Akira Kurosawa’s story can be summed up simply. Two greedy peasants are persuaded with the promise of reward to escort a man and woman across the border and smuggle a load of gold hidden inside firewood. However, they do not realize that their companions are actually a princess and her general and that the gold is intended to help Princess Yuki rebuild her clan. There is action and humour, greed meets idealism, relationships are tested and altered, and everyone learns a little along the way.
Hidden Fortress (or Kakushi-toride no san-akunin) is cited as one of the inspirations for Star Wars, and there are numerous comparison reels and articles available online if you want to learn more. While that was one of the reasons I first saw the film some years ago, it isn’t what I remember it for. This is an action packed adventure with great characters, a ripping yarn told with a splash of verve and wit. Just my cup of tea.
Hidden Fortress was also Kurosawa’s first film using the then new widescreen technology and he makes the most of his locations and staging. Using grand outdoor sets to bring a sense of realism to the background, plus Kurosawa’s own exceptional editing skills, this is almost an immersive viewing experience with nothing to break the sense of watching history unfolding. There is something about seeing a vast crowd of extras in a battle scene and knowing they were all real people, not CGI additions. It makes the epic seem even more so. In fact the camera shakes a little in a mass prison break scene, presumably from the vibration of hundreds of men running down the stairs. Kurosawa (and his cinemataographer Kazuo Yamasaki) can swoop from wide expanses and grandeur down to the small personal moments easily overlooked and forgotten.
On another level, the film may also be an ode to Toshiro Mifune’s thighs. Despite wearing the Edo period equivalent of shorty short shorts, General Rokuroto Makabe is an imperious leader of men. He tracks peasants who stumbled over some of the Akizuki clan gold and cons them into helping him. He torments them, seeing them as weak and venal with none of the ideology or purpose befitting a true warrior. But he comes to value their street smarts and knack for self-preservation. Mifune is a charismatic actor with a robust presence. He turns in a well judged performance in a film that provides a great showcase for his charismatic alpha male persona. His horseback chase and subsequent duel is wildly suspenseful, with the camera barely able to keep up, yet you know Rokuroto will win because he just looks invincible. And seeing the general participate in a fire festival dance with dour determination to pass for a local peasant having fun was amusing.
Misa Uehara is Princess Yuki, a feisty princess in disguise trying to survive and rebuild her family’s domain. For some reason this disguise also involves short shorts but nothing too unladylike. She appears to be unfeeling but is keenly aware of the sacrifices that her people have made and the burden that places on her. Another character says of her that she is more masculine than she is a girl, and she is certainly more competent and independent than many a movie damsel in distress was ever allowed to be. Although fleeing for her life, Yuki also gets to experience the real world for the first time in her 16 years and she finds it quite enchanting when she can put her cares aside.
She sees good and bad in people, observes poverty and other social woes. She is generally cool and decisive but doesn’t lack empathy so I found her interesting and sympathetic. I wondered whether her decisiveness was a sign of great leadership or just typically teenaged black and white thinking, but generally Yuki does the right thing. Yuki wins people’s loyalty as they believe they can trust in her integrity and not just because she has Rokuroto Makabe and his sword at her disposal. Uehara’s timing and reactions are excellent, especially in scenes where Yuki is pretending to be a mute. Apart from being limiting to an actor, that also places the character in extra jeopardy as she is limited in her ability to respond without breaking her cover. Her dancing at the festival was an expression of joy and release, an affirmation of the strength that could come if she survived the fire.
The story is largely told through the squabbling peasants Tahei (Minoru Chiaki)and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara). They are repellent and a little endearing by turn. They roam through the post war landscape complaining bitterly that they didn’t get to make a profit despite all their (alleged) hard work. They seem to have no loyalty or principles beyond making a buck and will turn on each other at the drop of a hat. While these Everymen bring a lot of the comedy to the film they also provide the contrast between rarefied aristocratic living and a more dog eat dog perspective. The first time they see Yuki, they follow thinking a girl alone in the forest would be easy. Later on the journey, despite now knowing her as a travelling companion, they see Yuki asleep and draw lots for who should go for a walk and let the other one rape her first. When the chips are down, they cling to each other and eventually see the bigger picture. Given that most of their dialogue is moaning and crying, both actors do well to give their characters such vivid and distinct personalities. I didn’t mind seeing them suffer, but I would have wielded the editing scissors a little more in their direction.
Susumu Fujita has a small but significant role as Hyoe Tadokoro, an old adversary of Rokoruto Makabe. His wry expression conveys volumes as he squares up against a respected foe and tries to face down the blazing indignation of Yuki.
I was thrilled to see this included in ACMI’s recent Samurai Cinema program and to have the opportunity to see it on a big screen for the first time. It is a tale of derring-do, the grand visuals still place the human element at the forefront and the characters are easy to invest in. Well, maybe not the comedy peasants so much. 4 ½ stars!