Friday, November 13, 2009

Exfanding Review: The Hidden Fortress

Alex and I have taken the plunge into a new fandom: the films of Akira Kurosawa. To begin our foray into the work of the internationally famous Japanese filmmaker, we watched The Hidden Fortress, which has been cited as a source of inspiration for Star Wars.

Briefly, what is the premise of The Hidden Fortress?

Alex: Ah, yes, since I'm so good at recapping things, it would only make sense that I get to answer this one. Well, let's see. There's a lot of walking around, and a lot of yelling being done by a princess, and in-between all the walking and princess-yelling there is an amazing sword fight that takes place on horseback. And there's also a pretty hardcore spear fight that goes on for several minutes.

How's that?

More plot, you say? Fine.

So, there's these two guys, Tahei and Matashichi, and when the movie opens they are in the middle of escaping from a big battle. As they wander along, they come in contact with General Rokurota Makabe, who is working for the princess of a defeated nation. The General, who is famed throughout the land, is attempting to move the princess, and the nation's supply of gold, to safety through enemy territory without being seen.

All the while, Tahei and Matashichi act as comic relief and do everything in their power to halt progress.

Nathaniel: What he said.

Being a newbie to his films, what expectations did you have coming into the movie?

Nathaniel: In general, I expected Kurosawa's films to be serious, pretty realistic, somewhat old, and set in Japan at least a few centuries back. I assumed the dialogue would be Polish with Esperanto subtitles, but I guess we can't all be The Amazing Kreskin.

Because I had heard that Star Wars was inspired by The Hidden Fortress, I assumed that Star Wars was, at its core, a sci-fi remake of the Kurosawa film, but with enough plot and character changes for it to not technically be a remake at all. I mean, Kurosawa wouldn't have had a tall, hairy Japanese man growling and groaning all the time, right?

Alex: What he said.

Actually, I went in expecting a lot of fighting, and a lot of incredible samurai action.

How similar/different were those expectations from reality once you watched the movie?

Nathaniel: Boy, was I off the mark. After the movie, I watched an interview with George Lucas where he talked about how Kurosawa's films, and The Hidden Fortress in particular, impacted him--and he stated that the biggest influence was how the story was told from the perspective of the two lowliest characters. The fact that there was a princess was more or less incidental, and only in the earliest drafts did Star Wars resemble The Hidden Fortress enough to mention it. I still found a decent number of parallels between Star Wars and The Hidden Fortress, but that's probably only because I was looking for them.

Alex: Well, I didn't expect all the walking, that's for sure. I mean, the sheer amount of walking in this flick would make Peter Jackson jealous.

Now, while I went into the moive expecting way more fighting, I've since been told that the more famous of Kurosawa's films have more action than Fortress, so I am definitely looking forward to that. Because the action in Fortress, though sparse, was pretty incredible, and very entertaining.

The film features a good amount of seriousness, humor, and action; how well does it all blend together?

Nathaniel: I was pleased by how smoothly the movie transitioned from one "feel" to the next. Action sequences only happened when the characters needed to fight; funny sections appeared organically from the character interactions and the situations in which they found themselves. Nothing was ever unbearably serious, but the darker parts were always handled with care and gradually increased or decreased in intensity.

Alex: There were definitely laugh-out-loud funny moments in the film, and most of those moments were provided by Tahei and Matashichi. And I think the viewer was supposed to relate to, and develop a fondness of those characters.

That never happened for me, because of the whole "sleeping princess attempted rape" scene, where Tahei and Matashichi drew straws to see who would get to be alone with her. That was creepy, and evil, and from that point on I had a hard time laughing at their bumbling idiocy.

There was a lot of walking in this film. Did it manage to keep your attention throughout?

Nathaniel: There was also a lot of climbing up hills and then rolling down them. You know how Raiders of the Lost Ark had a big action sequence every 10 or 20 minutes? This movie had a scene where the characters climbed up a hill or fell down a hill every 10 or 20 minutes. Alex and I talked through a decent amount of the movie, which helped to keep us from zoning out, but the movie on its own did a good job of holding my attention, for the most part.

Though there is a lot of walking, Kurosawa managed to keep things engaging by giving the audience some gorgeous panoramic camera shots. There was a sense of scope that made it seem as though the characters were merely a small part of a larger world, and it always felt like there was a real destination on the other side of that hill--the heroes didn't just wander through a boring desert until something interesting happened.

Alex: I agree--the panoramic nature of the cinematography was incredible. it reminded me of a John Ford film in its epic, sweeping scope.

But, yeah. There was a whole lot of walking.

Was there anything particularly unusual or surprising about this movie?

Nathaniel: I've seen a respectable amount of American movies from the 1950s, so the swearing and the blood at the beginning of the movie caught me off-guard. I was also surprised and impressed by the sheer number of people in the film; there's one scene where this huge mob of dirt-covered people in ragged clothing comes charging in against a huge mob of warriors, and I'm fairly confident that not a single one of them was computer-generated. There were soldiers and peasants galore, and it never appeared as though they had skimped on the costume, prop, or makeup budgets.

Alex: I disagree. I'm pretty sure the first ten minutes of the film were completely CGI. Other than that, the fact that the director chose to shoot in widescreen was pretty cool. It was his first movie shot in that style, and it really gave the flick a unique look.

What was your favorite Star Wars parallel in the film?

Alex: The space fights. Those surprised me. It's shocking that Lucas wasn't sued over those. Oh! And the wipe cuts--there were plenty of those PowerPoint-esque wipes and fades in Star Wars, and I think it may be safe that was done as an homage to Fortress.

Nathaniel: The tall, hairy Japanese man who growled and groaned all the time was pretty cool. Wait; he just crossed his arms. Actually, the fact that Threepio and Artoo look and behave very much like the two bickering peasants was endearing, and the shorter peasant actually beeped at one point. Honest!

Did the princess shout too much during the movie, or was that just me?


Alex: But I liked how there was a difference betwen her "annoyed yelling," her "angry yelling," and her "congratulatory yelling." It was subtle, but it was there.

How well does the film hold up after all these decades?

Nathaniel: I'm sure the audio and video were cleaned up for the version we watched, but everything was crisp, clear, and surprisingly believable. There were one or two minor-yet-abrupt cuts that made things momentarily choppy, and at one point a guy is poked pretty hard with a fake sword that isn't nearly choppy enough, if you take my meaning, but otherwise I'd say The Hidden Fortress holds up quite well.

Alex: I agree. I have to say, the dialogue was very modern, and the humor was too. And, yes, I know we watched the version with English subtitles, but those subtitles read like people speak today. And that's something that's different from many other films of the 50's. People just spoke differently, and cursing was a big no-no. That's not the case with Fortress. They didn't hold back, and I found that refreshing.

Was it better than watching Battlestar Galactica?

Nathaniel: Well, it was shorter than watching a whole season of Battlestar Galactica, so I guess that counts for something. I liked it, anyhow.

Alex could not be reached for comment.

1 comment:

TParker said...

Personally, I find Minoru Chiaki kind of cute. I'd have shown Tahei a thing or two about what it's like to be a victim of perversion.