The Hidden Fortress (Kakushi Toride no san Akunin) (1958)
Main Menu Audio
Featurette-George Lucas On Kurosawa
Trailer-4 Trailers + Eastern Eye Montage
|Year Of Production||1958|
|RSDL / Flipper||RSDL (56:59)||Cast & Crew|
|Region Coding||4||Directed By||Akira Kurosawa|
|Pan & Scan/Full Frame||None||
Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
|Widescreen Aspect Ratio||2.45:1|
|Video Format||576i (PAL)|
|Original Aspect Ratio||2.35:1||Miscellaneous|
|Annoying Product Placement||No|
|Action In or After Credits||No|
Two bickering peasants, Tahei (Minori Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara), attempt to join the army of Yamana who have invaded the province of Akizuki. However, they arrive late, are mistaken for Akizuki subjects and forced to bury dead Akizuki soldiers. Having been set free they try to get back to their neutral province of Hayakawa, which borders both Yamana and Akizuki. Prevented from doing so by border guards, they are again dragged into the conflict when forced, along with hundreds of others, to dig in the ruins of Akizuki Castle for 200 kan of gold believed to be buried there.
After a mass revolt, the pair manage to escape and steal some rice. They also learn of a 10 ryo reward for information leading to the capture of the Akizuki princess. When cooking the rice in a river bed, they discover a piece of gold hidden in one of the sticks they used for the fire. A man (Toshiro Mifune) appears, watching them intently. They assume he is a bandit, but he says little. Later than evening the two peasants explain to him that as they cannot get back into Hayakawa across the border, they plan to cross into Yamana and then go into Hayakawa from there, as the Akizuki-Hayakawa border is heavily guarded. The bandit, who soon introduces himself as Rokurota Makabe, a famed general of Akizuki, invites them to come with him as he knows where the 200 kan of gold is. They don't believe the first part, but they are willing to follow the lure of gold. Makabe leads them to the hidden fortress of the title, where they also encounter a young, mysterious mute girl. Together they attempt to cross into Yamana and get to the Hayakawa border.
Much has been made of the similarities between Star Wars and this film, and it is almost impossible to review The Hidden Fortress without making reference to George Lucas' film. As I have not seen the immensely profitable, entertaining and vastly overhyped space saga in many years, I will not attempt to point out the "borrowed" (a polite euphemism for "stolen") elements, and in any case they have been well documented elsewhere. Too many reviewers of this film fall into the trap of defining The Hidden Fortress in terms of its relationship to Star Wars, and fail to appreciate the merits of the superior original on its own terms.
The title literally translates as Three Bad Men in a Hidden Fortress, and it was a popular and critical success at home in 1958, winning the director the Silver Bear at the 1959 Berlin Film Festival. Unlike Kurosawa's previous samurai epic, Seven Samurai, this film has more comedy and is less profound as a human drama, but it is no less entertaining. There seems to be a strong influence from American Westerns, with Tahei and Matashichi like the comedy sidekicks in such films, though they are more rounded characters than you would find there. They are supposedly best friends, though when gold is involved it becomes each man for himself. Kurosawa uses the landscape as a character in itself, in much the same way as John Ford (an acknowledged influence), but he does not let the scenery get in the way of the story. The volcanic landscape of the fortress of the title reminds me of countless spaghetti Westerns filmed in similar terrain in the following decade.
As in virtually all of Kurosawa's films, the acting is superb. The stocky Minoru Chiaki and the thin and haggard Kamatari Fujiwara, both Kurosawa regulars, are perfect as the comic duo. Toshiro Mifune inhabits the role of Makabe (written with him in mind) like an old glove, believable as a general with his military bearing and manner, but also wryly amusing. In her first film, Misa Uehara is credible as the teenage Princess, although she wears the 1958 equivalent of hotpants and looks and behaves nothing like a peasant girl. Any Yamana official worth his salt would have seen through her disguise instantly. Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura also appears briefly as an Akizuki court official, and Susumu Fujita is Hyoe Tadakoro. Fujita had starred in Kurosawa's first film Sanshiro Sugata in 1943.
The real strength of this film, though, is the script. While the film runs 138 minutes, there is not a dull patch in it. It moves swiftly and logically, but is full of surprises. Kurosawa and his regular collaborators have included all sorts of turns and unusual elements, from the way in which Makabe's first encounter with Hyoe Tadakoro comes about, to the fire festival and its aftermath with the two Yamana soldiers. The sequence of the night-time revolt in the ruins of Akizuki Castle is stunningly directed and looks brilliant in widescreen. In fact, this is a film that can only be appreciated in the original format, as the compositions take up the entire frame. Remarkably, this was Kurosawa's first widescreen film, and supposedly the first Japanese film in 2.35:1. I can heartily recommend it.
The film is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.45:1 and is 16x9 enhanced. The original aspect ratio was 2.35:1. There seems to be more of the image visible at the sides of the frame, but slightly less at the top.
Perhaps I am being too severe, but I have to admit being a little disappointed in the transfer. Eastern Eye seem to have obtained an clean transfer, but the digital mastering is not a total success. The black and white material has ended up looking like a old duplicate print, as there is not a great deal of fine detail. Characters at the rear of shots lack detail to their faces, shadow detail is below average and contrast does not seem quite right. I suspect that digital cleaning techniques have been overused.
The main film to video artefact present is ghosting, which is probably due to conversion from an NTSC master. It is a bit of a giveaway when the running time is the same as the Region 1, even though this is a PAL-formatted disc with a frame rate of 25 fps which should result in a 4% speed-up. This ghosting causes motion to appear blurry.
