Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (1958)


For a filmmaker so established in the Western canon, it's worthwhile to occasionally reiterate how much time critics and audiences spent over the years catching up to the cinema of Akira Kurosawa. At the midpoint of the medium's first century, Rashomon introduced to the international stage the muscular stylings of a director already 10-plus features into his career, while Japan itself began the reluctant reclamation of an American-influenced artist they had long taken for granted. Soon after, Seven Samurai would bring the modern action film to its grandest, most rousing height yet, standing as an accomplishment Hollywood would utilize as a blueprint for decades to come. Subsequently, Kurosawa's dramas would find equal favor among cinephiles: Ikiru, High and Low, and Red Beard (among others) are now all but incontestable classics. The Hidden Fortress, however, took far longer than many of Kurosawa's other films to be recognized as a vital piece of his oeuvre, despite its scale and creation at the height of its director's power and influence. Not as narratively inventive as Rashomon, as historically rich as Seven Samurai, or as thematically sobering as his other dramas, The Hidden Fortress was saddled for years with a reputation as the financially successful, artistically lacking entertainment positioned to reestablish its maker's name after a string of more niche offerings such as I Live in Fear and The Lower Depths.

Granted, this was largely the stated intention of Kurosawa and his producers, but to classify The Hidden Fortress as simply an escapist compromise would be to ignore both its technical innovations and storytelling prowess. Set during the Sengoku period, the film leisurely follows a pair of back-biting peasants (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) and a disgraced samurai general (Toshirô Mifune, Kurosawa's greatest muse) as they attempt to transport a princess (Misa Uehara) across enemy lines, casually gathering momentum and characters as Kurosawa moves the action amid a host of warring factions and tumultuous landscapes. Kurosawa and his team of screenwriters keep the characterizations broad, establishing the darkly humorous tone of the film from the very first scene as the peasant duo wanders across a barren desert literally spitting at and insulting one another even as they depend on each other for survival as they dig up corpses and strip dead samurai of their armor. It's this dynamic between the serious and the farcical that's so vital to the film's success. At the same time, these purposefully disarming aspects have provoked volatile reactions; Kurosawa's playful manipulation of his audience's expectations renders The Hidden Fortress casually, paradoxically subversive, and it remains the director's funniest film—perhaps even his most morally acute.

The most immediately recognizable characteristic of the film, and what most distinguishes it from Kurosawa's prior work, is its cinematography. This marked Kurosawa's first time working in TohoScope, a long-lensed widescreen format equivalent to Hollywood's concurrent CinemaScope, which the director exploits for maximum narrative effect throughout. The secluded stronghold of the film's title, an oasis of sorts where the male trio discovers their covert princess, is by design an unassuming locale. But through the lens of Kurosawa and cinematographer Ichio Yamazaki, the bunker becomes an intricately designed haven; shot from low angles in subtly expanding setups, these cloistered environs turn with but a slight move of the camera into daunting skyward vistas, dwarfed by the towering mountain ranges which the group will soon be forced to physically confront. For his action sequences, of which there are many, Kurosawa continued to refine his patented use of stationary panning shots for moments of horseback assault, while the employment of a handheld camera accentuates instances of hand-to-hand combat.

So carefully coordinated are his compositions that the film can feel at once claustrophobic and expansive; despite the fact that the undercover troupe has been traveling outdoors for the entirety of the film, a late sequence set during a fire festival feels almost liberating in its freewheeling dexterity. The scene further represents a pivotal moment for Princess Yuki, who has spent a majority of the film playing the role of a mute in order to hide her identity, as the liberation afforded by the festivities encourages in her a simultaneous sense of confidence and contentment in the face of impending fate. And it's in the plight of Princess Yuki where Kurosawa is able to reestablish—without disrupting the cultural hierarchies of the period, it should be noted—his humanist streak, arguably the defining aspect of his greater corpus.

Despite a trifling reputation for a number of years, The Hidden Fortress, like much of Kurosawa's cinema, has been reconsidered in light of its long-term influence. The film's narrative triangulation has been a foundation for cinematic adventure yarns for decades, and its significance for subsequent cross-continental hits such as Star Wars and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is undeniable. What's perhaps easier to identify with the benefit of hindsight is The Hidden Fortress's place within a filmic continuum which connects Eisenstein to Ford to Hitchcock to Kurosawa to Leone to Lucas to modern purveyors of meticulously detailed and delineated spectacles such as Tony Scott or Johnnie To. Over the years we've grown comfortable, probably too comfortable, with films which favor either levity or pageantry at the expense of a truly sympathetic, relatable human ideal. Thus while many may have not recognized it at the time, Kurosawa most often did his finest work when combining his idiosyncratic and popular sensibilities into humane, broadly accessible entertainments; it just so happens that The Hidden Fortress remains more unabashedly entertaining than most.

Image/Sound:
The Hidden Fortress has received an unexpectedly substantial Blu-ray upgrade from Criterion, surpassing their original DVD while advancing in a number of key areas in the process. Picture quality makes a sizable jump in contrast and clarity, appearing much more sharp and balanced between foreground and background detail. Light grain persists and damage is minimal throughout, while more of the picture visible on all four edges of the frame. Sound, meanwhile, is offered in two tracks: a linear PCM mono and a DTS-HD 5.1 surround mix (the latter, like the HD picture, only accessible on the Blu-ray disc included in this dual-format release). The linear track is faithful to the original and would have been satisfactory on its own, but Criterion goes the extra mile with the lossless surround track. Separation between channels is audible and distinct, with the film's score and action effects balanced and not overwhelming, while dialogue is clear and upfront and free of any extraneous aural artifacts or audible dropouts.

Extras:
Unexpected additions to the supplemental package have been made as well. In addition to the trailer and short interview with George Lucas about Akira Kurosawa and the influence of The Hidden Fortress from the original DVD, Criterion have added another of the Toho Masterworks making-of documentaries which have made appearances on many of their Kurosawa discs in the past. The most important addition, however, is the newly recorded commentary track by Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa. This is just the latest in a long line of fantastic commentaries Prince has recorded for Criterion, and he remains probably the most consistently insightful and articulate Kurosawa scholar in contemporary criticism. Along with newly commissioned artwork for the entire package, there's also a booklet featuring a new essay by film scholar Catherine Russell.

Overall:
Long saddled as simply an escapist comprise, Akira Kurosawa's unabashedly entertaining 1958 film gets an unexpectedly substantial Blu-ray upgrade from Criterion, who go the extra mile with key technical and supplemental additions. [Slant]

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