Just two bumpkins stand in the way of a daring escape in Akira Kurosawa’s classic action adventure…
The one striking image of The Hidden Fortress that sticks in my mind is of actor Toshiro Mifune playing Japanese feudal General Rokurota Makabe laughing. He’s laughing at the notion put into his head by Tahei and Matashichi, two bumbling peasants who happen upon Makabe as they make their way out of the hell created by the forces of the kingdom of Yamana attacking the Akizuki clan and destroying their lands, fortresses and the royal family. Makabe is a master tactician, a skilled warrior and a capable traveller. But he loves the simplistic nature of the two bumblers plan and laughs partly in admiration for their thoughtfulness and partly at why he didn’t think of it himself. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s step back a few takes, OK?
So, as I said, the film takes place in a time of war between three clans: the Akizuki, the Yamana and the Hayakawa. Hayakawa is neutral and lies to the South. Akizuki is the defending clan and is in the North. Yamana is the aggressor and lies to the East. Into this (literally) comes Tahei and Matashichi, two idiots who couldn’t be trusted to get themselves killed, they’re that inept. They decided to sell their houses to buy equipment and fight alongside the Yamana. Of course, along the way, they arrived late, lost their equipment, were mistaken for Akizuki soldiers and made to bury the dead by their future, now former employers. On their way home, they get captured (again) by the Yamana and made to dig in the remains of Akizuki Castle for the gold reserves of the clan (we begin to understand why Akizuki was attacked) had stashed away. After the prisoners revolt, the two escape (again) and make their way to a river where they accidentally discover some of the Akizuki gold, hidden in tree branches. It’s an ingenious way of hiding their wealth and after squabbling over the ins and outs, the two peasants work their way back to where they originally found the branches only to run into the aforementioned Rokurota Makabe. Rokurota follows them, muscles in on their campfire, cajoles them into helping him retrieve the rest of the gold (he’s posing as a merc for hire) and then uses them as forced labour to retrieve the gold. While doing so, they come across a beautiful but silent girl (Misa Uehara) who is a part of Rokurota’s plan. They don’t know it but she’s actually Princess Yuki, the last survivor of the royal Akizuki clan and Rokurota is her chief retainer. Together, they have to get into Hayakawa territory via Yamana while these two disaster areas in the form of Matashichi and Tahei vie to steal the gold, rat out Rokurota or have their way with Princess Yuki.
The film can be told in two manners: from a matter of intention and from a matter of perspective. In intention, the film shows multiple layers of complexity from both the peasants and the nobles and their reasonings for being in this situation. For Rokurota, his intention was always to protect the Princess as that was his duty. But somewhere along the way, this assignment tests him like none has before. He loses family, title and more in trying to get his Princess to safety. In carrying out his duty, he gets to test himself fully in battle, tactics and in war. Take the fight between he and his friend, Hyoe Tadokoro. Tadokoro fights for the Yamana so he must defeat Rokurota. But to watch them and see them react, they really are the best of friends. After stumbling into the enemy camp, Rokurota is allowed to have his pick of spear to duel with Tadokoro and then they fight to the death. But in sparing his friend, Rokurota becomes a better man. You can see it in Mifune’s performance before and after the battle. He accidently found himself in danger and he’ll need his wits about him to survive but after it’s all over he can leave as he chooses. He has a fire in his eyes and a smile for his friend, promising to see him again. I love that about the character. Stoic to the point of silence, stealthy but able to leap into action, Mifune spends the film looking like a tiger, waiting for a moment to strike. It’s this trip that will allow him to do so. Mifune looks the part, with a basic costume under which his muscled body moves electrically through his scenes making other characters stand aside by sheer force of personality.
