Popular director Higuchi Shinji takes on the might of Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress with the 2008 remake, The Last Princess. Shinji helmed the hit disaster movie The Sinking Of Japan, which gives you a good indication of what to expect from his latest venture. If you’re not thinking thrilling action, striking special effects and good looking leads, it's probably a good time to reacquaint yourself with his C.V.
Nagasawa Masami stars as the naïve yet perfectly formed Princess Yuki, whose eyes are opened when she first meets leading man Hiroshi Abe. The ever-reliable Asian actor is faced with the unenviable task of stepping into the formidable shoes of Mifune Toshiro. Matsumoto Jun plays the hot-blooded peasant who becomes the princess' unlikely hero, and it’s here that comparisons to the original movie take an unlikely turn. George Lucas has always been very open about Hidden Fortress' influence on his little known space saga. Shinji doesn’t just deliver a film based upon the original classic, if anything his remake owes more to Star Wars than it does to Fortress.
After the Akizuku clan fall in defeat to rival clan Yamana, Princess Yuki (Nagasawa Masami) and General Rokurota (Hiroshi Abe) take cover in a hidden fortress, along with their clan and a stash of gold. Brash young miner Takezo (Matsumoto Jun) and his bumbling sidekick Shinhachi (Miyagawa Daisuke) hatch a daring plan to help transport the gold out of enemy terrain, in exchange for a share of the spoils of course. With assassins in hot pursuit, Yuki disguises herself as a man and ventures into the real world with Rukurota and her robot (I mean peasant) companions, taking on romance, adventure and the dark side of the force along the way. Fans of lightweight commercial fodder should form an orderly queue, but fans of the original movie might want to look the other way.
Even if you missed the original version, it won't be ‘a long time’ before the Star Wars references stack up. The first thing you’ll recognise is the over familiar orchestral score. So it’s not quite up there with the standards set by John Williams, few musical arrangements are, but The Last Princess certainly beats to the same drum. The film concentrates on a ragtag band of heroes, ripped from the storyboards at Skywalker Ranch. There’s a feisty princess, a heroic farm boy, a wise all knowing master, and two bumbling comedy sidekicks dragged along for the ride.
General Rokurota takes the shape of Obi Wan Kenobi in several exchanges, only to become Han Solo in the next. Princess Yuki is a riff on Carrie Fisher’s Leia, and Shinhachi flips between R2D2 and C3PO in the blink of an eye. Matsumoto’s Takezo is a more complicated affair, probably because his character has been fleshed out for the benefit of this remake. Not only does he take on the complexities of a comedy droid in the opening stampede, he also throws in a little Luke Skywalker action as his romance with the princess blossoms. There’s a chance that these ‘affectionate’ nods won't hamper your enjoyment of the movie at all, but further additions are likely to rock the foundations of Jabba’s luxurious sail barge.
General Rokurota likes to get involved in the occasional swordfight, and his elaborate fight scenes are blessed with an all too familiar flash of light. No humming noises on this occasion, but perhaps Shinji is saving that for episode 2. The biggest crime against the Star Wars Universe can be found in the introduction of a big bad kitted out in black battle armour. Yes, you read that right, black battle armour. Do you see what they did there? If there was ever a case for one Gungun too many, that would be it.
So far so very Star Wars, but what about comparisons to the original movie? Well, it’s fair to say that Shinji drops the ball on this one. Fans of Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress will bemoan the change of emphasis and loose character dynamics. Not only that, but The Last Princess lacks heart, laughs, emotion and depth. It’s very hard to please a devoted fanbase anyway, and few directors succeed in re-imagining a classic, so it’s hardly surprising that Shinji had his work cut out on this one.
Audiences that haven’t seen the original are likely to take the most away from The Last Princess. For a commercial cinema juggernaut it occasionally hits the spot, lightweight for sure, but there’s a sprinkling of fun to be had with the breezy fight choreography and spunky dialogue. Then there’s the Hiroshi Abe effect, because let's face it, Hiroshi Abe is always worth watching. The special effects are worthy of your attention for the most part, but the less you expect from this hollow remake the better a time you’ll have.
The Last Princess drags its heels from time to time, and miraculous leaps of logic will fail to convince fans of the original movie. If however, it’s shallow action cinema you’re after, Shinji delivers everything you need for a forgettable night of throwaway fun. Perhaps fun is stretching it a little. Fans of Kurosawa’s classic should avoid it like the plaque, but Star Wars fans might enjoy the not-so-sly nods to a galaxy far, far away. Few, however, will remember this workmanlike fantasy in five years time. AW