Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Kurosawa Week: Hidden Fortress (1958)

by Kit

Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, the inspiration for Star Wars, is rarely ranked among his best but compared to most films, especially those released today, it is an astounding action movie. It tells an amazing adventure of a general having to escort a princess from a hidden fortress back to her kingdom with 200 rho of gold needed to rebuild the kingdom —all while evading enemy armies and patrols. However, this story adds a unique twist; telling it from the point-of-view of two greedy and bumbling peasants who are not that likable.


The movie begins with the two peasants, Tahei and Matashichi, who are wandering, now impoverished after trying and failing to join the Yamana Clan, and now quarreling just over whose fault it is. Their bickering gets so vociferous they decide to part ways. But both are soon captured by the Yamana Clan and forced to dig for the missing gold of the recently defeated Akizuki clan.
After a prison uprising they manage to escape and stumble across some pieces of hidden gold, as well as its owner, Princess Yuki, now wanted by the Yamana Clan, and one of her generals, Makabe (Toshiro Mifune), who are now hiding at a fortress hidden in the mountains.

Soon, however, they have to leave the fortress with the Makabe pretending to be a poor peasant and Princess Yuki pretending to be a mute as they carry the gold hidden in sticks all the way across Yamana Clan to Yuki’s home where she and Matabe can rebuild her clan and continue the war against the Yamana Clan, rescuing one of Yuki’s slave girls in the process.

Why it Works

This is not easy but a lot easier than say, Seven Samurai. But I have noticed a few things.

First, The two comic foils, are introduced with enough time for us to understand who they are and what they will be doing for the next two hours; getting greedy and getting into trouble because of their greed. He also establishes what writing courses call a “need,” they need to stop being so greedy. Kurosawa is smart enough to do this subtly, as, though Makabe and Yuki comment on their greed, he never throws it at us with some character telling them that they “need to stop being greedy because it will get you nowhere” and bla-bla-bla. Thus, announcing to us morons in the audience what is going to happen in the movie.

He also manages to make the dramatic action story interesting by making Yuki and Makabe, two characters who could easily have become bland and boring, interesting and likable. The scenes where they are forced to act as straight men, annoyed by the antics of Tahei and Mataschichi, are funny largely because we get the scene not strictly from the point-of-view of the two peasants (how some might have done it) but from Yuki’s or Makabe’s point-of-view. They are annoyed at these two peasants for causing them trouble on what is a very important task.
And on that point, while the movie, as other films like to do, uses the characters of Yuki, the General, and the slave girl to define the greed and bumbling nature of the peasants, it also uses the peasants to define them. The peasants almost naked sense of self-interest shows the courage and determination of Yuki and the General as well as the loyalty of the slave girl to Yuki. And it does so without announcing it in the BIG BOLD WORDS most movies like to use.

He also makes sure transitions between the comic relief scenes involving the peasants and more serious scenes focusing on Princess Yuki and General Makabe flow seamlessly. We’ve all seen movies like this where you have a group of characters that are clearly comic relief plucked into a drama and the result is you have two separate, very different movies going on. And you feel it.

One example, and it will be strange referencing this in a Kurosawa review, would be Madea’s Family Reunion (see, told ya) where the comedy scenes involving Madea’s antics and the scenes with the domestic abuse plot line sometimes come one after the other creating a jarring affect. It jolts you out of the movie.

Hidden Fortress never does this, instead you never notice the transition from comedy to drama/action, making the movie an enjoyable, rollicking adventure film that will have you laughing and gripped with suspense.

I didn’t watch the Criterion version but the Essential Art House version, instead. Now, having watched a fair number of films from the early-1930s I’m kind of used to films where the print has clearly aged so I didn’t notice any flaws there.

But just comparing my Criterion DVD of Seven Samurai with the Art House DVD of Hidden Fortress I am going to make a guess that Criterion does a better job writing the subtitles for their movies than Essential Art House does. Some of the dialogue in the subtitles was, compared to the work done on Seven Samurai, not that good. Or maybe that was just the script, but I do remember seeing a version of Seven Samurai on TCM where the subtitles were also much poorer than the Criterion version so, who knows?

All-in-all, a great movie and one worth checking out.


AndrewPrice said...

Kit, I found this to be a very enjoyable film with an interesting juxtaposition of the serious and compelling general and princess compared to the two idiots who won't stop arguing.

And again, let me say that Mifune is fantastic. He was an amazing actor.

Kit said...

Mifune is awesome. His appearance at the two idiots' campfire is pure badass. Hell, he is pure badass throughout this movie.

ScottDS said...

Another one to add to the list... :-)

Kit, I believe the Essential Art House release is simply a bare-bones version of the original Criterion DVD from 2001. Criterion restored and re-released the film on Blu-Ray last year with a new subtitle translation. (Check out this review and scroll down to the screenshots—you'll see a comparison between the subtitles.)

Kit said...


From what I know one should put Kurosawa's entire oeuvre on his "list."

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Not only is he awesome, but he is a class to himself. I have never seen another actor with his skill set. He really stands out.

And yeah, Kurosawa's entire catalog belongs on the list of any film enthusiast.

Kit said...

Great actor.

djskit said...

23 Kurosawa Criterion film are streaming on Hulu Plus.

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