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page added: 2/8/10
updated 3/19/10




The Films of Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa - Review Index

Akira Kurosawa - Page Five

The Hidden Fortress (AK100)

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The Hidden Fortress (AK100)
1958 (2009) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on December 8th, 2009 in the AK 100 set.

Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B/None Available


"The life of a man
Burn it with the fire
The life of an insect
Throw it into the fire
Ponder and you'll see
The world is dark
And this floating world is a dream"

Two ne'er-do-well peasant farmers (Matashichi and Tahei) decide to join a clan war, but they arrive a little late to the battle. Mistaken for the enemy, their own people put them to work in a prison camp burying the dead. Figuring enough is enough, they break free and start back home... which is where the story of The Hidden Fortress begins.

As their bickering escalates, the pair decides to go their separate ways, but both end up in yet another prison camp burying the dead. Fate steps in, however, when the camp is overrun and ambushed. Freed once more, the two unfortunates take to the road and become petty thieves, stealing rice to support themselves on their journey home. Lady Luck sure loves these guys.

Of course, Matashichi and Tahei aren't simply grabbing rice and dashing off. They're also scanning the countryside for the missing Princess Yuki of the Akizuki clan. She's worth 10 gold pieces to whoever finds her and turns her in. But the pair stumble upon a greater fortune when they discover a twig with a gold piece stuck inside. Figuring they've finally cashed in, they grab every other twig they can find, but all are empty. That's when they bump into famed General Rokurota Makabe (Toshirô Mifune), who claims he knows where the rest of the gold is stashed. If they help him find it, their reward will be great. Our two greedy "heroes" are cautious, though the lure of gold is enough for them to accept Makabe's offer. Little do they know that Makabe is really Princess Yuki's chief samurai and he's looking for a way to get her back home to safety. Reasoning that the best way to hide something is out in the open, Makabe recruits Matashichi and Tahei to help carry the gold (needed to rebuild the Akizuki clan) across enemy lines, with the Princess tagging along disguised as a peasant girl. Makabe is counting on the pair's greed to help return the Princess but, in the end, it's their unfathomable luck that just might save the day.

The Hidden Fortress is a fun film. It may not be the best of Kurosawa's works, but it's quite possibly the most influential, having spawned the idea for Star Wars in George Lucas' mind. Although the references are fairly obvious - a princess, a warrior, two bumbling comic relief types who serve as audience surrogates (think R2-D2 & C-3P0) and heavy use of horizontal wipes - they're unmistakable. Perhaps the best thing about this film is its pacing. With its battles, humor and perfect characterizations, The Hidden Fortress breezes by without your ever noticing that it's 139 minutes long. If you're new to Kurosawa's films, this is a great one to begin with.

The Hidden Fortress was Kurosawa's first foray into widescreen filmmaking and it's a glorious looking one at that. Kurosawa certainly knew how to fill a frame, and used his wide-open vistas to tell some remarkable stories. Criterion preserves the integrity of this film well by giving us a very nice anamorphic widescreen transfer in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Contrast is deep on this B&W image, whites are luminous and the detail is fierce. Even the print restoration is remarkable: There's little to no damage visible. The sound is simply adequate. This AK100 version includes only a standard Japanese mono track (with English subs), omitting the recreated "Perspecta" 3.0 mix found on the original 2001 Criterion release. There are no extras.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com



The Hidden Fortress (Criterion)

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The Hidden Fortress (Criterion)
1958 (2001) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on May 22nd, 2001 (Spine #116).

Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/C+


Criterion's 2001 DVD edition of The Hidden Fortress offers essentially the same anamorphic widescreen video master as the recent AK100 disc. The main quality difference here is in the audio. Along with the expected Japanese mono track, this disc also includes a Dolby Digital 3.0 recreation of the film's original "Perspecta" soundtrack. Perspecta Sound was a novelty soundtrack system (of the mid-to-late 1950s) that utilized three separate bass signals to give the front left, center and right channels a more natural and dynamic sound. Of the two audio options, the 3.0 is really the best way to go. It sounds very good, with active effects panning and nicely clear dialogue. The only negative is that you do hear a very small bit of analog hiss, but that's to be expected on a film of this age.

This Criterion edition does contain a few extras, though not as much as some of their other Kurosawa DVDs. There's an original trailer for the film, Criterion's color bars (for calibrating your display) and a booklet with liner notes film critic Armond White. The real prize, however, is an 8-minute interview with director George Lucas, who clearly knows his film history. It's worth noting that he spends less time talking about Fortress specifically than he does in offering his overall perspective of Kurosawa and his entire body of work, though the piece is still more than fascinating to see.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com



The Bad Sleep Well (AK100)

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The Bad Sleep Well (AK100)
1960 (2009) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on December 8th, 2009 in the AK 100 set.