For the Princess, Misa Uehara must spend her time wanting to be a Princess and not knowing how to. The royal staff in hiding with her and Rokurota at the temporary fortress in the mountains (where the film gets its name from) remark to Rokurota that her father, the daimyo (?) raised her as a boy for some reason and now her mannerisms are more blunt and direct. As a result, Rokurota takes a lot of abuse to his face from her. Now, for her, this is normal but for a man as honourable as Rokurota, it must have taken a lot to not even flinch. She herself has a physicality that goes beyond her role as royalty, giving the character the almost uncanny ability to stop at any moment and look perfectly suited doing so. As the film goes on, Kurosawa opens the character of Yuki to the rest of the world and sees what happens to the people of her land when the Yamana take over. Seeing the way the people, especially the women, are treated is hard for her and Uehara has to spend her time silent (she passes for a mute girl to disguise her royalty) and use only her eyes as she watches in quiet horror at how far her countrymen and women have fallen.
It’s powerful material and is made more potent by Kurosawa’s use of the (then) new TohoScope method of shooting allowed him to mix lens and allow Uehara to blend into the scene in the tavern where she watches a girl from Akizuki be abused for not wanting to be a prostitute. We know she’s there but nobody else does. As she nears the border, the same thing comes back in time for the fire festival (more on that momentarily). Finally, we see the intentions of the two idiots, Tahei and Matashichi, as they transform from would-be brigands to trodden-upon servants and finally to accepting that they’ve no business being where they are and would happy to go home. They really are not the nicest of people in the beginning (who draws straws so the other guy takes off so you can rape a girl?) but as they fail at everything (and I do mean everything) they achieve the same helplessness the rest of the people and in doing so go with what I think is the overall aim of the film: people should be happy to run with the problem, not the solution. In following the problem to the end, the solution presents itself.
This brings us to the matter of perspective and how each character should be seen. The film’s most defining moment comes late in the film where all the main players have gathered. I’ll talk about it in a second but I want to point out a similarity between this film and Star Wars: Episode IV. In both films, the movie is played out in front of the two most lowly characters. In A New Hope, it’s the droids, C3PO and R2-D2. In Hidden Fortress, it’s Matashichi and Tahei. Everything that happens in the film happens in front of them. While we could talk about the merits of the droids, in our present story the two peasants see as they try and better themselves that the landowners (the Princess, Rokurota, the forces of Yamana) are barely keeping themselves above water in terms of what they will lose if they fail. For the two peasants, they’ve nothing to lose except their lives and maybe after being with Rokurota and the Princess and seeing the world from their perspectives, they don’t want to give up their lives after losing everything else.
Both of them fight so hard to not die that they become our heroes. Rokurota is not our hero, he’s the Princesses hero, her knight who carries out her orders. The peasants are who we would be in a war, as we are now. I’m not saying we’d be as crude and avaricious as they were but we wouldn’t suddenly strap on a sword and into battle. For the Princess, her moment where her perspective clears completely is in the Fire Festival. Without spoiling the point of the scene, she, Rokurota, Matashichi and Tahei have to hide amongst a crowd of Yamana common folk as they celebrate by burning things in a vast bonfire while remembering that life is but a dream and we will awake one day so the things that drag us down are to be treated as the illusionary charlatans they are. In the midst of the enemy who would destroy her in a moments notice, Yuki learns to let go and not worry about what will happen if she dies failing to restore the Akizuki clan. As for Rokurota, well, his perspective is living long enough to get away with the escape. Both he and Yuki settle into their new roles at the end of their journey and one of them can be the person they were all along and the other can be a better person as a result. Anything else, it’s all gravy as far as he is concerned. It’s refreshing to see Mifune be the same guy at the end of the movie that he was at the start, albeit one who can move with his circumstances better than he could before all of this started.
Behind the camera, Kurosawa directs the movie with a powerful, muscular imperative for the film. Once the Princess’ and Rokurota’s role within the plot is revealed, the ball is then set rolling, nothing able to stop what’s going to happen. The band of travellers move across a vast background, moving openly during the day and stopping at night. All the while, we come across these vast buildings: castles, bridges, towns, valleys, forests and more. All of them, Kurosawa has an intent with every shot. Much like his hero John Ford, Kurosawa’s characters move against fantastic backdrops while they wrestle with titanic emotions, some bubbling under the surface so that the background matches the feelings being fought for.
