Grade: BHidden Fortress, The (1958)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Susumu Fujita

Release Company: The Criterion Collection

MPAA Rating: NR

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Kurosawa: The Hidden Fortress (Kakushi toride no san akunin)


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One of Akira Kurosawa's most light-hearted and lightweight works, The Hidden Fortress (Kakushi toride no san akunin) normally would have remained in relative obscurity. Fates beyond Kurosawa's control changed all that when Star Wars created a whole new Galaxy for moviegoers, and filmmaker George Lucas freely credited Kurosawa's tale for inspiration. How appropriate for Criterion to present a rare interview with Lucas to examine the influence.

Lucas tells how he never was able to see foreign films when growing up, and only began watching them during film school. In particular, his friend John Milius (director of Conan the Barbarian) was an avid Kurosawa fan and dragged Lucas to see Seven Samurai and he was hooked. When Lucas began writing Star Wars, he recalled certain elements from The Hidden Fortress and incorporated them. Although the idea of a princess hiding behind enemy lines is common to both films, Lucas states that the major concept he borrows is the idea of telling the story through the two lowest ranking characters--with R2-D2 and C-3PO, paralleling peasants Tahei and Matashichi.

The humorous insults the two peasants exchange will also remind Star Wars fans of the two droids. In the beginning Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) are returning from grave digging duties following a war, and cut each other down for stinking from the dead corpses--"shitworm" stands as a favorite. They want to go home to the Hayakawa region, but they are now behind enemy lines in the defeated Akizazi clan region that is heavily guarded by Yamana troops--"not even a mouse could get through." The two comic comrades escape death through being non-threatening peasants (warriors are killed around them) and due to a merciful filmmaker, who needs them to continue the narrative.

These two also bring John Ford films to mind as well since Kurosawa is well known for borrowing elements of his classic westerns--from the use of comic characters to the camerawork to the narrative structure itself. In fact, the linear style of storytelling makes Kurosawa the most approachable Japanese director for western audiences, just as it caused him to languish in relative obscurity in his native country for many years. Only after Kurosawa became internationally recognized did Japanese audiences begin to appreciate their most famous director.

Similar to Star Wars, the real heroic characters are not introduced for several minutes. The two likeable peasants set up the background, but they never grow as characters throughout--consistently remaining greedy, selfish low-lifers from beginning to end. When they hear of a reward for reports leading to Akizazi clan Princess Yuki, they instantly dream of collecting, only putting off the idea when it doesn't come easy. The same pattern emerges when they hear of immense treasure. When they accidentally discover gold by accident, the hero finally appears.

A famous samurai warrior, General Rokurota Makabe (played by Kurosawa favorite Toshirô Mifune) takes center stage, and the hidden fortress is revealed along with the princess and family. A plan must be devised for Akizazi clan survival, which requires getting Princess Yuki to friendly Hayakawa territory along with the gold. Makabe is impressed with the brilliance behind the simple plan of the two peasants--"Sometimes even moss can be smart." Despite the difficulties Tahei and Matashichi present, Makabe knows they can easily be manipulated due to their greed.

The plot plays out as expected. It's the details that provide the pleasure--the acting, the humor, the incredible camerawork. Kurosawa may have stretched his Japanese audience by staying with a western plot structure to narrate sequentially, but Mifune infuses the film with Japanese values--easy to see why he stands as the quintessential Japanese actor of his day. Never overplaying his samurai character, often moving in slow motion and demonstrating "honor" with stoic acceptance--especially notable in a scene where he informs the Princess and her family of his sister's sacrifice on her behalf.

Misa Uehara effectively portrays the strong spirited and rebellious Princess, who "goes left when told to go right", and both Chiaki and Fujiwara portray naivete and humor with a supreme sense of timing, but it is Mifune's character that demonstrates the most depth. Uehara gets the crying scene, respectably away from the rest of the family, but it's Mifune's face that contributes the resignation to his sister's honor and how the princess is the one who is making the real sacrifice. It's no wonder that he appeared in some 145 films, including a number of Kurosawa's better known works (Seven Samurai, Rashomon, High and Low, Yojimbo, Red Beard).

The ultimate star of any Kurosawa film has to be the camera, however. Although grand battle scenes are scarce, shot composition and movement are remarkable. No one uses the widescreen better, filling the shots with fog, rain, sunlight, moonlight and moving from a long shot to a character close-up. The composition continues to remind that man is only a part of nature--an important part, but subservient to the whole. Many individual shots are worthy of display in the Museum of Modern Art.

Lightweight in content, The Hidden Fortress continues to be enjoyable, and now even more so with the crisp new rendition issued by Criterion with far easier to read subtitles than were previously available. Enjoyment factors and inevitable comparisons to Star Wars will motivate more people to check this "lessor" Kurosawa classic out, but the master filmmaker still leaves memorable scenes and a touch of samurai honor code and philosophy to ponder.

The life of a man
Burn it with the fire
The life of an insect
Throw it into the fire
Ponder and you'll see
The world is dark
And this floating world is a dream.
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