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Kakushi toride no san akunin or Three Bad Men in a Hidden Fortress as it was originally called is a film by Japanese director legend, Akira Kurosawa. Penned by Shinobu Hashimoto of Rashonmon, Seven Samurai and Ikiru fame, this picture tells the story of Princess Yuki of the clan Akizuki who must escape her territory to a safe land else she be beheaded by the legions of Yamana.

Film
The Yamana and the Akizuki were at war and the Akizuki lost. The film opens with a fantastic long scene involving two peasants who, in a state of disrepair, argue and taunt each other as they wearily trudge down a dusty road. They call each other names but appear to be friends, who need to blame their current predicament on someone so they chose each other. It turns out that they went to join the war but were not only late, but mistaken for the enemy and forced to bury the dead. The arguing continues when suddenly they are very scared about something slightly off camera and a few seconds later a bleeding warrior stumbles into frame, followed by more samurai on horseback. Swiftly ending his life, the samurai pay little attention to the peasants and ride off. The peasants split up after more fighting and eventually get captured separately and forced into slave labour. From here they unwittingly end up at the service of a man who promises them much gold if they help him retrieve it.

It's coming right for us!
This leads the party to the film’s namesake – The Hidden Fortress. Here are the last subjects of the Akizuki clan and their plight is simple. They must get from their devastated land to Hayakawa’s land, however the Akizuki/ Hayakawa border is heavily guarded therefore they decide to take a big risk and go via the Yamana (enemy) land.

While the story is centred on the princess and her journey, it is told from the point of view of these peasants and their journey with her and their travelling companions. It is this concept that was the inspiration for Star Wars: A New Hope. There are several places when this is very evident. Firstly the transitions from one scene to the next occasionally use the right to left (or visa versa) sweeping picture merge which was very prominent in the Star Wars movies. The two main characters are obviously the droids from A New Hope and some of the things that happen to them such as the arguing and the parting of ways early on were mirrored in this.

Kurosawa is an exceptional director. His style and flair even today, shine in comparison to many other more recent titles. This might have been his first foray into CinemaScope (widescreen) but it does not show. He handles each shot superbly using all of the image available. The action often moves from the back of the image to the foreground or from the top of the frame to the bottom. While there are many long exterior shots, the close up shots used have great depth and clarity. Top this off with fast paced action scenes such as people of horseback charging through the countryside and you have a carefully made, beautiful film.

This effect looks might familiar
Fortunately the film does not come with one of those awful dubbed tracks, just the original Japanese soundtrack along with optional English subtitles. The subtitles have been recreated for this release so they are very good and this makes the story a lot easier to follow. While the two peasants are almost comedy roles, whining and bickering with each other, the Akizuki General Rokurota’s stern and imposing personality can almost be felt as he barks orders at both of them. Chiaki and Fujiwara both are excellent in this film. They make you wonder just how good friends they really are since they are miserable when separated, but would gladly steal from each other to become richer than they are at present. Mifune takes his role well also, possibly being chosen for this role after working with Kurosawa previously on “Rashomon” and “Seven Samurai”, which is of course the film that “The Magnificent Seven” was based upon. He oozes calmness under his stern exterior, and he makes it appear that some of his plans are created on the spot, making you forget there was actually a script. He had acted in over 50 films before landing this role, and went on to make a total of over 140 in his career.

Video
The first Kurosawa film to be filmed in widescreen, this Criterion Collection release is presented in 2.35:1 and enhanced for 16x9 televisions. Originally released in1958, it would be forgivable for the print to have deteriorated and have a significant amount of artefacts present. This however, is not the case. Artefacts are few and far between. The print is excellent and really shows you what can be done with an older film. It will make you think why newer movies can be presented so badly. Being filmed in black and white might be off putting for some people as they assume the picture will be poor, however the definition on screen is fantastic. There is very little to no low level noise present on the transfer - blacks are very black with well defined edges and the contrast levels are also excellent. There are a couple of scenes when the contrast level fluctuates a little, but on the whole I was very impressed with the quality of the image - it has been produced with the sort of precision we have come to expect from Criterion releases.

After the tenth time, the "What's brown and sticky?" joke was wearing a little thin
Audio
Obviously the film was originally recorded with a mono soundtrack due to its age, however also included is a Dolby Digital 3.0 soundtrack. Here’s the quote from the Audio Selection menu:

<table border=0 width=385><tr><td>The Hidden Fortress was originally presented in an audio format known as Perspect-A-Sound. Perspect-A-Sound (sometimes called Perspecta Stereophonic sound) uses three bass frequencies (30Hz, 35Hz and 40Hz) mixed into the mono soundtrack to “steer” the sound to one or all of the three front speakers (left-center-right). This steering is accomplished by playing the mono soundtrack through a Perspecta decoder. This would the create the impression of a stereo soundtrack.</td></tr></table>
When reading the description of this, it sounds a little odd. However it actually works quite well. The original mono soundtrack has to keep the background noise at a low level so that the dialogue can be heard over the top and this makes it sound a little thin. When the 3.0 track is played the background shouting, fighting and music come through with more base and clarity from the left and right front speakers. The dialogue also benefits from this as it feels like it has more space and a greater dynamic range. The 3.0 track is also cleaner with fewer hisses and other sound artefacts than the 1.0 track. This was my first experience with a 3.0 track and I have to say, especially from the age of the film, I was mighty impressed. It's obviously not going to be able to compete with the likes of Saving Private Ryan DTS but just presenting it in 3.0 brings a whole new lease of life to this picture.

The penalty for not keeping to the right on the steps down to the tube was a little harsh
Extras
While not numerous, there are extras presented on this disc. Firstly, the original theatrical trailer with subtitles is just under four minutes long. Proclaiming this to be the most expensive film in Japanese history (up to 1958, of course), this film allegedly had a cast of one million people. Whichever way you look at it, that’s a lot of people! Next is an interview shot in 4:3 and running for eight minutes entitled “Lucas on Kurosawa”. This is basically Lucas talking about Kurosawa, how he was introduced to his films, and the influences they had. While the other Kurosawa films are discussed, the focus is on Hidden Fortress since that is where Lucas took inspiration from for parts of Star Wars. While not being very long insightful, this was interesting none the less. He mentions a theory by certain writers that there are only 32 stories in existence, and every other story is derived from one of these. While not admitting to believing in this, it did make me wonder how much truth there was to this and how broad each of these stories was, to encompass so many other derivatives. The final extra is a setup option for your television. Simply entitled “Color Bars”, this displays several colours on screen which you can then use to adjust your television accordingly. It might have been nice if there were instructions for this for less experienced viewers.

Overall
I purchased this film on a recommendation from a friend, and because I wanted to see how it helped to inspire Star Wars. For that reason alone I think it was worth it, however not only did I end up with some nice comparisons between this and Star Wars, but a fantastic film presented in a way Kurosawa would be proud of. You should only need to compare the film to the trailer to see the amount of work Criterion have put into making this film look as best as it can. The Hidden Fortress is an extraordinary production, containing a first rate story of humour, sadness, loyalty and greed. While everyone might not like it as it does not have an English soundtrack and is in black and white, to them I say “Go back to your Titanics and your Dumb and Dumbers – this is a movie for film enthusiasts”.


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