If you remember that the Japanese term for what we westerners call a “samurai movie” actually translates closer to “costume picture,” then The Hidden Fortress was the fifth and last such film Akira Kurosawa made in the 1950s. His four previous samurai movies were an existential exploration of the limits of human knowledge (Rashomon), an epic examination of class differences and human nature that’s also one of the greatest action flicks ever made (Seven Samurai), An expressionist, Noh-inspired Shakespeare adaptation (Throne of Blood), and a much more faithful and theatrical (and completely action-free) Gorky adaptation (The Lower Depths).
With The Hidden Fortress, his last film of the 1950s and his first in widescreen, Kurosawa did something unexpected: He made a simple, fun, and suspenseful samurai flick. It’s not complete escapism, brushing on such common Kurosawa themes as kindness, charity, and class differences, but this is clearly entertainment, not high art.
I first saw The Hidden Fortress at the UC Theater (of blessed memory) in the early 1980s. It was primarily known back then as the movie that inspired Star Wars (aka: A New Hope). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen it since. It’s one of eight Kurosawa films I own on DVD.
Much of the story is told through the eyes of two greedy, cowardly, and not-too-bright peasants (the inspirations for R2D2 and C3PO, and played by Kurosawa regulars Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara). They’re caught behind enemy lines after a war that has not proved as profitable for them as they’d hoped. A general for the defeated army (Toshiro Mifune) bullies and tempts them into helping him transport a fortune in gold and a princess with a price on her head (Misa Uehara) to safety. Kurosawa gives us very little reason to like these two bickering and untrustworthy lowlifes, but we like them anyway. After all, they make us laugh. Besides, they are helping the princess, even if they don’t realize it.
Princess Yuki, on the other hand, is a character worth cheering for. Sixteen and suddenly orphaned by war, she must get to a place where she can safely restore her clan and help her shattered people. Over the course of her travels, she has her first contact with commoners, and comes out a better person for it.
And, of course, there’s Mifune, the very model of a perfect action movie star. There’s a scene where he selects a spear before a duel where his movements are so graceful and economical, and yet his demeanor is so intimidating (he’s surrounded by enemy soldiers), that it’s a wonder to watch.
The Hidden Fortress was the first film where Kurosawa gave his audiences cues to applaud. He would only do this two more times—in Yojimbo and Sanjuro—and never to this extent.
Next up: The Bad Sleep Well.