Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Written by Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryûzô Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni. Produced by Sanezumi Fujimoto, Akira Kurosawa. Photographed by Kazuo Yamasaki. Music by Masaru Satô. Edited by Akira Kurosawa. Production designed by Yoshirô Muraki. Starring Toshirō Mifune, Misa Uehara, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Takashi Shimura, Susumu Fujita, Eiko Miyoshi.
We open with two peasants. Thieves. Lost, starving, dressed in rags, stuck in the middle of nowhere. They bicker and trade insults, their barbs like bits of punctuation in their grim death march. Their dialogue briefly refers to the particulars of their plight: they sold their belongings to fight in a war between two clans and turn a profit, but arrived way too late, were mistaken for the defeated side, and were ordered to bury the dead. Now, having escaped, they are prepared to die. Suddenly, they spy a dead man on the ground, and approach him, then argue over whether or not to steal his clothing. The tall one, Tahei, is appalled at the idea, but his impish companion, Matashichi, is a bit more gleefully practical. Tahei disgustedly leaves his friend, alone, to an uncertain future in hostile territory.
This is a rather unusual way to start a large-scale action/adventure film about samurais and warfare, especially when you consider that the foremost principal characters in this story will not even appear for at another twenty minutes. Most epics tend to begin with swooping camera tricks, extravagant action, blaring music, or perhaps even a narration or text crawl stuffed with exposition and promises of impending violence. The Hidden Fortress, by contrast, starts on ground level, with two thoroughly confused nobodies, who only have a remedial understanding of the world they inhabit, and have little interest in politics, clans, class, or anything else that could possibly be considered “important.” They’ll never have more than a tangential relationship to the big players in this saga, they’re hopefully greedy and self-absorbed, and stick their necks out only because of a found cache of gold bars hidden inside firewood that they want to claim for themselves. They are petulant and whiny, uncomfortable with pageantry, cheerfully petty. And very human. No matter what they do, they’re so recognizable and colorful that we kind of love them. They’re us, basically.
Directed by Akira Kurosawa, The Hidden Fortress is a skilled and effective action picture, and if you want battles, and spectacle, and adventure and the joys of epic filmmaking, you get plenty of it. But what makes it especially interesting is its unique story structure, which starts small and eventually balloons into an enormous adventure with nothing less at stake than the future of a powerful and heroic clan. Because we start by following a couple of very specific characters, low on the totem pole, and then watch as they careen into the center of a vicious power struggle, we get additionally absorbed by the drama than we normally would if it was told more objectively. The scope (and number of characters) grows exponentially as the narrative progresses, snowballing into a huge quest, but the human emotions stay anchored, and sometimes snap into sharp relief. Lots of films depict hordes of enemy soldiers scurrying over a hill, but during one moment in The Hidden Fortress, that action is placed in the distance, so the foreground can show Matashichi and Tahei, looking around in sincere worry.
As I said, those two are not the heroes. For that, we have Rokurota Makabe (Toshirō Mifune). Makabe, a fierce and talented samurai, is like a textbook on strong, confident heroism: he sees that the two peasants could be useful, and instead of asking them to come with him, he puts them on edge by following them, remotely, for a day, and then at nightfall walks right into their camp, sits down, makes use of their fire as if they made it for them. Before long, he’ll be tasking them with climbing up steep rock hills, lugging bundles of gold on their backs, and generally expecting them to help him any way they can, in service of an ideal they know precious little about, and care even less. They buckle under the pressure a few times and try to rebel, but before long, Makabe is able to put them back in their place with a look and a few choice words. He makes the two peasants take an impossibly difficult path into his camouflaged secret base (hence the title). Later, when he is challenged to a duel in an enemy camp, the formidable Makabe tests a spear by thwacking it into the earth, and the circle of guards surrounding him all take an instinctive step back. He’s just that awesome.
The only one immune to Makabe’s charms (well, besides the enemy) is the Princess, Yuki Akizuki, one of few survivors of a clan decimated by war. If her lineage has any hope of surviving, Akizuki must be smuggled out of enemy territory, along with the gold that Matashichi and Tahei discover. Yuki is strong-willed and deeply confident; when she butts heads with Makabe, has bodyguard, it’s like two predators fighting for dominance. When he comes up with the idea of disguising her as a mute girl, she accepts the plan, but only after coolly rebuffing his clumsy attempt at reverse psychology. The two peasants accept Makabe’s ruse as genuine, and a whole subplot of Yuki being powerless to react to their antics is Shakespearean in its construction of low comedy, although not necessarily in its pay-off. It’s nice to see a female character take such a strong role in a film made in 1958, no matter the culture: As Yuki gradually accepts the responsibility of being the film’s moral compass, her compromise between the ugliness of war and the goodness of others ends in a place as surprising as it is quietly poetic.
