Hidden Fortress, The (1958) Review

"The Hidden Fortress" Japanese Theatrical Poster

"The Hidden Fortress" Japanese Theatrical Poster

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Producer: Sanezumi Fujimoto, Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Misa Uehara, Susumu Fujita, Takashi Shimura, Misa Uehara, Eiko Miyoshi, Toshiko Higuchi, Yu Fujiki, Yoshio Tsuchiya
Running Time: 139 min.

By Numskull

The titular location isn’t much of a “fortress”… more like a couple of shacks tucked away in a canyon… but the adventure that stops there along the way is highly entertaining.

This Akira Kurosawa film takes its time getting where it’s going but does so at a steady pace and averts any serious boredom on the viewer’s part, in typical Kurosawa fashion. It follows the exploits of two greedy farmers named Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) who flee the territory scarred by war between the Akizuki and Yamana clans. They are recruited by General Rokurota Makabe (early Kurosawa mainstay Toshiro Mifune) to help transport a fortune in gold bars concealed in hollowed-out firewood and Princess Yuki of the defeated Akizaki clan through enemy lines. Like most film princesses, Yuki is rather bitchy much of the time. She just loves to threaten people with that stick of hers, and she says everything in the same irritating, stressed-out, unduly urgent tone of voice. The ceaseless, comedic bickering of Tahei and Matashichi eases the pain somewhat, but I find it rather foolish of them to complain about how cold it is when they aren’t wearing pants.

Kurosawa was influenced by early American westerns, and he HAD influence ON many of the later ones. It’s not difficult to see. Rokurota’s tense, methodical duel with Hyoe Takokoro (Susumu Fujita), which is as psychological as it is physical, will no doubt bring to mind the traditional showdown between gunslingers on a dusty road lined by spectators. (A minor complaint: more information on the history between these two characters would have been nice, as I found their relationship to be one of the most interesting aspects of the film.)

The influence doesn’t stop there. I think it’s safe to assume that the creators of the awesome Korean swordplay epic Musa (Warrior) were fans of The Hidden Fortress. The clash of the clans, the smuggling of the princess, and the peasant girl who joins the protagonists along the way… all there. However, Musa is based on actual events and for that reason may not be as much of a “rip off” (I wouldn’t use that term anyway; it’s thrown around far too casually) as one would immediately think. Accuse me of all the sacrilege you want, but I definitely consider Musa the better movie, and NOT just because it’s newer, flashier, and in color as opposed to black and white. It is because Musa has a broader scope, and boasts one of my favorite characters in all of cinema: Yeesol, played by Jung Woo-sung.

“Hey Numskull, weren’t you talking about The Hidden Fortress?” Oh yeah, thanks.

Toshiro Mifune has commanding screen presence, Minoru Chiaki’s facial expressions are outstanding, and Kurosawa never falters in any significant way throughout the film’s 139-minute duration. This film will definitely make you want to seek out more of Kurosawa’s work if you haven’t already done so.

The Criterion DVD has a brief segment where George Lucas talks about his exposure to Kurosawa and the influence that The Hidden Fortress had on Star Wars; primarily, the fact that the story is told from the point of view of the two “lowest” characters (Tahei & Matashichi/C3PO & R2D2). Even though he says “uh” and “um” a lot, he comes across as reasonably knowledgeable and you get the impression that he DOES, in fact, have a clue… which really makes you wonder why The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones suck so hard.

Light-hearted by Kurosawa standards, and fast-paced despite being well over two hours; this is one worth picking up.

Numskull’s Rating: 8/10


By Mairosu

Guess what dear readers if there are any, it’s a fortification doubleheader !

First, I saw Hidden Fortress today, the film which allegedly inspired George Lucas to make Star Wars (turns out it just inspired some moments of Star Wars rather than the whole sextalogy), an adventure story of two petty goons who get involved into a high-profile rescue operation. The two smalltime profiteurs, Tahei and Matakishi, are just freshly out of recent war campaign in which they tried to earn some money but wound up with zilch and eventually in captivity. They manage to flee during a fully-fledged slave rebellion, and then stumble upon a few gold sticks in the mountains which spark their enthousiasm. Turns out, that gold is part of a bigger gold shipment, the one guarded by a guy who dubs himself general Makabe Rokurota (Mifune, who else), who also has another task – that one, to escort the princess of the Akizuki clan (Misa Uehara) to a safe territory over the border. Tahei and Matakishi accept to assist them, a decision obviously influenced by all that gold, and off they go to another 100 or so minutes of high adventure.

