REVIEW: DVD Release: Hidden Fortress: The Last Princess

Film: Hidden Fortress: The Last Princess
Release date: 28th June 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 118 mins
Director: Shinji Higuchi
Starring: Jun Matsumoto, Kippei Shiina, Masami Nagasawa
Genre: Action/Martial Arts
Studio: 4Digital
Format: DVD
Country: Japan

Hidden Fortress: The Last Princess is the big-budget remake of Akira Kurosawa's 1958 classic Hidden Fortress from Shinji Haguchi; a man who is renowned for blockbuster-type movies and as such provides few surprises as he ups the action and romance this time around.

Assisting him are Masami Nagasawa and Jun Matsumoto as the young leads, with Hiroshi Abe taking on the role played (and nailed) by Mifune Toshiro in the original, and overall the cast proves to be an extension of the philosophy that Haguchi brought to this project: young and dynamic as they are.

The film is set (and filmed) in feudal Japan (not the feudal part) and begins with the near destruction of the Akizuki clan by the more violent Yamana, an event which forces the young Princess Yuki of Akizuki into hiding. She is accompanied by the General of Akizuki and all-round badass Rokurota, a samurai who has sworn to escort her back into friendly territory as soon as possible. However, to achieve this they must pass directly through the Yamana territory while carrying treasure destined for their homeland, a situation which introduces the young Tazeko (Matsumoto) and the idiotic Shinpachi (Daisuke Miyagawa) as the bumbling commoners…

The story is a classical one, as would befit something from 1958: princess needs help, loveable rogues team up with stoic samurai to help, trust issues ensue, bad guys die, (almost) everyone lives happily ever after. This is not a difficult plot to follow. However what made Kurosawa's original such a great film was, amongst other things, an attention to the people of the land rather than just to the heroes. Indeed, the inclusion of two characters from the lower orders of society helped establish a discourse for the often-silent inhabitants of the conflict-ridden territories that tales such as this are set in, something which inspired George Lucas when writing the Star Wars: A New Hope to tell the story from the point of view of his two lowliest characters. In this vein, Haguchi remains faithful to the original by revolving his storytelling in most part around Tazeko and Princess Yuki – for whom Nagasawa did a good job in creating a role that did not draw too heavily from the tired old 'heroine' or 'damsel in distress' clich├ęs - as an unlikely and occasionally unbelievable romance springs forth. To his credit, though, Haguchi does not venture too far down the romantic path, and in doing so reigns himself in from one of the weaker facets of his interpretation of the story, but ultimately it proves a nice addition.

Notwithstanding, while Kurosawa certainly wanted the broader 'people' to be a focal point of his film, he also went to great lengths to establish Rokurota as a dependable and stoic character, and an incredibly cool one at that. And while Toshiro's performance proves to be beyond Abe, the latter still manages to turn in a solid performance as the unflinching and unblinking (quite literally, the man just does not blink) warrior. On the other side of the fence, we have Kippei Shina playing the almost ludicrously evil yin to Rokurota's yang as Lord Takayama, and his performance really helps to subtly shift the film’s tone in the direction that Haguchi seems to want to take it: family fantasy, rather than serious piece. That's not to say the story isn't serious, or that serious issues are not confronted, just that there are so many caricatured characters in this film that it feels more like Princess Bride than Seven Samurai.

The problems with Hidden Fortress: The Lost Princess are – to its credit – pretty much worn on its sleeve: on one hand Haguchi attempts to faithfully remake Kurosawa's stunning original, and on the other he tries to forge these borrowed ideas into something that is unquestionably his. The end result is a film which, at two hours long, sags in places, and sometimes doesn't seem consistent. The setting and costumes are brilliant, but the music (the last song is just ridiculous) and screen transition (screenwipes worked for Kurosawa and Lucas, they do not work for Haguchi) seem frequently incongruous, and a couple of key points in the story don't really make very much sense. Having said that, what Haguchi, his cast and crew have achieved here should be lauded for what it does well as much as it should be criticised. Abe may not be as good a Rokurota as Toshiro, but he's still hard as nails. Miyagawa's Shinpachi may occasionally flirt with being annoying, but the exchanges between himself and Tazeko are crucial to establishing the underlying theme and adding some comic relief to a film that is pretty low on laughs.

Cinematically speaking the film is well shot and features some very well choreographed fight sequences, including one on horseback which was difficult not to sit up for. Moreover the choices of location are sometimes stunning.

How this film was rated as a 15 certificate is beyond me, as it features very little blood, and the violence that is present is no worse than that seen in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. It is fantasy violence at worst, and as such I feel the film’s certificate will unfairly stop some of the people who would most enjoy this film from seeing it: children. Indeed, Haguchi seems to have attempted to turn Hidden Fortress from a serious classic into something perhaps a little bit more palatable for the family, without losing any of what made the original so special.

Hidden Fortress: The Lost Princess is ultimately a fun film to watch, and not a bad attempt at updating a classic. Not an unmitigated victory, but not far off. JD

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