The huge, ruined Akizuki Castle is a mere curtain against which Kurosawa throws thousands of extras and his two main miscreants. For him, intent is more important than the spectacle even if it’s right in front of you. So when we see Misa Uehara skipping through the forest, slapping the two vagabonds with branches, vines or anything else she finds, we see her playing with them while they get more upset with her. But for the audience and Uehara’s Yuki, these guys do not have pure thoughts on their minds. There’s a duality to even innocent exchanges in this movie. Light and dark. Mifune as Rokurota and Susumu Fujita as Hyoe Tadokoro circle around each other, friends until the end, but capable and ready to kill one another. In a film running nearly three hours, Kurosawa devotes nearly ten minutes to this dual. All the while, the film relentless pounds away at the cast with the unseen, ever watchful Yamana army looking for them. In the town at night, the two servants ask Rokurota to camp outside the town for safety instead of town where they could slip up. Kurosawa has Mifune take one look into the darkness surrounding the town and decide keeping your nerve is better than taking a chance with the blackness of the open countryside. That’s the kind of decisions behind the camera that people find out from watching Kurosawa’s films. For filmmakers, it makes you a better storyteller. For audiences, it makes you a better audience member.
The Hidden Fortress is not as epic a tale as Kurosawa’s earlier films like Seven Samurai but it’s filled with the same energy as its older brethren: great story that’s easy to get into but hard to ignore, fast paced action combined with quick, decisive editing cuts and a cast that is ready to spring into action as their character, not the plot, demands. Even if you take away the fact that it inspired Star Wars in part, the film itself is so universal in its construction that it could be set in any time and in any country and we would still recognise its pedigree as a story. I completely recommend it for anyone eager for a great story.
The Hidden Fortress is available on Blu-ray/DVD from Criterion Collection in the US and on DVD/Blu-ray from the BFI in the UK.
Home media details
Distributor: Criterion Collection (UK)
Edition: Blu-ray and DVD Edition (2014)
As the main reason I bought a US blu ray player, Criterion Collection blu ray’s have a pretty serious reputation for holding the filmmakers and their films in high regard. As Criterion have a relationship with Akira Kurosawa’s films all the way back to Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress has come out before on DVD from them and is presented here in a new 2K transfer which bests the previous efforts of Criterion, I’m sure. The blu ray however, is where the film gets the most love, boasting sharper image, better contrast and superior audio. Preserving its original TohoScope 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the new transfer allows the viewer to fully take in the vistas and backgrounds of the simply monumental scenery Kurosawa shot for the film as well allowing for the actors to stand out or blend into scenes with hundreds of extras. Criterion present the audio in Japanese only but include, as well as the standard LPCM 2.o track, an approximation of the Perspecta 3.0 track that was created for the film at the time of its release. Here, Criterion have encoded it as DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 which best mirrors the multi-track audio of its original version. For me, the Perspecta simulation is the best of the two as it allows for depth and some degree of dimensionality, especially in the fortress scenes as well as the Fire festival scenes. On the extras side, Criterion have commissioned a new commentary track from author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, Stephen Prince as he discusses Kurosawa, the ins and outs of the film, its place in Japanese and international cinema and more. We also get a great 40+ minute documentary Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create created by Toho in 2003 to celebrate their most famous director. In it, Kurosawa plus actors, colleagues and others discuss Kurosawa, The Hidden Fortress, John Ford’s influence on the Japanese directors work and more. It’s part of a much larger documentary series that has found its way into other Criterion blu ray release like Ikiru and Throne of Blood. We also get an 8-minute interview with this guy called George Lucas as he discusses Kurosawa’s influence on his own work and how The Hidden Fortress influenced his first major film. Something Star Wars. Never heard of it. We also get a great booklet which goes into some of the hidden (no pun intended) meanings behind the film from film scholar Catherine Russell. An excellent package and for anyone who can play it back, I would urge you to buy this and add it to your collection. If you can’t, the BFI edition is part of a four pack of Kurosawa films on blu ray including Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo and Sanjuro.
Please note: the combo DVD/Blu ray of Hidden Fortress is now out of print as Criterion are re-issuing it with only a blu ray disc in March 2016. If you’re happy to wait and not pay huge costs, the March release will be the same in terms of video/audio/extras.