The first half of The Last Princess gave me hope — not much hope, but hope all the same — that this remake of The Hidden Fortress, one of Akira Kurosawa’s better films, would not be the crashing bore that was Tsubaki Sanjuro or (egads) the Samurai 7 anime. The second half didn’t dash those hopes completely, but they served as a reminder of how spectacle and noise are quickly becoming substitutes for vision and storytelling in modern movies.
What they do get right, though, is a sizeable slice of the romping spirit of adventure in the original. I can’t deny Princess has great energy and visual style, and there isn’t a single boring second of it. It tells more or less the same story: during one of Japan’s periods of internecine war, two conscripts escape from being captured by the enemy and blunder into the lair of a princess hiding out as a commoner. Her bodyguard has been hatching a plan to get both her and the gold from the royal coffers back home, and he’s tempted to let these two scruffy troublemakers rot in their dungeon. Then they suggest a sly way to avoid the authorities, form a tentative alliance, and encounter one dangerous enemy after another.
The original plotline of The Hidden Fortress has been reprised with
a new cast, new technology, and some new story twists.
The original movie worked. No, it more than just “worked”: it was downright inspirational. George Lucas saw Fortress during his time in film school, and bits of it floated around in his subconscious and were reincarnated as key elements of Star Wars. The bickering conscripts were reincarnated as the ‘droids; the feisty princess as Leia; and so on. But you don’t need the History and Influences lesson to enjoy the movie, and while it doesn’t have the depth of something like Seven Samurai it’s none the weaker for not having such things.
The remake preserves a lot of the same individual details, but pumps them up in the manner of a present-day action film. This isn’t the worst idea in the world, since much of what Kurosawa did in Fortress and Samurai established formulas that have since been reworked into any number of present-day action films. But it works best when the characters, not the action itself, lead the film. Example: In the original, the two conscripts were put to work digging for gold with hundreds of other men. They escape when other slaves stage an uprising; this leads to one of the movie’s many dazzling images, a rotating phalanx of gunmen trying and failing to hold the line against the rebelling prisoners. The remake gives one of them some experience with mining and has him predict a gas explosion that levels the whole place.
It’s not a bad idea, but it’s one sign of how what worked perfectly well in the original has just been made Bigger and More Explosive. The same goes for the extended action climax (another obligatory modern-day movie ingredient, even for films that aren’t inherently action films), where character and story take a backseat to a series of elaborately-staged stunts of varying physical plausibility. My heart sank when I realized the climax was just a matter of the right people escaping a giant explosion, and the wrong people not getting out fast enough. On the other hand, my favorite sequence from the original — the fire festival — has been reprised in ways that actually expand on its significance to the story, even if that detours into some really annoying and illogical territory.
One thing I cannot complain about is the casting, especially for an movie that features one of my consistently-favorite Japanese actors, Hiroshi Abe — a man so impossibly handsome and with such a goony smile it’s no surprise he’s normally typecast as Dashing Straight Men in comedies like Crazy Lips. Here he’s in the role of the princess’s bodyguard Rokurota, and since Toshiro Mifune was in that role originally, he has some rather large straw sandals to fill. The good news is that Abe makes the role very much his own; this isn’t like what we had with Tsubaki Sanjuro, where Yūji Oda simply wasn’t up to the task of reprising one of the most iconic movie roles of all time. (Then again, who would be? That right there is all the criticism you need of that project.)
... and the great look of the film helps, but it too easily
slides into substituting action and movement for storytelling.
I enjoyed Last Princess while it was unspooling, and I nodded more than a few times at the ways, big and small, they paid homage to the original. But when it was over I only felt all the more keenly appreciative of the original, which didn’t need to blow up a whole mountain — let alone two — to absorb and enthrall and yes, even thrill us. When you have the technology to put just about anything you can think of on the screen, the new bottleneck becomes your creativity. Put even the best filmmaking tools in the hands of people with a poverty of imagination and you get, well, a poverty of imagination. Last Princess isn’t the worst example of this trend, but it doesn’t point towards much of a way out either.