Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Misa Uehara, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Studio: Criterion Collection
Audio Format: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, Dolby Digital 3.0
Video Format: Widescreen
I'd heard rumblings about the films of the great director Akira Kurosawa for years before I finally got the chance to sit down and absorb some of his work. Famous directors, actors and critics sung his praises, credited him as an inspiration and labeled him as a legendary figure in film history. And, honestly, perhaps this is a film I'll grow to love after repeated viewings. Maybe I allowed all of Kurosawa's mystique to precede him, inflating my expectations to the point that they could never truly be met. Perhaps I'm overlooking the historical timeframe of the film, comparing it to 2005's feature-lengths rather than its 1958 contemporaries. All things considered, however, as my first exposure to the man's work, The Hidden Fortress was a bit of a let-down.
That's not to say I didn't enjoy the film, actually more to the contrary. This story of two greedy peasants, a stern, intelligent old warrior and a strong-willed young princess was generally very charming and entertaining. I found some of the translation to be a little awkward, especially in the way it integrated more modern phrases into what was obviously a period piece, (somehow I have trouble accepting the idea that anyone in feudal Japan would have casually spit out a phrase like "this sucks") but on the large the conversion from Japanese to English was done well and lacked some of the hiccups that are usually associated with an East-to-West translation. The plot is simple, yet not without intrigue; rumor has it that, years and years ago, a wealthy overlord hid his fortune of gold somewhere within his home. The tale is set near the end of a bitter war, and each character has a vested interest in recovering the secret stash and returning it to the safety of a non-warring territory. The first hour and a half moves fantastically, with the heightened tensions of the war, (and the uncertainty of every non-central character's loyalties) along with the constant inspections of occupying troops, really adding a touch of drama and tension to the journey. Had it not trudged onward for another hour, I'd have given it top marks. As is, it feels like the clean, simple main story was overrun with enough subplots and side stories to cover a whole trilogy. When it came to be time to wrap things up, the simple act of tying loose ends added another sixty minutes to the running time and just killed my excitement for both the story and the characters.
The disc is a little light on extras, including the original theatrical trailer (itself featuring a few clips of the film's production, nowhere to be found elsewhere on the disc) and an interview with George Lucas, along with the standard language and chapter selection tools. The Lucas interview, conducted especially for Criterion's DVD release of the film, barely gets rolling before it comes to an end and is largely disappointing. His acknowledgement that he borrowed a few ideas from Hidden Fortress in Star Wars isn't expanded into as much detail as I'd hoped, (considering it was that same remark on the Star Wars bonus disc that got me interested in this film in the first place) and he dances around the assumption that Princess Leia bears more than a few similarities to Princess Yukihime of Fortress.
The video looks spectacular for a film that's nearly fifty years old, but that should almost go without saying when Criterion is concerned. It's particularly telling to watch the Trailer, which wasn't restored, immediately before or after viewing the film itself.
All in all, I was largely entertained and plan to further investigate Kurosawa's work, but felt the length of Fortress was almost crippling.
On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 7.4