Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa became an international sensation in the 1950s. Of the nine films he released that decade, three went on to have major influences on future films. They are Rashomon (1950) with its multiple narratives, the epic Seven Samurai (1954) where a few men gathered to protect a village, and The Hidden Fortress (1958), which a young American director was inspired by when he made Star Wars. All three are part of The Criterion Collection.
Right from the beginning of The Hidden Fortress, the viewer is introduced to the main characters that will take the viewer through the story. However, they aren’t the typical heroes who get the spotlight in an adventure. Reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy, Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara), the smaller of the two, and the mustachioed Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) are peasants who are constantly squabbling with one another. Not only did they show up too late to battle alongside the Yamana clan, they have been mistaken for Akizuki fighters and are forced to bury the dead. They decide to split up, each wanting to get away from the other, but are no better off as each is captured by the Yamana army and forced to dig with other prisoners for the Akizuki’s gold.
Revealing friendship has a greater value than gold, they are happy to reunite and escape together. On the run, they meet Akizuki General Makabe (Toshiro Mifune), who is well known for his fighting skills. He tricks them into helping him transport the spirited Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), who the Yamana clan has placed a bounty, and her gold to Akizuki territory. Although Makabe’s goal seems noble, the peasants keep an eye open for opportunites that will benefit them.
Makabe is the traditional hero of the story. He is revealed to be a smart tactician when they have to cross a bridge where Yamana soldiers are searching all travelers for the princess and the gold. His sense of people’s character benefits him greatly in this instance and other places along their journey. He knows when to fight and when to run.
This was Kurosawa’s first widescreen film, shot in Tohoscope, and he makes great use of the frame in his staging of characters and action. The spear battle and the scene where Makabe sends the peasants to the fortress are two different examples as the former is played for excitement and the latter is played for laughs. The most memorable image from the movie might be Makabe seeming to fly on horseback as he fights against soldiers. The camera moves and editing choices reveal a wise director who knows how to accentuate a film with the tools at his disposal.
The video has been given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at an aspect ratio of 2.39:1. The liner notes reveal, “This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a DFT Scanity film scanner from the original 35mm fine-grain master positive; the original negative for this film no longer exists. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI’s DRS, while Digital Vision’s Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, noise management, jitter, and flicker.” The image delivers bright grays and rich blacks that contribute to an outstanding contrast. There’s strong clarity throughout, allowing for great depth and detail, the latter of which can be seen in the textures of structures and uniforms. During a scene where the peasants look for gold, it’s not as sharp, but that was the only troublesome moment.
Also revealed in the booklet, “The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack print. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation. The alternate 3.0 surround soundtrack was decoded through a Perspecta integrator to create a simulated stereo LCR soundtrack. Though only three channels of audio are present, the Perspecta soundtrack was encoded as 5.1 on the disc to maintain compatibility with legacy receivers.” The mono track offers clear dialogue. The only negative is the sliding rocks effects were overdone.
The Special Edition features include a commentary track by film historian Stephen Prince, and another segment from Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create (HD, 41 min) with Kurosawa and others discussing the making of The Hidden Fortress. “George Lucas on Akira Kurosawa” (HD, 8 min) and the influence the famed director has had on his work. There is also the original trailer (1080i, 4 min,) and a 14-page booklet featuring “Three Good Men and a Princess,” an essay by film scholar Catherine Russell.
The Hidden Fortress is a wonderful adventure filled with action and humor, setting the stage for the Hollywood blockbuster that would arrive two decades later. Criterion has delivered a visually satisfying high-def presentation and provided extras to learn more about the film and its director. It’s highly recommended and makes for a great introduction to Kurosawa.