is one of the most famous and best loved in all of cinema, as indeed Mifune was one of the most versatile actors on the planet. While he could be gruff and manly, he could also be emotional, and even funny. His performances are never dull. While his acting in The Hidden Fortress is a little on the rough side as compared to his work in The Seven Samurai or Yojimbo, it's still a masterful performance and his commanding presence is felt whenever he appears on screen. These great performances are offset by a truly horrendous performance by Misa Uehera as Princess Yuki. The character of Princess Yuki is that of a spoiled child, however, Uehera takes this a bit far and ends up screaming every line. In fact, I'd say it's more of an ear-piercing shriek. Luckily, she plays a mute for the majority of the film, and she does a fine job of looking regal when she doesn't open her mouth. Uehera is the only wink link in this strong and versatile cast.

That was the view of the film outside of the context of Star Wars. But the fact is that this film is actually more famous as the inspiration for Star Wars than for any of its own cinematic merits. Watching the film as an avid Star Wars fan, it was easy to see just how much inspiration Lucas took from the film. The peasants are C-3PO and R2-D2. Makabe becomes Obi-Wan, and Princess Yuki obviously becomes Princess Leia, although thankfully Leia shouts less. The scene where the droids land on Tatooine and decide to split up is taken almost line for line from the opening scenes of The Hidden Fortress. The gold they're carrying becomes the Death Star plans. There's a scene where Makabe attacks some guards on horseback which I'm certain was the basis for the speeder bike chase in Return Of The Jedi. Hyoe Tadokoro is the embryonic basis for Darth Vader, and the duel between Makabe and Tadokoro is like the best lightsaber fight in Star Wars, except a thousand times better. The end of The Hidden Fortress was the basis for the awards ceremony after Luke and Han blow up the Death Star. And the comparisons go on. While The Hidden Fortress is best viewed as a singular cinematic experience, it is fun to look for scenes that could have influenced Lucas; it adds another layer to an already spectacularly layered and entertaining epic.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Criterion has invested the time and care we have come to expect from them with this anamorphic transfer. The level of detail present is simply amazing. Take, for example, the scene where Toshiro Mifune is hiding in a group of bamboo trees (as seen on the cover of the disc). You can clearly make out every single leaf in the frame. Some dirt and specks do appear from time to time, and during the duel I noticed a few frames missing. However, this should be expected with a film from 1958, and is a minor problem in this otherwise stunning print.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The main audio transfer on this disc is a mono track. This is a perfectly good track, no distortion or hissing; dialogue is clear throughout, as are sound effects and ambient noise. Criterion has provided a second track on the disc, a Dolby Digital 3.0 track that is designed to recreate "Perspect-A-Sound," a stereo simulation technique. Perspect-A-Sound has three different bass frequencies, which directs different sounds to different speakers, creating simulated stereo. This technique was obviously not as advanced or precise as Dolby Digital or DTS mixing. As a result, this track sounds muddled. Each speaker isn't broadcasting a separate track; it seems as if there is a center track and then one other track split equally between the two front speakers. In one scene, a woman is crying on the left side of the screen. In a Dolby Digital or DTS surround mix, her crying would be securely stationed at the left front speaker. In this, her crying can be heard on both front speakers. The rear surrounds are not used in either track.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Video interview with George Lucas
  2. Color bars
Extras Review: This disc has an exclusive interview with George Lucas about how this film, and Kurosawa in general, has influenced him. He also discusses what the direct influences of The Hidden Fortress was on Star Wars and what similarities between the films were coincidental. This is a great interview. Many people look at Lucas as a commercial filmmaker, so they forget that he has firm roots in foreign films, and Kurosawa in particular. Criterion has also provided film clips and photos when Lucas refers to a certain movie or scene in a movie, for the benefit of those who haven't seen the films he references. The disc contains an unremastered theatrical trailer, letterboxed at 2.35:1, which really shows how great the print on the disc is. The trailer also has a few shots of Kurosawa directing a scene, interestingly enough. Criterion of course provides the standard color bars.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

The Hidden Fortress is a grand film that only Akira Kurosawa could have made. Epic yet compelling on a personal level, this film is beyond must see.


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