There is no aliasing to speak of apart from some very faint shimmering at one or two points. There is some evidence of excessive noise reduction, with floating blocks of the image noticeable at 88:30. Edge enhancement is also visible throughout, sometimes to distracting levels. There is some slight macro-blocking at 43:13, not surprising given the speed with which the camera pans.
One artefact that was quite noticeable was telecine wobble, which appears to varying degrees throughout the running time. I found the frequent shaking of the image quite annoying. Aside from that, there is little in the way of anything else to quibble about. The film print is clean, with almost no evidence of damage apart from translucent scratches on the Toho Scope credit at the very start, at 4:46 and 8:14, and some minor damage after some of the optical wipes. Some grain is evident but is not disturbing.
Removable subtitles are provided in English. These seem to be very similar to the Criterion subtitles, using some contemporary jargon. They are clear and easily read, and timed well with the dialogue.
The film is presented on an RSDL-formatted disc with the layer change placed at 56:59. The layer change occurs on a cut from one shot to the next, and thus is only slightly disruptive.
The original soundtrack was in a process called Perspect-A-Sound, which was a sort of three-channel stereo emulator. As I understand it, the film contains a mono optical soundtrack with three additional inaudible control tones. A Perspect-A-Sound reproducer can read these tones and direct portions of the sound information to the three front speakers with differing intensity. In effect this makes the mono soundtrack sound like stereo, as the reproducer creates a directional sound field. The soundtrack could also be played back on standard mono equipment.
Eastern Eye have decided not to reproduce this soundtrack, but instead have a default Dolby Digital 5.1 track as well as a 2.0 mono track. I listened to the 5.1 track for the purposes of this review. It should be noted that on the case and on the menu, the mono track is described as 1.0, but it is 2.0.
Realistically, the audio is no great advance over the Perspect-A-Sound track included on the Region 1 release. Directional effects sound somewhat diffused, and there is nothing here that really adds much to the film experience. Little is directed to the rear channels, apart from some music at a very low level. There are low frequency effects present but only a couple of times did the subwoofer kick into life, during loud musical passages, generally involving deep drum sounds.
On the other hand, there are no real defects with the sound either. The quality is reasonable, with dialogue being clear and only rarely shrill. Bass sounds come across well. There is nothing here to distract from immersion in the narrative.
The music score is by regular Kurosawa collaborator Masaru Sato. It is an eclectic mix of Japanese and Western influences. Most of the time it sounds Western, but traditional Japanese instruments are also used, such as in the duel between Makabe and Hyoe. It is an excellent, witty score and adds much flavour to the film.
|Surround Channel Use|
You can hear some of Masaru Sato's score if you sit there and watch the main menu (if that's your thing).
The trailer is an original Japanese one, in fairly poor condition with a purple hue to it. It is 16x9 enhanced, and includes some footage of the director doing his thing on set.
This is the same interview that appears on the Criterion Region 1 release. There are no real insights here - Lucas just describes how he came to be interested in Kurosawa's work and comments on the film's similarities with Star Wars.
Original trailers for other Eastern Eye releases. The Yojimbo trailer runs a mere 28 seconds. None are 16x9 enhanced.
Scenes from various releases, with a musical soundtrack that would seem to have nothing to do with any of the films.
As you may have gathered from preceding comments, I have the US Region 1 release from Criterion, who have released a number of Kurosawa films on DVD and have a high reputation for the quality of their releases.
The Region 1 is almost identical to the Region 4 in terms of content. However, the transfer quality differs. Criterion have used a print which has not been restored, with some flecks, hairs and dust visible. It is certainly not as clean as the Region 4. However, I find the visual quality of the Criterion in terms of detail, sharpness and contrast to be far superior. The telecine wobble present in the Region 4 is also here, which makes me think that somehow they have come from the same original source.
The audio differs slightly as well. The default audio track is 1.0 mono, but as an alternative Criterion have included a three-channel track using the Perspect-A-Sound technology.
The UK Region 2 comes from the British Film Institute. It has a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo soundtrack and the George Lucas interview, but no trailer. I have not seen any reviews of this disc, however my copy of the BFI's Ikiru has non-removable subtitles, and apparently this is standard on their non-English language releases.
There is a Region 3 (but coded for all regions) release from Hong Kong based distributor Mei Ah, which has Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 tracks, misspelled subtitles and no 16x9 enhancement. A text biography of the director is included as an extra. According to the one available review, the video quality is quite good, which would make it unusual for a Mei Ah release in my experience.
The Region 2 from France has non-removable French subtitles and a mono soundtrack only. Obviously there are no English subtitles, and there is an extract from a 1986 BBC interview with the director, which is probably in Japanese, as an extra.
The Region 2 from Japan has a making of documentary, but is not 16x9 enhanced and there are no English subtitles.
The Criterion Region 1 release, while not perfect, remains the best bet for this film.
In short, a rousing adventure epic on a grand scale, The Hidden Fortress is highly entertaining.
Unfortunately, the video quality is disappointing.
The audio quality is good.
The extras do not amount to much.
|DVD||Pioneer DV-S733A, using Component output|
|Display||Sony 86CM Trinitron Wega KVHR36M31. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable.|
|Audio Decoder||Built in to DVD player, Dolby Digital, dts and DVD-Audio. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.|
|Speakers||Main: Tannoy Revolution R3; Centre: Tannoy Sensys DCC; Rear: Richter Harlequin; Subwoofer: JBL SUB175|