All of this keys into the running theme throughout The Hidden Fortress of war turning the social norms of feudal Japan into disarray: Yuki has to adopt a disguise in order to protect herself, and yet constantly must assert her power anyway, such as when she forces Makabe to actually buy a survivor of her clan, now disenfranchised and facing a life of prostitution. Makabe, the samurai, forces the peasants into his service because they are peasants, and that’s what they are for. Yet he chafes against any literal following of the samurai code: after winning a tense battle with General Nakagura (Takashi Shimura), he lets the old general live, unable to bring himself to kill his former friend, even though honor demands it. Even the peasants, trying to claw their way into a better life, kick over unsavory aspects of their personalities, like when they draw straws to see who gets to have their way with Princess Yuki. Makabe devises strategies to escape from trouble that depend entirely upon subverting expectations of what four wealthy political fugitives would do, and their pursuers underestimate them at every turn. When they pick up another traveler and lose horses, they’re stopped by a checkpoint and then lazily dismissed, because the soldiers are looking for four people with several horses, not five with none. The title is perfectly chosen, hinting not only at the stronghold that Makabe inhabits while hatching his plan, but at reserves that are kept just out of view: Yuki’s humility, Makabe’s humanity, the peasants’ greed and even the villanous Nakagura, who in the end has to choose between tradition and morality.
The story plays upon a backdrop of violence and action that is visceral, exciting, and sometimes very funny (like when soldiers tell a general to keep an eye out for the fugitives moments after he has sent them on their way). And yet always surprisingly intimate. Most movies with epic battle scenes get lost in the mayhem, the sweep, the sheer expanse (and expense) of it all, drawing out everything into pointless sequences that only barely acknowledge what it all means to the people we care about. Yet The Hidden Fortress is fixed on the storytelling, even in the most extreme of situations. During an early sequence of a massive jailbreak and riot, the camera captures the swirling insanity and danger without ever leaving Matashichi and Tahei behind in the shuffle. It’s as if these characters are two personal friends of the director, and he is insisting that we have to find them even in the middle of chaos. Later, Makabe, who spends the entire film coiled like a snake in anticipation, finally cuts loose. He chases two scouts on horseback and mows them down with his sword, with grace and precision, then wanders into an enemy stronghold and barely flinches. We’re seeing not just a chance for stunts, but an opportunity for Makabe to finally express himself, battle being his art form. His spear fight with Nakagura ditches Hollywood-style swashbuckling in favor of sweaty close-ups and displays of desperate strategy: these aren’t two actors playing around; they’re two hardened enemies fighting to a grimy, realistic death.
The photography is tactile and haunting, full of effective physical details (such as when the two bandits cling desperately to a rock to avoid being seen) and then broadening into a larger scope. Eventually, everyone winds up at a Fire Festival, where the group is forced to dump their gold sticks into the blaze in order to maintain their cover, and then they are swallowed by the procession of hundreds of dancers, a jubilant celebration of Japanese culture. Later, they fish melted gold slabs out from the dirt, and enemy soldiers approach, ghostly figures swimming through hazy, lingering smoke. And of course, the black and white photography is so stark it makes every landscape look uninviting and full of dread, like a natural vise clamping down on our heroes. We also pay closer attention to the faces: each one feels like it has another story to tell, but custom prefers that they keep it to themselves.
Is The Hidden Fortress a terrific Kurosawa film? No. It doesn’t quite match the resonance that you get with some of his other movies (Rashomon, The Seven Samurai). It’s a bit too inward-looking, it doesn’t have as much to say. But if you want an expertly-crafted samurai action picture, full of action, suspense, humor and entertainment value, it does exactly what it should do. It’s a valuable reminder that action pictures do not need to skimp on character development: in a great action movie, action is character. I tend to rankle against others who claim difficulty with “foreign” movies (I hate using that word as a genre). People often complain they don’t want to “read a movie.” But reading is a small part of the process, because if the film is made well, the visuals will carry it, and the dialogue is just support, like a rhythm section that bolsters a melody, instead of taking it over. Foreign language or no, I feel like you could turn the sound off of The Hidden Fortress and it wouldn’t matter, the characters are so very much themselves, so in command of their body language and physicality, so geographically correct in the story that they don’t need to say a single word in order to be understood.
NOTE: I’m fully aware that director George Lucas has gone on record stating that The Hidden Fortress was a direct influence on his script for Star Wars. I chose to save that information for the footnotes, because I felt to discuss that within the context of the film would be doing Kurosawa a disservice, as if implying that, divorced from that bit of trivia, the movie is uninteresting. The Hidden Fortress should be discussed on its own merits, which are plentiful.
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