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  Hidden Fortress - The Last Princess A rare rollicking remake
Year: 2008
Director: Shinji Higuchi
Stars: Jun Matsumoto, Masami Nagasawa, Hiroshi Abe, Daisuke Miyagawa, Kippei Shiina, Arata Furuta, Takaya Kamikawa, Kreva, Jun Kunimura, Manami Kurose, Masahiro Komoto, Katsuhisa Namase, Masahiro Takashima
Genre: Action, Martial Arts, Romance, Historical, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 1 vote)
Review: After the righteous kingdom of Akizuki falls to its evil neighbour Yamana, self-serving peasants Takezo (Jun Matsumoto) and Shinpachi (Daisuke Miyagawa) escape the slave mines run by the invaders and uncover a fortune in gold. They also run right into Rokurota (Hiroshi Abe), a rugged samurai protecting a young archer who is really Princess Yuki (Masami Nagasawa), the only surviving member of the Akizuki throne. It turns out the gold belongs to the Akizuki clan and intended to rebuild their kingdom in a new land. Rokurota tricks Takezo and Shinpachi into helping him escort both the gold and Princess Yuki to the neighbouring kingdom of Hayakawa, but their perilous, eye-opening journey leads them into enemy territory and a hidden fortress.

Having scored a hit with Japan Sinks (2006), an effects-heavy remake of the landmark science fiction disaster film The Submersion of Japan (1973), special effects designer-turned-director Shinji Higuchi followed with this audacious remake of The Hidden Fortress (1958), an even more venerated chanbara film classic from master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. Higuchi began his career in anime. Working as part of the innovative Studio Gainax, he designed creatures and occasionally co-directed such genre highpoints as Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (1990) and Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995), but really made his name in live action as the special effects director on Shusuke Kaneko's groundbreaking Gamera trilogy (1995-1999). Unlike most special effects men however, Higuchi also has a solid background in straight dramatic movies which explains why, against the odds, Hidden Fortress - The Last Princess is a surprisingly substantial remake.

Higuchi practices a more frenetic style of filmmaking although it is worth remembering that, in Japan, Kurosawa's style was itself once derided as overly hyperkinetic in his day. He adds bigger explosions, makes the swordfights bloodier (though not excessively so), and casts the characters with younger and better looking actors, but remarkably retains all the dramatic weight and attention to character detail present in the original. More importantly, Higuchi stays true to Kurosawa's humanist ideals, deftly conveyed through Princess Yuki's growing empathy with the suffering of her subjects. As Takezo (who himself grows less mercenary as the story progresses) shows Yuki more of the world, she gradually realises she is "beholden to many." The growing friendship and respect between the mismatched foursome is the film's most endearing aspect and the exceptional performances, its strongest asset.

Masami Nagasawa, a popular and acclaimed actress in Japan, was widely praised for eclipsing original actress Misa Uehara with her nuanced and sensitive turn. Meanwhile Hiroshi Abe faces the impossible task of living up to the legacy of the great ToshirĂ´ Mifune. A charismatic and likeable actor, Abe may not eclipse his predecessor in the popular consciousness but makes a fair go of it. Interestingly though, this version downplays the Rokurota/Yuki relationship and tweaks the plot to add a crowd-pleasing, though unlikely, cross-class romance between peasant Takezo (winningly played by Jun Matsumoto) and princess, leaving the latter torn between love and duty. This actually adds a welcome new dimension to proceedings, underlining the theme that it is the peasants who eventually turn the tide against the invaders, repaying Yuki's faith in them.

If mainstream viewers know only one thing about the original Hidden Fortress it is that it was the film that inspired Star Wars (1977). As a sci-fi otaku himself, Higuchi is certainly aware of this legacy. He peppers the film with an array of sly in-joke references to its space opera cousin: e.g. black-masked villain Lord Takayama makes an entrance almost identical to that of Darth Vader; Takezo and Yuki swing across a chasm exactly like Luke and Leia; and a huge mountain explodes like the Death Star. The film foremost stays true to the spirit of Kurosawa as a rollicking action-adventure yarn, by turns witty, suspenseful, exciting and profound.

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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