“Hidden Fortress: The Last Princess” is a big budget remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 classic “The Hidden Fortress”, the film often credited as providing the inspiration for George Lucas’ “Star Wars” series. This new version was directed by Higuchi Shinji’s best known for popcorn blockbuster hits such as “The Sinking of Japan” and “Lorelei”, which should give a pretty good idea of what to expect, as should its injection of more action and romance, and indeed the cast, which includes young stars Nagasawa Masami (“Crying Out Love in the Center of the World”) and Matsumoto Jun (member of the Japanese pop band Arashi, and who also featured in “Hana and “Yori Dango: Final”) as the leads, and Hiroshi Abe (“Trick”) in the role played by the legendary Mifune Toshiro in the original. The film now arrives on region 2 DVD via 4Digital Media, as a barebones edition that disappointingly only comes with the original Japanese trailer.
Set in Feudal Japan, the film begins with the Akizuku clan being overrun in battle by the more warlike Yamana clan, forcing Princess Yuki (Nagasawa Masami) and her samurai protector general Rokurota (Hiroshi Abe) to take refuge in a secret hideaway. Their paths cross with those of a young miner called Takezo (Matsumoto Jun) and his conniving friend Shinhachi (Miyagawa Daisuke, “Gachi Boy”). Disguising the princess as a boy, Rokurota strikes a deal with the two rogues to help sneak the Akizuku clan’s gold out through enemy territory by passing themselves off as wood peddlers. Of course, not everything goes to plan, and the princess soon finds herself in danger as her eyes are opened to the harsh realities of the world.
Although the very idea of a “Hidden Fortress” revamp, especially with a director like Shinji at the helm is likely to inspire howls of ‘sacrilege’ from enraged cinephiles, “The Last Princess” actually sticks pretty close to the themes of the original by focusing on the experiences of everyday people caught up in conflict and momentous events rather than just on nobles and warriors. This helps to set the film apart from the usual Japanese samurai outings, and indeed most other recent Asian big budget period epics, as it considers not only the effects of war on the general populace, but also of the exploitative social structure and the abuse of the people by the upper ruling classes. This is explored not only through the characters of its two common rogues, but by the way that the film depicts the lives of the villagers and peasants that they encounter, most of whom suffer at the hands of the samurai.
Shinji manages not to overdo the comic relief elements, and its here that the extent to which “Star Wars” really borrowed from the original becomes clear. The bickering and bantering between Takezo and Shinhachi is amusing and earthy, and never really grates, giving the film an all important common touch, with Matsumoto Jun, and to a lesser extent Miyagawa Daisuke turning in likeable performances. Nagasawa Masami is similarly acceptable as the princess, whose role thankfully expands beyond that of either damsel in distress or heroine, as she gradually becomes aware of her responsibilities and the consequences of her actions. Thankfully, the film doesn’t play too much on her being disguised as a man, with her still being cute and obviously feminine even when in vague male drag and muddied. Yuki’s relationship with Takezo works well enough, mainly due to it being underplayed, and Shinji wisely avoids heading off into too much romance or melodrama. Hiroshi Abe has the toughest job in trying to fill the shoes of Mifune Toshiro, and though he doesn’t quite add the right level of stoic depth to make his swordsman truly interesting, his constant glower is at least amusing.
Although at nearly two hours the film is a touch overlong and sags in the middle, it has a decent amount of action and thrills, and for the most part this helps to keep things moving along at a good pace. The film generally avoids extravagant set pieces until the end, and pleasingly does not show the same reliance on computer effects of many of its peers, something which helps to give it a more grounded feel despite its obviously high budget and slick production values. The film does have a tendency to throw in gratuitous shots of epic, sprawling vistas, often accompanied by an overblown swelling of the soundtrack and characters needlessly pointing at the horizon, though again since these are mostly unsullied by obvious CGI work, this is forgivable.
Certainly, the film’s visuals and more markedly blockbuster friendly elements never get in the way of its themes and human story, and whilst it would be going too far to accuse “Hidden Fortress: The Last Princess” of any real substance, this does make it considerably more engaging and entertaining than some of the more vacuous period epics of late. As such, it stands as a surprisingly worthy remake of the original, and one which should be enjoyed by newcomers and Kurosawa devotees alike, with the source material lending itself well enough to a modern revisioning.
Shinji Higuchi (director) / Kazuki Nakashima (screenplay)
CAST: Jun Matsumoto … Takezo
Daisuke Miyagawa … Shinpachi
Kippei Shiina … Gyobu
Masami Nagasawa … Yukihime
Hiroshi Abe … Rokurota