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Shinji Higuchi's Hidden Fortress: The Last Princess, the Toho-backed remake of Akira Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress (titled more suggestively in Japanese as "The Three Bad Ones of the Hidden Fortress"), and which just premiered last weekend at an absolutely rabid screening at the University of Southern California, is a fascinating cinematic phenomenon on several levels.
For those not in the know, the original is set in the sengoku ("warring states") period of Japanese history and concerns three dirty dudes as they attempt to shuttle a princess and a hoard of gold across enemy lines into ally territory. Kurosawa's classic, made in 1958, stars Toshiro Mifune as General Rokurota, a loyal retainer who must try to find a way to guide Princess Yuki (played by newcomer Misa Uehara) out of enemy territory with the help of untrustworthy peasants Tahei and Matakishi (played by Kurosawa troopers Minoru Chiaki and Kamitari Fujiwara). Higuchi's newest replaces Mifune with the prolific Hiroshi Abe (nine acting roles last year in both television and film), Uehara with the hot, hot, hot Masami Nagasawa, Chiaki and Kamitari with comedian Daisuke Miyagawa and – biggest change of all – Jun Matsumoto, who is now the star of the film as Takezo, hero peasant extraordinaire.
There are so many angles in which to discuss this new Hidden Fortress, and I'm not going to even try to tie them together. Instead, here are some random musings from…
The cynical blogger -- And yet another remake of an older, better film. At least we're not getting another manga or TV series film adaptation from Toho, but why even bother when the original was something that couldn't be improved upon? Is there something about the Japanese entertainment industry that is completely devoid of shame? Years back, Mike Nichols and Tom Cruise were thinking about remaking William Wyler's The Heiress, only to decide against it after watching the original, finding it just about perfect, and realizing there was no point in a remake. One can only wish more filmmakers exhibited the taste and respect of these worthies (pity Cruise didn't feel the same after discovering Kurosawa and trying to “improve” upon it with The Last Samurai. What is it about Kurosawa that makes people think they can do better?)
The industry shill -- It's hard not to admire the brilliance in Toho's marketing campaign here. The studio needs a pre-summer, coming-off-of-Golden-Week-blockbuster-type movie, and they also realize that the centennial of Kurosawa's birth is next year and they need to start gearing up promotion for it. They have the resources for this kind of film (previous work with Higuchi, talent agency contracts) and can kill two birds with one stone. The Kurosawa fans and general film nerds are probably going to see this film out of general curiosity anyway, so Jun Matsumoto is cast as the star to obviously draw the audience who would most likely not see this film, which is teeny boppers and early twenties office-lady types. Hiroshi Abe is added to attract housewives, Masami Nagasawa for college boys who have no concept of Kurosawa or film history (this is a surprisingly sizable group), and Daisuke Miyagawa is the hot thing on shows like Beat Takeshi's variety hour now, so he'll attract everyone.
But that's not even the most brilliant part. No matter how well the new film is made, the critics are going to come out and universally praise the original Kurosawa version. This is just inevitable as critics are predictable. Kurosawa once more enters the cultural discourse and is relevant again. Young girls will be forced by their boyfriends to watch the original, college boys find interest because Kurosawa is eternally cool, and a whole new generation of viewers, along with those feeling a kick of nostalgia, will be primed to buy lavish new 100th anniversary editions of Kurosawa movie DVDs, or at the very least buy tickets for some Kurosawa screenings to be shown next year. The film is not just a potential hit and moneymaker, but a fabulous promotional device.
