action-comedies, Akira Kurosawa, character dramas, cinema, classic movies, epic films, Film, Film auteurs, George Lucas, historical dramas, Japanese cinema, John Ford, Movies, samurai films, Star Wars, The Hidden Fortress, Toshiro Mifune
As a rule, I like to watch as many films as possible, wherever possible. If there’s even a possibility of shoehorning yet another film into the day’s viewing, then in it goes. Sometimes, however, I like to take the time to slow down and really savor a film. It doesn’t mean that I watch it in slo-mo (although I have done this, from time to time): rather, it means that I like to allow for plenty of time before and after my screening, a buffer zone that allows me to really think about a film, if I’m so inclined. Last Thursday, I decided to devote the entire evening to a film that surely deserves no less: Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. While this isn’t my favorite Kurosawa film, I’d gladly watch it every day for a week, if the mood struck.
There are few directors, from any era of film, that I respect and admire as much as Kurosawa. Like many cinephiles (although you may be different), my first exposure to Kurosawa came with the peerless Seven Samurai, followed very closely by Rashomon, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Throne of Blood and Kagemusha. Over the years, I’ve managed to see just about every film the master ever made, many multiple times. As a film fan, I like to keep moving forward yet must always have one foot firmly in the past. Kurosawa has been just such a bridge for the majority of my adult life.
What’s so special about Kurosawa? There’s a beauty and elegance to his films that’s virtually unmatched by anyone else in the business. He managed to bridge Japan’s past with its future, all the way up to his final film in 1993. He was the very definition of an auteur, a filmmaker whose vision was so powerful and singular as to practically define an entire generation of filmmaking. Any discussion of the greatest filmmakers in history would be worthless without featuring Kurosawa front and center. After all, what other foreign filmmaker has become so ensconced in the mind of the American viewer that he inspired not only The Magnificent Seven but Star Wars, as well?
Like most of Kurosawa’s samurai films, The Hidden Fortress is epic in scope but intimate in execution. In a nutshell, the film concerns the adventures/misadventures of Tahei and Matashichi, a pair of bickering, greedy, co-dependent peasants in feudal Japan. Due to a combination of bad luck, bad timing and bad attitudes, the two have found themselves on the run and penniless. They end up falling in with a mysterious, stoic swordsman and his young female charge, a couple that sound suspiciously similar to the princess and general that are currently on the run from the ruling Yamana clan. Despite their suspicions as to their true identities, the peasants agree to lead the two out of Yamana and into the (relative) safety of neighboring Hayakawa. They’ve been promised gold but they also have their eye on the reward being offered for the return of the princess. Will the princess and general make it to safety? Will the Akizuki clan ever be restored to their former glory? Will anything ever go right for Tahei and Matashichi?
As mentioned earlier, The Hidden Fortress is epic in scope (a huge, rollicking samurai adventure full of big fights, lush locations and glorious wide-shots), yet manages to hone in on a pretty specific, microscopic view of the action. At the beginning, we focus on the two peasants, despite the hustle and bustle around them. Shortly after, the swordsman (played by the always amazing Toshiro Mifune) is added and our duo becomes a trio. After that, we add Princess Yuki and our intimate trio has now become a quartet. Kurosawa paces his film in such a way that these additions are subtle: by the time we’ve become used to Tahei and Matashichi, Kurosawa has already introduced General Makabe, a pattern which will be repeated with Princess Yuki later on. This gradual introduction of characters is much more organic and natural than the usual “Ocean’s 11” approach to character building (introduce twelve characters at once and let ’em fight it out for supremacy, cage-match-style), an approach which necessitates a shotgun rather than a sniper rifle.
There’s also a truly wonderful and subversive sense of humor underlying the proceedings. Whether it’s the hang-dog bickering of the peasants or Makabe’s gleefully wry observations on life, The Hidden Fortress is no glum exercise in history-book actualization. Rather, this is a vibrant, alive and kinetic film, one that sees no danger in following up a spectacular sword-fight with a silly pratfall. In any other hands, this blending of styles would come across as a little ham-fisted (if you think you can name several good action-comedies, try naming all of the bad ones that come to mind: I bet I can tell which hand filled up faster.) Not only does Kurosawa make this work, however, he makes it work so invisibly as to be almost subliminal.
Like all Kurosawa films, there are lots of big themes running around in here: loyalty; honor; service vs personal gain; classism; the death knell of the feudal era; state vs self. More so than many of his films, The Hidden Fortress is very much indebted to the John Ford-era of the classic Hollywood Western: look at all of those wide-open vistas, check out how the hidden fortress of the title could almost be an abandoned cliff-dwelling and dig how Toshiro Mifune is just one upturned sneer away from being the perfect synthesis of Eastwood and van Cleef. Seven Samurai may be the one that always gets compared to the classic oaters but The Hidden Fortress definitely deserves to be part of that conversation.
As far as big, memorable set-pieces go, The Hidden Fortress has them and then some: General Makabe’s thrilling pursuit of Yamana soldiers right into the Yamana garrison; his spear fight with the enemy general; the prisoner revolt from the Yamana castle (one of my favorite scenes ever); Princess Yuki rebuffing the two peasants with every branch and tree limb in the forest; Tahei and Matashichi pantomiming bringing the horses to drink; Makabe’s wonderful ruse involving the Yamana and the Akizuki gold…they’re all here, along with another bakers’ dozen of equally memorable moments.
There are also some quieter, more evocative moments that are equally powerful. My two personal favorites would be the part where Princess Yuki decides to buy the Akizuki refugee and the conflict between Makabe and the enemy general. This conflict, in general, illustrates a very important aspect of Kurosawa’s filmmaking: the disparity between doing the honorable thing and doing what it is ordered. Despite being on opposite sides of the battle, the generals have nothing but respect for each other and their abilities: this marks a nice change of pace from the usual good guy/bad guy dynamic. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the Fire Festival segment, featuring one of the single most haunting songs I’ve ever heard. This part is beautiful, a bracing reminder that very few filmmakers could compose a shot and set the atmosphere in quite the way that Kurosawa could.
As an added bonus, the Criterion Edition of The Hidden Fortress features a short but worthwhile interview with George Lucas, wherein he explains the importance of Kurosawa, in general, and The Hidden Fortress, in specific, on his career. I’ve never been the biggest Lucas fan, to be honest, finding the gentleman to be somewhat of a pretentious twit. The interview is quite down-to-earth and informative, however, and I found myself warming to Lucas by the end. I still don’t really care for the guy but it’s hard to dislike someone who appears to enjoy Kurosawa films as much as I do.
And, yes, it’s true: when I squint my eyes, Tahei and Matashichi do kind of look like C-3PO and R2-D2.