Film Rating: B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/None Available


In the years after the end of the World War II, as Japan gradually emerged from the destruction and subsequent American occupation and began to rebuild itself into a capitalist society, corruption became a huge problem. Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well was his first cinematic response to these trends, though he'd revisit the subject again later, especially in High and Low. A clear, deliberate effort to expose such corruption and shine a light on those responsible, the film's dark tone reflects Kurosawa's own pessimism and fear of the dangers of too much power collected in the hands of too few. It was also among the first Japanese films to directly address the issue, and so made a number of people uncomfortable, including executives at Toho. Fortunately, the film was Kurosawa's first production funded by his own company and distributed by Toho - a move designed to provide the director a bit more creative freedom.

Shakespeare's Hamlet is often referenced as an inspiration for The Bad Sleep Well and it's easy to see the parallels as the story begins to unfold here. Unfortunately, it's difficult to discuss that story in much detail without spoiling its various twists and surprises. Suffice it to say that The Bad Sleep Well is a tale of corporate crime, family intrigue and revenge. Kurosawa regulars Toshirô Mifune, Masayuki Mori and Takashi Shimura all appear in critical roles, delivering nicely restrained performances. It's worth noting that the film's opening scene, set at a wedding banquet - which should be a happy and carefree occasion - is one of the most tense and uncomfortable such events ever staged for the cinema. The Bad Sleep Well is deliciously fearless. Kurosawa pulls no punches in service of his art... or his point.

The AK100 disc's anamorphic widescreen image (presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio B&W) is of very good quality and appears to be the same transfer created for Criterion's 2006 stand-alone DVD edition. There's good range of contrasts, abundant detail and textures, and very little print damage or other such distractions. The Japanese audio is offered in the original mono, and the track is clear, clean and audible, supporting the picture well. Optional English subtitles are available and there are no extras.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com



The Bad Sleep Well (Criterion)

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The Bad Sleep Well (Criterion)
1960 (2006) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on January 10th, 2006 (Spine #319).

Film Rating: B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/C+


Criterion has also released The Bad Sleep Well on DVD fairly recently, as a separate stand-alone edition. The anamorphic video presentation is correctly formatted at the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and looks quite good. Contrast in the B&W image is pleasing, with adequate detail and texture, and little print damage to speak of. The film's Japanese audio is presented in Dolby Digital mono, and the track's clarity matches the images nicely. Optional English subtitles are included.

Extras on this DVD are somewhat slight, but what you get is obviously welcome. Included is a 33-minute documentary on the making of the film - another installment from Toho's Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create series.

The piece features interviews with members of the film's cast and crew, including actors Kyoko Kagawa and Takeshi Kato, co-writer Shinobu Hashimoto and Teruyo Nogami, Kurosawa's longtime script supervisor. You also get the film's original theatrical trailer and an insert booklet with essays by Film Comment and Village Voice critic Chuck Stephens and filmmaker Michael Almereyada (Tonight at Noon).

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com



Yojimbo (AK100)

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Yojimbo (AK100)
1961 (2009) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on December 8th, 2009 in the AK 100 set.

Film Rating: A+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/None Available


If you're looking for the no-fail, crafted-for-the-masses, mainstream Kurosawa film, Yojimbo is your go-to choice. It has all of the necessary ingredients for a thoroughly engaging movie experience. It's laugh out loud funny, with thrilling action and features Toshirô Mifune in what is arguably his signature role. It's simply impossible not to love Yojimbo if you're a fan of samurai films, Japanese cinema in general or Kurosawa in particular.

Yojimbo is Kurosawa's ode to Dashiell Hammett, with a liberal dash of filmmaker John Ford added for good measure. And yet, the film stands all on its own. This is Kurosawa being Kurosawa, inspired by the things he loved from around the world - in this case, gumshoe detective novels about corrupt politicians and broken men, as well as the good old American western.

And though Yojimbo would become the mold for the Italian "spaghetti western" genre - which would itself inspire later American westerns - at its core, Yojimbo is a tale that could only exist in Japan.

Mifune stars as a ronin samurai (a.k.a. "Sanjuro") - a man of honor without a master to defend. He's disheveled, flea-ridden and hungry. On the road he travels, he comes to a fork and lets fate choose a path for him. This takes him to a village being torn apart by two warring families. One controls the local textile industry, the other controls the sake industry. Sanjuro sees that this village needs a good reset and inserts himself into the politics. Essentially, he furthers along the families' war, effectively helping them destroy themselves. All of this goes well until a young warrior related to one of the families comes home with Western ideas and a gun, upsetting the balance. (The story is set towards the end of the Tokugawa period of Japan - right around the time of the American Civil War.) Sanjuro adjusts his plan, but not without heavy cost.

Yojimbo is an awesome movie in every way. It's an almost perfect samurai film, from a Western perspective. In fact, this is what the samurai genre would aspire to be from this point forward. The film broke new ground, made Japanese cinema popular the world over, and catapulted Mifune to international stardom. The film even inspired director Sergio Leone to make Fistful of Dollars. (Mifune's character was the prototype for the infamous Man with No Name. He calls himself "Kuwabatake Sanjuro," which literally means "Thirty Year-Old Mulberry Field" - the object he was looking at when he made it up, with his age tacked on.) It's just impossible not to love Yojimbo.