The action movie buff -- This thing is a monster. It's an exciting, dramatic, romantic, and surprisingly well-paced traditional action-adventure epic, the kind you really don't get much anymore. What's all the more surprising is that Japan isn't typically very good at this stuff, at least not since a certain someone was making samurai films. Japan has been making unashamedly weepy melodramas the last few years, but they succeed with audiences and somewhat on a critical level because they're so damn earnest in their romances. Maybe the wearying cynicism and pervasive irony of our modern culture is finally starting to show signs of grating on people. Shinji Higuchi's Hidden Fortress is thankfully just as earnest – we're talking big-scale, big-emotion, sweeping vistas-type stuff, clocking in at nearly two hours. It's a linear journey, but it's handled with brisk direction, strong leads, and a throwback to old romance epics (the rogue, not the beefcake, woos the girl).
If anything, the weakest parts of the film are scenes with the typically versatile Masami Nagasawa, who is here unfortunately given probably the most boring role as a naïve princess whose dilemma isn't nearly as fresh as the story makes it out to be, but whose inner confusion and reflection is dwindled on far too much to hold the attention for anyone but the most overly sentimental. There's a big change from the original in that now the peasant Takezo gets close and cuddly with the princess, but what's rather amazing about this relationship is how reinvigorating it is to watch. There's not much chemistry between Nagasawa and Matsujun, but the total implausibility of the romance is interesting in part because it's all in the heat of the moment, and in part because it's not about tears and kisses, but suave words and courageous actions. It's an action movie with romantic elements, not the other way around. Hiroshi Abe once again unfortunately gets the shaft so all the kids can get the good lines, but them's the breaks.
Really, it's like Higuchi took the inverse of the Kurosawa-Lucas equation and made a samurai movie based on Star Wars. There's now a Vader-looking, black-clad samurai dude hunting down our protagonists, along with some seriously heavy swordfights. Perhaps one appreciates the efforts of this re-imagining all the more when we compare Hidden Fortress to something borderline mediocre like last year's Umizaru: Limit of Love and realize how much more energy, intensity, and downright enthusiasm this crew has for this project in comparison to a lot of action failures out there. Kudos to Higuchi for rebounding off of one of these so-so efforts last year with Japan Sinks, and props to the rest of the cast and crew for making an early-90s-style action epic seem fresh in 2008.
The Kurosawa purist -- I have nothing against remakes. If worthies from Frank Capra to Kon Ichikawa can remake their older films, I see nothing against Higuchi helming a Kurosawa flick, least of all something Kurosawa intended to be a light entertainment. Of course, Kurosawa himself isn't remaking this, and he didn't care much anyway for those remakes of his older films, both here (see The Magnificent Seven) and in Japan (see Stray Dog). Still, it's important not to hold any individual director up to some unattainable mythical stature, even if that director is the greatest one who ever lived. Whatever you might think of the changes, this new version has unquestionably Shinji Higuchi's stamp on it, and this, I think, is a terrific thing. It's much more preferable to have some imagination regarding these stories rather than a stolid, reverential thing like the Yuji Oda-starring Sanjuro remake.
While the film works well on the level of an entertainment, what has been overemphasized is how it is similar in that both films seek to be nothing more than mere entertainments. This might be true for Higuchi's flicks, but this was never true for Kurosawa's; the big-scale ones like Seven Samurai or Hidden Fortress might not have had much going on in the story department, but the number and depth of memorable characters, coupled with a definite worldview, brought much more to the table than a mere diversion. There's a reason why George Lucas didn't just ape the plot of Hidden Fortress – he was smart enough to also steal the wit of its characters, its cramped class structures, and its seemingly boundless scale of an unstable political period. Higuchi's film has little of this depth, and is concerned much more with easy dichotomies: peasant good, warlord bad. We can deal with dichotomies when they're dealt in realistic ways (The Lord of the Rings, for example), but not when they're meant to obfuscate the truths of life. The lower classes, a group that should be hardened by the brutality they face on a daily basis, are here unbelievably meek and sweet. Kurosawa never resorted to such easy portrayals, even if this would have made the conflict of dramatic situations much easier to write. Hence his peasant figures are noble victims of a rigid and merciless class structure, but they manage to survive quite well by being cunning and selfish brats. The master might have been a socialist, but he was, as an artist, first and foremost a realist. You could learn more about the nature of man after watching just one of Kurosawa's masterpieces than you would watching all the films released in the last ten years. This is what is meant when an artist is “for all time.”
