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The Hidden Fortress: The Criterion Collection

The Hidden Fortress (1958) was the last picture Akira Kurosawa would make for Toho Films, the studio he had worked for during much of his career. It also was his first shot in widescreen, and it seems something of a celebration — perhaps even a liberation. Coming off a string of rather somber films, including Record of a Human Being (1955), Throne of Blood (1957), and The Lower Depths (1957), Fortress is an unapologetic lark, a breezy action-adventure set in feudal 16th century Japan. Toshiro Mifune plays General Rokurota Makabe, who must defend the life of Princess Yukihime (Misa Uehara) after the Akizuki territory has been defeated by the forces of Yamana. Having escaped with the princess, a few retainers, and 1,600 pounds of gold, Makabe realizes the only way to reach the safety of neutral Haykawa is to cross into the hostile land of Yamana, since — with the civil war at an end — the border will not be guarded. But he needs help carrying the gold, which soon comes in the form of two simpering, moronic ex-soldiers, Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matakishi (Kamatari Fujiwara). The group soon gathers up the hidden gold (enclosed in firewood) and starts on the journey, doing their best to avoid detection — and especially the Yamana military, as the princess has been marked for immediate execution. While The Hidden Fortress was one of Kurosawa's favorite films, it has become best-known in western countries as a chief inspiration for George Lucas's Star Wars (1977), and it has gained many admirers who are looking for bits and pieces of the famous space-saga. Lucas has indicated many times that the bumbling Tahei and Matakishi were his source for the droids C-3PO and R2-D2, and he's said that he was mostly interested in the way that the lowest characters in the story acted as narrators. There also is some influence to be seen in the tale of a battle-hardened general who is charged with protecting a princess, but The Hidden Fortress in fact is just a wisp of Star Wars (there's no Luke Skywalker or Han Solo, and nothing remotely like a Wookie). What's just as interesting is how Fortress seems to have been an influence as well on Lucas's The Phantom Menace (1999) — the stoic Princess Yukihime is much more like Queen Amidala than Princess Leia, and Mifune has a wonderful bit of combat with an opposing general, using long sticks that resemble Darth Maul's twin-pronged lightsaber (and for you serious Lucas junkies, a horse-chase between Mifune and two soldiers plays almost exactly like the speeder chase in Return of the Jedi [1983] ). But cultural archeology aside, Fortress has plenty to recommend on its own merits. Mifune's turn as Gen. Makabe is completely stone-faced and intimidating, but not without generous bits of humor, and Kurosawa wraps his clever story in several pairs, multiple identities, and "hide-in-plain-sight" stratagems. Not only is it one of his best films, it's also one of his most accessible, making it an ideal spin for Kurosawa neophytes. The Hidden Fortress: The Criterion Collection features a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) from a superb black-and-white print that shows little wear, while audio is available in Dolby Digital 3.0 (sourced from the original Japanese soundtrack mix). Best feature: "Lucas on Kurosawa," an eight-minute segment with The Flanneled One, who's only too happy to talk about this film and his admiration of Kurosawa. Also on board is the original theatrical trailer. In Japanese with digital English subtitles. Keep-case.

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