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4 ½ Stars: Kurosawa Akira's Next Jidai Geki Masterpiece!

  • Feb 10, 2009

The HIDDEN FORTRESS (1958, aka. Kakushi toride no san akunin) is Akira Kurosawa's first widescreen-shot film and the famed director uses it as if he has been a master of it for many years. In a period where warring clans in Japan, the film is all about loyalty, honor, greed and betrayal but the film is also the most well-spirited, fun-loving samurai adventure that Kurosawa had directed after "Ran" and "Throne of Blood". Think the "Treasure of Sierra Madre" collides with George Lucas' "Star Wars"--without the Wookies, aliens, droids and spaceships.

Two bickering peasants named Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matshichi (Katamari Fujiwara), who gets caught up with provincial warfare between the Akizuki and Yamana clans. After escaping the clutches of the Yamana forces, the duo crosses paths with a stranger who calls himself Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune), a general of the Akizuki clan in hiding. The Akizuki province is currently being occupied by the Yamana clan and whose Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) is the last surviving royalty of the defeated side. Makabe intends to sneak by enemy lines and flee to the neighboring Hayakawa province along with 200 pieces of gold. But to do so, he must convince the punchy pair that the "plucky" princess is his mute girlfriend.

Yes, this is the film that inspired "Star Wars" and George Lucas even repaid the inspiration that he had gotten from Kurosawa by investing in his 1980 film "KAGEMUSHA" (which I will review much later). Those who are expecting highly visible references to the sci-fi blockbuster may be a bit disappointed though. While there is a princess and the antics of the two peasants are quite comparable to R2-D2 and C3-PO; in this film, the tough princess remained so and the story somewhat revolves mostly around two underlings; Tahei and Matshichi. Yes, Toshiro Mifune has a lead role in the film but only as a major supporting character. But not to worry, the film is a terrific actioner and it is well directed. What else can you expect from Kurosawa?

The role of Princess Yuki was a nightmare to begin with. Kurosawa had gone through 200 actresses and he could not find the right girl. (Hence, the 200 pieces of gold was inspired) It was not until he caught sight of newcomer Misa Uehara that Kurosawa had found the perfect girl to play the princess raised as a boy. Kurosawa is such a perfectionist, it would take him several months, maybe even a year to begin a project. The director had also insisted Mifune to grow a real beard for many months even though it itched like crazy (in "Red Beard"), this incident was believed to have ended the Mifune-Kurosawa collaborations. Their relationship had already become strained when Kurosawa questioned Mifune's acceptance of less than credible roles but the actor had to make a living and cannot wait for Kurosawa‘s projects on several occasions.

The film is essentially a chase film and the bickering of Tahei and Matshichi (sometimes listed as Matakishi) gives the film a lot of depth. Their lust for riches and women are very entertaining all through the film's proceedings. The two would fight among themselves to gain advantage over the other but they would also be plotting with each other to gain advantage over others. The pathetic fools even considered the possibility of raping the princess. The two are pitiable lowlifes and they do give an unlikable impression to the audience but they are also necessary to represent the blacks and the whites and the shades of gray. Rokurota Makabe is a general and a superb warrior. Mifune's character is cunning, smart and determined to protect the princess at all costs that he manipulates the two lowlifes into helping them by using gold hidden in firewood as their motivation.

One thing with Toshiro Mifune, the man definitely has a strong presence onscreen. There is just something about him that is magnetic, commanding and energetic that would catch any audience's attention. The man is a marvelous actor and with Kurosawa at the helm, the actor definitely bears his soul for his character. Toho productions were so worried about Kurosawa Akira leaving their company after this film, that they agreed to help him form his own production company, and in turn take on some expenses of his projects. This is his first widescreen film but Kurosawa utilizes the wide frame to near perfection. The director manipulates the frame like a master whether the shots are mountain ranges or open vistas or fight sequences.

The film also has quite a lot of action. Highlights include a swordfight on horseback, and the film's main draw is the duel with spears between Makabe and Hyoe Tadokoro (played by Susumu Fujita). The fight is well choreographed and stays within the realm of realism. The fight is long and intense, and Tadokoro definitely shows that he is Makabe's equal in the use of a spear. I was also really impressed that for a movie at this time would be able to shoot a real good swordfight on horseback. Kurosawa definitely knows how to work his cameras.

"The Hidden Fortress" is a true classic by Akira Kurosawa. There is just so much going on with this film; a cunning general, a beautiful princess, pathetic peasants that all complement its elements of intrigue, betrayal, honor and loyalty. The film is a drag-out action film that displays not only Kurosawa's genius but also his ability to exude charm and magnetism through his style. This film is Kurosawa's next box-office success after "Seven Samurai" and after this he once again hits gold with "Yojimbo". The film is also a critical success garnering numerous film awards.


Criterion dvd cover

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February 14, 2009
Hey Woo, I just wanted to point out that this film, though it was an inspiration to Lucas and he even references it in Star Wars, was not the inspiration for the actual film Star Wars. I don't know if you ever saw any of the rough cut footage from Star Wars, most of which is awful, but there's this two-minute dialogue scene where Vader and Tarkin go on and on about the Rebels' hidden fortress and Lucas cut it from the film, either because he felt that it wasn't as well-acted or because he realized that it was too obvious that he was making an Akira Kurosawa reference. Once again well done. Keep those classic samurai films coming!
February 13, 2009
thanks, R-S! I think I remember your pic from amazon too! more samurai reviews will be forthcoming....
February 12, 2009
Great review, and I loved the tidbits about the search for "his" actress and the contention between Kurosawa and Mifune.
More The Hidden Fortress reviews
review by . December 07, 2009
posted in Reel Overseas
Flawed Experiment
Akira Kurosawa is one of the most influential storytellers in the history of cinema, using primarily samurai-based films to toy with different narrative devices. Arguably the most well-known of these is Rashomon, whose method of different people telling irreconcilable variations of the same event has become something of a subgenre on its own. The Hidden Fortress tells a fairly epic story: a samurai family has been crushed in battle, and now its final heir and loyal general must try to escape to …
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