By the time Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress was released in 1958, it was more or less settled that the Japanese filmmaker — the only Japanese filmmaker most average moviegoers had heard of at that point — was among the world’s best. This was after Rashomon, after Ikiru, and after The Seven Samurai. Kurosawa’s talent was beyond question, and his global cinematic prominence was growing. However, his last three films, while positively received by critics, did not do so well with audiences. He needed something that would combine quality with commercial success. “A truly good movie is really enjoyable, too,” he once said. “There’s nothing complicated about it.” He would meet this condition with The Hidden Fortress, out now on a new Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD combo. While not containing the narrative innovation, the emotional resonance, or the spectacular grandeur of the aforementioned three classics, The Hidden Fortress is nonetheless an excellent and extremely enjoyable movie.
To get it out of the way, yes, The Hidden Fortress partially served as the basis for certain characterizations and even plot elements in Star Wars. George Lucas talks about this in an interview included on the disc, but he also points out Kurosawa’s inspirational debt to American master John Ford, something that comes up frequently in the documentary on the making of the film, created as part of the Toho Masterworks series, Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. (This 40-minute feature also covers everything from the film’s casting, with emphasis on the beautiful newcomer Misa Uehara, to Kurosawa’s passion for horses, as well as the film’s Tohoscope aspect ratio and the incomparable Toshirô Mifune, who is lovingly recalled.) In the commentary for The Hidden Fortress, by Stephen Prince, author of “The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa,” he too acknowledges Ford’s role in the stories and style of Kurosawa, noting that the Japanese title of the film, Kakushi-toride no san-akunin, mentions “three bad men.” One of Ford’s films from 1926, his last silent Western, was called 3 Bad Men.
Returning to Kurosawa’s impact on others, though, that his work influenced not only Star Wars but also provided inspiration for films like The Magnificent Seven, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and A Fistful of Dollars, is in large part a result of great storytelling. There’s no denying his visual proficiency, but what distinguishes Kurosawa are exceptional stories and characters. Like Shakespeare, whom he would adapt several times, there is something classically gripping about Kurosawa’s narratives. Commonly crafted with several co-screenwriters, Kurosawa’s plots hold up over time and mesh nicely into various other genres and interpretations.
The story for The Hidden Fortress takes shape slowly, as we are first introduced to Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara), two bumbling peasants who just returned from a battle (to which they were late). Based on their shabby appearance and their ineptness, they are presumed to be from the defeated side and are forced to bury the dead. Stinky, cranky, and weary, they now roam aimlessly, bickering and complaining. After stumbling upon some gold, they encounter the stoic and mysterious Rokurota Makabe (Mifune in his 11th film with Kurosawa), a samurai general who knows of even more riches. They think he’s simply a bully, but the gold is enough to get their attention, so they follow Makabe under the guise of servitude, with one eye on the potential wealth at all times. For his part, Makabe also has a hidden agenda. Unbeknownst to the two peasants, the girl he keeps around is Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), leader of a fallen clan now with a bounty on her head. To hide her social status, which would be evident in her speech, Yuki pretends to be mute. Surrounded by a rival clan, Makabe schemes to get the gold and the princess into friendly territory, but enemy guards fortify the border. Surprisingly, Tahei and Matashichi come up with the audacious idea of going straight into enemy land and entering into the neighboring safe zone from their border. It’s so daring their adversaries may not suspect it. “Sometimes, even moss can be smart,” quips an older general (the great Takashi Shimura). With the promise of spreading around the gold once they have safely arrived, Makabe enlists Tahei and Matashichi to help carry the fortune and their trek begins.
Two things Kurosawa did as well as any other filmmaker, if not better, was to show masses of men, usually in battle, and to capture the magnificence of nature. There’s not much of the former in The Hidden Fortress, though we do see a desperate group of huddled and grubby captives early in the film and an superbly shot fight breaks out, but there’s a good deal of the latter. As our protagonists are continually on foot, making their way through the varied landscape, they are often absorbed by their surroundings. Just like in an Anthony Mann Western, the characters in this film are not only influenced and directed by their environment, they seems to become one with it. At first, they (and the fortress) are deep in a gorge. Their view in this location, and the enemy’s view of them, is frequently hindered by the jutting rocks. They then travel into a forest, a similarly constrictive setting that works both for and against their journey. At times, they are shrouded by fog, at times they are soaked by the rain. Sometimes this allows them to move, sometimes it keeps them stationary. Nature is a camouflage and it can be a weapon; the princess, for one, fends off Tahei and Matashichi with foliage and branches.
Working for the first time in Tohoscope, Kurosawa frames his characters within these locations by way of some truly stunning compositions, emphasizing their situation and the essential pictorial beauty of the image. Using every corner of the widescreen frame, he works to not only keep his characters and their setting placed artfully along a horizontal plane, at times with individuals on the far sides speaking to each other across the expanse in between, but he also maintains a tremendous sense of depth, playing with all spatial possibilities. In this way, characters and the action have a full range in which to operate. Characters appear in the far background, obscured or in miniature, surprising those closer to the camera; they are likewise brought into the action by bursting forth from seemingly behind the camera and into the direct foreground (one of Sergio Leone’s favorite techniques). It all results in the remarkable visual dynamism for which Kurosawa is widely, and justly, lauded.
Loyalty is a key theme of The Hidden Fortress. Makabe would go to the ends of the earth for the princess, even sacrificing his own sister to keep Yuki free, and Yuki maintains a great respect for the remainder of her subjects. Later in the film, when he encounters General Hyoe Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita), a former friend now on opposite sides of the feudal lines, Makabe refuses to kill the fellow soldier after a fight. At first, his opponent takes the decision as an affront (it would have been more appropriate to kill him rather than shame him by letting him live), but eventually they reconcile and their friendship trumps any sort of contemporary custom, just in time for Tadokoro to return the favor and let Makabe and the princess flee. On the other hand, Tahei and Matashichi are in it all for themselves. Their conniving and plotting is always done with their best interests in mind, even sometimes at the expense of each other, though they always end up back together, affirming their friendship.
Stephen Prince calls The Hidden Fortress Kurosawa’s funniest movie, and it’s hard to argue. While the drama is intense and the action quite exciting, the film does have a comedic lightness that isn’t always apparent in Kurosawa’s work. From the buffoonery of Tahei and Matashichi, with their slapstick actions and cartoonish facial features, to Makabe’s clever strategizing, often resulting in a knowing and approving grin from Yuki, there’s more to laugh at during this film than in most others by the director. It also put Kurosawa back on track in terms of critical and commercial success, further aided by Yojimbo in 1961 and Sanjuro the following year. Everything about The Hidden Fortress clicks and falls into place: Kurosawa’s mastery of the widescreen, the amusing characters, the action, the set design, the riveting yet lighthearted plot. That it all feels so effortlessly executed reflects Kurosawa’s skill far more than it signals any sort of negligence. This is the sort of movie a natural-born filmmaker can make and make look so easy, so instinctive.
— Jeremy Carr