Thursday, December 19, 2019

Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress

Toshiro Mifune as Rokuota.
I just want to say upfront that the least interesting thing about The Hidden Fortress is that George Lucas has said it inspired Star Wars (1977). Akira Kurosawa's 1958 adventure can stand on its own. It was a huge hit in Japan when first released and has garnered critical raves since then. That said, I had mixed feelings after recently watching it again.

Set in Japan in the 16th century, The Hidden Fortress opens by introducing Tahei and Matashichi, two greedy, constantly bickering peasants. After being captured by and then escaping from the Yamana clan, they encounter a mysterious stranger. They tell him how they plan to navigate through enemy lines to safety in Hayakawa. The peasants don't know that the stranger is General Rokuota (Toshiro Mifune), who has been tasked with the mission of transporting Princess Yuki through dangerous Yamana lands.

The bickering duo.
Rokuota realizes that the peasants' plan is ingenious. He takes them to the location of a hidden fortress, where they eventually encounter the princess. The peasants, though, think she is a mute girl of no importance. Princess Yuki plays that role to the hilt when she, Rokuota, Tahei, and Matashichi start their journey with the enemy close behind. It's a trek filled with danger and, of course, the two greedy fools--who make both idiotic and unintentionally intelligent decisions.

The first half-hour of The Hidden Fortress plods along relentlessly, focusing on the ineptitude of Tahei and Matashichi. Initially, they are an amusing pair, but their act quickly grows wearisome. The story finally picks up when Kurosawa injects some much-needed drama. We learn that Rokuota's sister has died in Yuki's place in an effort to protect the princess. Later, after the quartet has begun its journey, we discover that Yuki's servants have also sacrificed themselves to buy their mistress valuable time.

The defiant princess.
In contrast to the film's sluggish opening, its final 90 minutes comprise an exciting, near-perfect action film. Rokuota fights four assailants on horseback, hides in plain sight in a town infested with the enemy, and--best of all--confronts an old nemesis in an elaborate duel with spears.

Director Akira Kurosawa's focus, though, is on the princess. When we first meet her, she is obstinate, defiant, and petulant. She undergoes a transformation during the journey, becoming more compassionate, learning to rely on others, and displaying courage when required. In a key scene, she thanks Rokuota for allowing her to experience the journey and learn what she never could have known inside the castle walls.

Misa Uehara as Princess Yuki.
Toshiro Mifune projects a compelling presence (as he did in most of his films), but is more serious than in better-known movies where he played broader characters (e.g., Sanjuro, Yojimbo). That's a good thing considering that the peasants are played for comedic effect. That leaves it to Misa Uehara to provide the most captivating performance as Princess Yuki. Given little dialogue, she defines her character using facial expressions and body language. Surprisingly, this was the actress's first film and her acting career consisted of just nine movies from 1950 to 1960.

As always, Kurosawa incorporates vivid landscapes into the action, with the story punctuated with forest trails, rocky paths, dusty pits, and sweeping hills. It's one of the reasons why some of his films worked so well when remade as Westerns (The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars).

When released in the U.S., The Hidden Fortress was edited from its 139-minutes running time. One version cut 13 minutes and a later reissue eliminated a whopping 49 minutes. I'm hoping that's all at the start of the film!


  1. I have not seen this. I'll have to check my sister's movie library. Kurosawa always impresses me.

  2. I agree with Caftan Woman. I've seen very few Kurosawa films, but he is impressive. Thanks for the heads up about this one.