Video-wise, this AK100 disc is an exact match for Criterion's 2007 DVD reissue. As with that release, the B&W image here is incredibly clean and sharp. Blacks are hard yet detailed, and the print only suffers from a little bit of damage. The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and the video is enhanced for anamorphic displays. The sound is available in Japanese Dolby Digital mono only, with optional English subs. The track compliments the film well, though it should be noted that the better 3.0 "Perspecta" mix found on the 2007 DVD (and the new Blu-ray edition) is not included here. There are no extras.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com



Yojimbo (Criterion)

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Yojimbo (Criterion)
1961 (2007) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on DVD on January 23rd, 2007 (Spine #52). Also available in the Two Films By Akira Kurosawa DVD set.

Film Rating: A+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B+/A


This is the 2007 DVD reissue edition of Yojimbo and features the film in glorious anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio). It's a nice sharp transfer with crisp and clear image quality. Black levels are solid with good detail, making for a very pleasing image. The sound comes in two options: Japanese Dolby Digital mono and also a 3.0 mix capturing the original "Perspecta" theatrical audio presentation, which offers a more robust range than you get with the mono track.

Extras include a very thorough audio commentary showcasing the film history knowledge of famed Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince (author of The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa).

You'll also find another fantastic entry in the documentary film series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create focused on the making of Yojimbo. It offers discussion of the music, Mifune's work, how the famed Dog/Hand sequence came to be, the wondrous talents of Daisaku Kimura (the focus puller on this film), the cinematography, the costumes, the dust in the film (both style and substance), the sound effects and the filming of the film's climax. Between the commentary and this documentary, Yojimbo is covered in incredible detail. Rounding all of this out is a Japanese teaser trailer for the film with behind-the-scenes footage, the original theatrical trailer, a gallery of behind-the-scenes photos and another excellent liner notes booklet, this one featuring an essay by film critic Alexander Sesonske, with additional notes from Kurosawa and other members of the cast and crew. Note that an excellent Blu-ray upgrade of this disc is also available from Criterion.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com



Yojimbo (Criterion Blu-ray Disc)

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Yojimbo (Criterion - Blu-ray Disc)
1961 (2010) - Toho (Criterion)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on March 23nd, 2010 (Spine #52). Also available in the Two Films By Akira Kurosawa Blu-ray Disc set.

Film Rating: A+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): 18/16/A


Criterion's new Blu-ray edition of Yojimbo is a direct upgrade of the 2007 DVD release. The film is now offered in stunning 1080p high-definition. Contrast is very good, with deep, detailed blacks and overall image texture is nicely refined. Very light grain remains, preserving the proper film-like experience. Thanks to the restoration work, age-related issues are minimal. Slight variation in contrast and detail is visible from scene to scene, but other than the occasional missing frame (presumably damaged, also seen on the DVD), the visual presentation is consistently excellent.

The Japanese audio is present in two formats: lossless LPCM 1.0 mono and a DTS-HD MA 3.0 lossless presentation, recreating the original "Perspecta" theatrical experience. Of these, the 3.0 track is definitely the more engaging, though overall fidelity is excellent on both tracks. This is about as good looking and sounding as you'd ever hope to experience this film.

We're also pleased to report that the disc reproduces exactly the extras from the 2007 DVD release, including the excellent audio commentary with film historian Stephen Prince, the 45-minute documentary on Yojimbo from Toho's Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create series, the teaser and theatrical trailers and the gallery of behind-the-scenes photographs. You also get a page-for-page reproduction of the DVD's liner notes booklet, albeit reproduced at a smaller size to fit the Blu-ray packaging. It's an outstanding and very welcome Blu-ray upgrade of an already great DVD release.

Bill Hunt, Editor
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com


Yojimbo (1st Criterion)

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Yojimbo (1st Criterion)
1961 (1999) - Toho (Criterion)
First released on DVD on September 28th, 1999 (Spine #52).

Film Rating: A+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): D-/C/C


Looking back at their first DVD release of Yojimbo, it's hard to believe Criterion's name was ever on it - especially compared to the newer reissue DVD and Blu-ray. The transfer is non-anamorphic, featuring a domestic print that could only be cleaned up so much and also cuts off a good portion of the image on all sides. (Disc is framed at 2.16:1, though the box lists it as 2.20:1.) Audio is Japanese Dolby Digital mono with English subs. The only extras include the theatrical trailer and a scant liner notes booklet, offering only the Sesonske essay from the later releases, without the additional notes by Kurosawa and his crew. The disc is listed here for completeness. Steer clear and buy the far superior 2007 DVD (or the new Blu-ray) instead.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com


Akira Kurosawa - Page Seven
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