The anime otaku -- Why be obsessed with realism when this is so obviously a live-action anime set in a crazy video-game world of chic samurai armor, swooshing swords, and explosive mines and mountains?
Higuchi's Hidden Fortress is obviously a jidaigeki version of Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro, and that is frankly awesome. You have the three thieves out to get riches, but then they end up having to save a princess from cartoonish bad guys, and then their feckless but fearless leader ends up falling in love with the princess because he gets so caught up in the whole adventure of the thing. There's a reason why these stories are written – even by “literary” guys like F. Scott Fitzgerald on – and it's because some great storytelling skills need to be involved to get you caught up in the whole chase where your emotions will be just as hot and horny as our protagonists. To rewrite Hidden Fortress in this mold requires a stroke of imagination unbelievably inspired.
The idol worshipper -- The online forums went ablaze with indignation once it was announced that Johnny's Jun would be both taking the part of the peasant and the starring role in what were two comic but filthy characters in Kurosawa's original. But let's remember that the original also featured a green Misa Uehara making her film debut as the princess, and she turned out pretty well. Let's also not forget that Kurosawa was not averse to working with pop stars -- Red Beard is recognized for Toshiro Mifune, but the film focused mostly on the co-starring role of twenty-something crooner Yuzo Kayama. Kayama had been a star of the Wakadaisho films and was 27 when he appeared in Red Beard, but Matsumoto, while only 24, has acted for a longer period of time, while also likely appearing in probably more media roles and his best performance to date in last year's drama series Bambino!
Jun isn't the only one here from a non-traditional acting background, as such is the state of the current Japanese system of filmmaking. There are certainly disadvantages to the modern industry ethos, but one of the major advantages is the proliferation of young actors who have an incredible sense of ease in front of the camera. Abe and Nagasawa are not exceptional in their roles, but they take to them naturally despite the new material they're working with. The casting of Jun is the more difficult one to navigate here, in large part because of his strong stage presence. As such a prominent face and name, it takes a lot for that type of actor to be convincingly subsumed beneath a destitute man's façade. It's not clear whether it totally is to be honest, and you might think that this is the most un-Jun-like role you've ever seen and be amazed at his growth as an actor, but you could also be justified in seeing the pop idol trying to burst out of his underpinnings with those endearing smiles and charismatic eyes. The contrast in beggarhood is made even sharper when we see how thoroughly comedian Daisuke Miyagawa transforms himself into a guy who looks and acts like he's been living in dirty dishwater his entire life. We're talking Tuco from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly levels of filth here; the guy is clearly talented. Still, despite the difficulties, both Miyagawa and Matsumoto get high marks of respect for attempting to do something not typically expected of them and expand their careers as artists.
The detached observer in the audience -- Whew, now that that's out of the way…
Whatever one comes out of Hidden Fortress with, what's undeniable is the scope of such a premier in Los Angeles. Toho's film has yet to debut nationally across Japan, so a Hollywood premier would be great for television promotion there, but the fact that there is an audience big enough to pack a student theatre with hundreds more waiting outside to get in and then follow Matsumoto while he's walking out of the theatre is a sight to behold (sort of like how Tomohisa Yamashita got mobbed at a Taiwanese airport while he was changing planes recently). Of course, the fact that Jun is contracted to Johnny's and is working with others who are contractually obligated to major talent agencies signals that the possibility for a shakeup in the Japanese film and television industry is far from close at hand. But with more and more Japanese filmmakers successfully migrating to Los Angeles and New York, and with some being outspoken about the situation of independent filmmaking in Japan, the methods of both marketing and production for international audiences might see significant changes in the not so distant future.
Date Posted: 5/2/2008