‘Kakushi Toride no San Akunin’

It's futile to challenge Kurosawa and Mifune

by Mark Schilling

Just as Hollywood loves to remake J-Horror and, now, anime (“Speed Racer” being the latest, but unlikely to be the last), the Japanese film industry has taken to remaking classics by Akira Kurosawa. Last year’s “Tsubaki Sanjuro” was Yoshimitsu Morita’s shot-by-shot recreation of the 1962 original, though Yuji Oda gave a lighter spin to the role of the canny, hygienically challenged ronin (masterless samurai) played by Toshiro Mifune.

Now we have “Kakushi Toride no San Akunin: The Last Princess,” which is based on the 1958 Kurosawa film known internationally as “The Hidden Fortress” that was an inspiration for George Lucas’s “Star Wars.” Instead of another homage, however, director Shinji Higuchi and scriptwriter Kazuki Nakajima have delivered a radical reworking that is likely to outrage Kurosawa-loving traditionalists.

I am less outraged than resigned. Half a century after the original film came out, many under-25 filmgoers barely know the Kurosawa name, let alone the films. If Higuchi’s star-studded, action-packed, CG-driven version can persuade some of them to check out the Kurosawa section at Tsutaya, more power to it.

I could spend this entire review detailing how the new film departs from the old one, but the most important change is the character of Takezo, played by Jun Matsumoto of the boy band Arashi (Matsumoto also has a thriving career as a TV drama star).

Kakushi Toride no San Akunin
Director Shinji Higuchi
Run Time 118 minutes
Language Japanese

In the Kurosawa film, a princess and general of the Akizuki Clan are holed up with their fellow clansmen in a hidden fortress after a disastrous defeat in a war with the rival Yamana Clan. Two bumbling peasants stumble upon the clan’s treasury — gold that the princess and general are safeguarding — and offer to guide them to the territory of an allied clan, in exchange for a share of the yellow stuff, which is cleverly hidden in sticks.

This is also the basic set-up of the new film, but Takezo, a hot-blooded young miner, has taken the place of one of the peasants. (His traveling companion, Shinhachi [Daisuke Miyagawa], is played in the old bumbling mold.) He has a central, romantic role in the story in a way his predecessor certainly did not.

Takezo hatches a plan to transport the clan’s gold through the Yamana domain — that is, enemy territory — to the lands of the Hayakawa Clan, an Akizuki ally. The idea is to evade the 10,000 Yamana soldiers guarding the border between the Hayakawa and Akizuki domains by going around them. (Think of traveling from Italy to France by way of Switzerland.) The gaunt-looking Akizuki general, Makabe Rokurota (Hiroshi Abe), agrees, as long as his mute younger brother (Princess Yuki in disguise, played by Masami Nagasawa) can go along.

Soon after the doughty foursome departs, the cold-eyed, scar-faced Takayama Kyobu (Kipei Shiina), a Yamana general, finds the hidden fortress and kills all its defenders. He soon figures out that the princess and general are missing and he and his men set out in hot pursuit. Meanwhile Yuki has to persuade a skeptical Yamana barrier guard (Hiroshi Takashima) that she is really a guy.

The princess in Kurosawa’s film, played by Misa Uehara, was a feisty, imperious type and so, mostly, is Nagasawa in the new version. Fans who know Nagasawa only as a smiling teen idol on camera may be surprised at this transformation. Readers of the tabloid weeklies, which have detailed her difficult behavior off camera, may nod in recognition as she rages about. In any case, she’s more convincing than I would have thought possible, though the plot requires her to display weaknesses that, by Hollywood action woman standards, are definitely uncool.

Higuchi made his name as an effects whiz, including work on the “Godzilla” and “Gamera” series, before turning to directing with the submarine action flick “Lorelei” (2005) and the hit disaster pic “Nihon Chinbotsu (The Sinking of Japan).” Accordingly, the CG marvels of “Kakushi Toride,” such as the first shot of the forbidding-looking Yamana stronghold, are eye-catching enough. The story, however, particularly the budding romance between Yuki and Takezo, has the tinny ring of box-office calculation.

Higuchi’s admiration for the original shines through, though, as when the mountain villagers, of whom Takezo is one, dance in wild abandon around a bonfire to a celebrate a festival — and their survival in the war. Their energy recalls the final rice-planting scene of “Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai),” in which Kurosawa made a similar point about peasant endurance.

Kuorsawa’s main aim in “Kakushi Toride,” however, was entertainment — and Higuchi’s is no different. But Kurosawa hated cliches, while Higuchi embraces them, including the biggest of all in the action genre — massive, apocalyptic explosions. Would Kurosawa’s famous temper blow if he could see Higuchi’s version? No way of knowing now — though the sound of whirring can be heard above the master’s grave.