Was it really high adventure? Well, no. Although the pace is a bit faster than the usual Kurosawa samurai film, there is still not much action here happening to satisfy a modern action fan. But there’s eye candy and expert direction aplenty. This was Kurosawa’s first film which was shot in widescreen aspect, and he makes the best of it by fully utilising the wonderful scenery into this picture. Mountains, forests, medieval encampments and plains all bring this film to a better level – it’s amazing how a Kurosawa black and white film still looks much richer in detail than about 90% of coloured CGI crapola nowadays. And even though the action scenes are only here and there, when they happen they really happen – the horseback chase between Rokurota and some opposition soldiers a real standout. Also, it’s worth noting that this film is somewhat low on social references and commentary – as the DVD notes on the BFI disc mention, this is the closest Kurosawa came to chanbara genre in his period pieces. Probably because he knew this was his last Toho contract film, so he wanted to take a stab at something new I’m guessing.

As for the Star Wars references, well, Tahei and Matakishi are a somewhat loose inspiration for C3PO and R2D2, and the first fifteen minutes of film have been conveniently used for the Tatooine sequences after the two likable droids crash land. Also, Lucas himself mentions in an interview that the fact that the story was told from the view of two less important characters was the main thing which inspired him, which is well visible.

And oh, that last shot has been used in Phantom Menace methinks. Well, all things accounted for, this film did its best to bore me and yet I walked out (well, left the sofa actually) somewhat satisfied. Even though it lasted whopping 135 minutes, a big no-no in my books.

The other castle in this entry is the one of the spider’s web, the one featuring in Throne of Blood. Now, I liked this film a dash better than Hidden Fortress for some reason, which is odd as I usually favour action over drama. But Throne was good, real good. Anyway, this film is Kurosawa’s vision of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Long story short, two noble warriors – who are, much to my surprise, played by Mifune & Shimura – are back from a triumphant battle in which they put down some rebels, and on their way back to their lord’s castle they run into a ghost in the middle of a forest during a thunderstorm. The ghost predicts that Washizu (Mifune) will soon rule one castle, and that he will also become the high lord soon, but that his reign will be brief and ended by Odagura’s (Shimura) son. They both disband this as something unimportant, but soon, Washizu gets his castle and the plot begins – Washizu is soon egged on by his wife to murder the lord and frame someone else, and grab all the power for himself. Washizu obliges, then later even kills Odagura to eliminate competition, but Odagura’s son is obviously not happy and wants revenge. Washizu, worried that he might fail, visits the forest spirit once more, who grinningly informs him that he won’t lose unless the “spider bush” (the forest, as subbed by some inept Hong Kong translator) starts moving towards him.

Convinced that there are no such things as moving bushes, Washizu reassures his army that the victory is theirs. Mood is great, until next morning… someone detects that forest is heading into castle’s way! How the hell did that happen you ask ? Why, the cunning opposition army disguised itself under branches and leaves and started their move to the castle. Unable to quell his own troops and dispell this illusion, Washizu is treated to a salvo of arrows which nail him to the wall of his own commander’s watchpost (a truly memorable scene) – and so this story ends.

I obviously shortchanged the role of Washizu’s wife, who is masterfully played by Isuzu Yamada. Pauline Kael mentioned in her review that there was never a better lady MacBeth, and I’m inclined to agree here (I’ll of course casually forget I never saw any other MacBeth adaptation) – her pale white face is pure evil, and the scene in which she washes her hands of blood in the end is downright creepy. Creepy, actually, is the tone of this film – from the great haunting score with choir singing to the visually stunning scenes in the “spider bush” during thunderstorm and generally gorgeous landscape (as usual), the film just oozes some uneasiness throughout. And there’s again Mifune excelling as the medieval tough guy, but of totally another mould than the jovial characters of Sanjuro and Makabe Rokurota – lord Washizu is one evil, power-hungry loon, and his descent into madness is a triumph of Mifune’s acting ability.

And man, I can’t believe I forgot to mention how great of a score was the one for Yojimbo. Man, ’twas awesome, and then some.

Mairosu’s Rating: 7.5/10

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