This movie was treading into precarious territory before I even saw it. Hidden Fortress is one of my favorite movies and not one I felt was in any need of being updated or remade. Still, I’m nothing if not fair-minded and bored late at night, so I decided to give this remake from 2008 a chance. While I told myself that I was going to judge it fairly, by the measure of it’s own merits rather than through the rosy lenses of my bias, I have to admit that i probably went in with a small chip on my shoulder regardless. Journalistic objectiveness is, after all, a myth. But I’m also not someone who is instantly offended by modern film makers remaking a classic, or what I consider to be a classic. To say The Last Princess is not as good as the original is, I think, fairly obvious. But the original notwithstanding, The Last Princess managed to be entertaining, if unspectacular. The very definition, I think, of adequate film making.
The new movie is a mixture of faithfulness to the original and material revised or creating anew for younger, more modern audiences who probably have no idea who Akira Kurosawa was. The basic premise remains intact. A hairy samurai (Hiroshi Abe, with unenviable task of stepping into Toshiro Mifune’s woven sandals) and a princess (played by tempestuous pop star Nagasawa Masami) are in hiding after a disastrous defeat at the hands of an enemy army. They also happen to be in possession of most of the gold from the royal treasury, hidden inside innocuous looking bundles of sticks, which they need to transport across the warzone and into the territory of an allied clan.
That much remains the same. But here, things begin to diverge from Hidden Fortress. In the original, they are accompanied by two bumbling, dishonest, occasionally backstabbing rednecks who offer to guide them to safety but mostly just want a share of the gold (or all of it, if they can steal it). In the remake, only one of the duo is a bumbling, dishonest, occasionally backstabbing redneck. The other is a hustler of questionable morals, but he’s also young and handsome, possessed of a certain tendency toward honorable behavior, and is played by boy band pop star Matsumoto Jun. In a nod perhaps toward focus group style filmmaking, The Last Princess devises a romantic subplot for the prickly peasant and the noble princess. I can’t claim much familiarity with either of the young stars, but my impressions based on this movie are that Matsumoto Jun might be a boy band member, but he’s also pretty decent an actor. You know, like Justin Timberlake, but with more unkempt facial hair. Nagasawa Masami, on the other hand, seems to struggle to keep up with both her surprisingly passable young co-star as well as the solidly talented Hiroshi Abe. Abe, for his money, is doing the best Toshiro Mifune impersonation he can, and he pulls it off pretty well.
Rounding out the cast of heroes is Japanese comedian Miyagawa Daisuke. With the one scheming peasant transformed into a dashing hero-in-waiting in need of a shave, the full weight of odious comic relief falls upon Daisuke’s shoulders. I’m not a particularly big fan of comic relief characters, partly because they’re almost never funny. Even in the original Hidden Fortress, the bumbling hick shtick was prone to wearing out its welcome and becoming abrasive. Daisuke still tends toward the irritating, but he’s a fairly adept performer and manages a few funny moments, so that already makes him better than most comic relief characters. Still, at least for me, the moments of the film where his character disappears were welcome.
Hidden Fortress was the closest thing Kurosawa ever made to a straight-forward, swashbuckling adventure film, and The Last Princess is similarly filled with sword fights and feats of daring. Yeah, a good portion of the adventure is marred by the over-use of CGI (the director was previously an effects supervisor), but at least it throws itself into the action scenes with energy and gusto. The finale is pretty fun up until the moment it feels the need to deliver a gigantic computer-generated explosion (which, apparently, manages to kill almost no one despite demolishing an entire mountain). Ending with a giant explosion was maybe effective back when movie makers used actual explosions, but climactic CGI explosions are considerably less thrilling. Still, the movie has enough other thrills to make up for it.
All in all, even given my initial hesitation to embrace a remake of one of my favorite movies, I thought The Last Princess came down solidly on the side of entertaining. It’s well paced, decently acted, and mostly fun. It even manages to have a human moment or two, which is rare in rollicking special effects blockbusters. In fact, despite the spectacle and sword fights, the film’s best moment is one in which defiant farmers refuse to stop their joyous celebration, even though the killjoy evil samurai demand all fun cease. I could have done without as much CGI, but that’s something all us old timers say about every movie. It doesn’t aspire to be anything more that adequate adventure cinema, and that’s what it is. Which was OK with me, because that’ really all I was asking of it.