Writing reviews about remakes can be a tricky proposition. Not everyone is familiar with the original film, so comparing the two might leave a whole swath of readers out of the conversation. From that perspective, one might assert that a remake should be “taken on its own merits” – that is, its worth should be determined separate from any relationship to its cinematic antecedent. That’s a nice sentiment and a worthy goal for which to strive, but the fact remains that my knowledge of the original is always going to impinge on my experience of a remake so a comparison is pretty much inevitable. And in the case of Shinji Higuchi’s The Last Princess, it’s difficult to avoid discussion of the previous iterations when the director is a) remaking a classic Japanese film by one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century and b) cribbing ideas from one of the most beloved and financially successful films of all time.
In 1958, legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa – who by this point had already directed Ikiru, Rashomon, Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood – helmed The Hidden Fortress, a winning tale of two comical, bickering peasants who get swept up in an adventure involving a strong-willed princess and a gruff samurai general (played by Kurosawa’s best leading man Toshiro Mifune), as they attempt to cross through enemy lines in order to return to their home kingdom safely. Although the film can claim numerous fans, perhaps the most famous of all is George Lucas.
In 1977, Lucas took the basic premise of The Hidden Fortress and extrapolated it into a space opera called Star Wars, the equally winning tale of two comical, bickering droids who get swept up in an adventure involving a strong-willed princess, a sage-like Jedi Knight (and former general), an eager farmboy and a couple of jaded smugglers-turned-would-be-heroes as they try to escape the clutches of the evil Galactic Empire. With numerous theatrical runs, several home video releases, a Special Edition theatrical rerelease in 1997, a revised version for DVD, an upcoming Blu-Ray edition and a possible 3-D release in the near future, it’s quite an understatement to say that Star Wars has proved quite popular in the intervening years.
And now comes The Last Princess, a remake released fifty years after Kurosawa’s charming original. But the 2008 model isn’t a note-for-note imitation of the 1958 classic, but instead takes a few cues from Lucas’s film while adding a few twists of its own. The result is an occasionally fun, if inferior amalgamation of two filmic masterpieces.
This time around, the story picks up with the plight of two indentured miners – the young and scruffy Takezo (Jun Matsumoto) and the older, bumbling Shinpachi (Daisuki Miyagawa) – who escape the clutches of the Yamana clan and stumble upon a huge cache of gold. Curiously, these precious golden rods are hidden in sticks, making the treasure easily transportable.
Unfortunately for these two hapless, grubby-handed schmucks, the treasure belongs to the Akizuki clan, whose members have taken refuge from Yamana soldiers in a nearby cave – a veritable hidden fortress. Takezo and Shinpachi are subdued after attracting the attention of a disguised-as-a-boy Princess Yuki (Masami Nagasawa) and the stoic General Rokurota (Hiroshi Abe), but Takezo hatches a plan to help transport the gold out of enemy terrain back into Akizuki for a cut of the gold. However, they’ll have to cross through enemy territory to do it – a fool’s gambit to be sure, but one so daring it just might work. So with the Yamana clan hot on their heels, this ragtag group heads into certain danger and the adventure of a lifetime.
Although based directly on Kurosawa’s film, The Last Princess borrows liberally from Star Wars. The film’s main theme sounds suspiciously like an outtake from composer John Williams’s Star Wars library, and like Lucas before him (and Kurosawa to be fair), Shinji Higuchi utilizes “wipes” to transition from scene to scene. But the most glaring similarity between The Last Princess and Star Wars is the addition of Takayama, a Darth Vader-like samurai who serves as the film’s primary antagonist.
With Takayama’s polished black lacquer samurai regalia, menacing demon mask and scarred pale visage, the comparisons to the former Anakin Skywalker are obvious and largely warranted. However, rather than simply serving as a visual retread of Lord Vader, Takayama gives the remake something the original didn’t have – a singular, obvious villain, which further necessitates not only a much-desired climactic swordfight with General Rokurota, but an intriguing, if admittedly less satisfying reversal of one of the major plot points/relationships in the original film.
The film’s most significant departure from Kurosawa’s original and Lucas’s re-imagining occurs with the character of Takezo, who is neither the chubby schemer of the original film (named Tahei) nor the fussy protocol droid of A New Hope. Takezo is a slim, good-looking young man who serves as a possible love interest for the Princess, which adds not only a real “star-crossed lovers” vibe to the proceedings, but also puts a new spin on the original film’s class tensions. Too bad that the “romance” itself is surprisingly lukewarm to even matter.
It’s a bold move, but one that isn’t served very well by the surrounding film. The main problem is that the film moves far too fast for anything dramatic to really register. For instance, The Last Princess changes the fate of a certain character who joins up with this motley crew of would-be heroes, but the tragedy happens so fast that its impact cannot be properly registered by either the princess or the viewers. The person simply becomes cannon fodder rather than a genuine character that we feel for. The exact opposite occurs in the Kurosawa film.
Perhaps The Last Princess moves fast because it knows it can’t deliver the dramatic goods. The film works best as a high adventure story, but whenever it slows down for character development, it largely falls flat. And at one point late in the film, Shinji Higuchi doesn’t seem to know when to quit as the film’s climatic, explosive set-piece is not only logistically impossible, but a laugh-out loud ridiculous approximation of Luke Skywalker’s escape from the exploding Death Star.
Of all the actors, Hiroshi Abe is the most impressive as Rokurota. Unlike Yuji Oda’s failed attempt in the previous year’s Tsubaki Sanjuro remake, Abe shows how to embody Mifune’s charisma and stage presence while still being able to do his own thing with the role. Jun Matsumoto is less appealing than he should be as the film male lead – a character as shabbily crafted as he is dressed. Masami Nagasawa does much to humanize Princess Yuki in a way that contemporary viewers might prefer to Misa Uehara’s interpretation in the 1958 version. Rounding out the main cast is Daisuke Miyagawa, who is given very little to do, as his character seems barely human, acting mostly on crass impulse in a strangely rat-like fashion.
In the end, The Last Princess imitates the original, borrows from another re-imagining, and then tries to do its own thing – with decidedly mixed results. The film isn’t the semi-shot-for-shot misfire that 2007’s Tsubaki Sanjuro was, but it fails to provide a viable reason for existing. Fun but largely forgettable, The Last Princess is the kind of tribute that’s meant to drum up interest in the far superior originals, but doesn’t make an impact all its own. Hopefully, the folks in charge of these remakes will think long and hard about these misfires when they get around to the Seven Samurai and Yojimbo remakes, if those are indeed in the works.(Calvin McMillin, 2010)