Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Produced by Sanezumi Fujimoto and Akira Kurosawa
Written by Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni,Shinobu Hashimoto, and Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Misa Uehara, Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara
A feisty princess and a fearsome general use two bumbling peasants to move pounds of gold across enemy territory in the hopes of saving their kingdom from doom.
Known as the movie that provided the blueprint for the ever-popular Star Wars franchise, The Hidden Fortress acquired a certain mystique for such a thing. Yet, few people in the West have seen the film from my experience. The biggest influence from Hidden Fortress in Star Wars is its two bumbling protagonists Tahei and Matashichi. The two besides providing the template for the iconic C-3P0 and R2-D2, the perspective that Tahei and Matashichi provide is the biggest impact on Star Wars. And that perspective is the way the story unfolds; the story unfolds through the point of view of two ”lower class” characters. The opening segment of Star Wars: Episode 4: A New Hope follows the beats of The Hidden Fortress pretty closely, it has shots that are mirrored in Star Wars nicely. Lucas’ trademark scene wipes in Star Wars traces its origin here.
Tahei and Matashichi aren’t foils in the same manner C-3P0 and R2-D2 are, but rather like more copies of one another. However, physically Tahei and Matashichi contrast each other nicely. Tahei and Matashichi are a solid comedic duo for the most part though some of the slapstick can be a hit or miss. A great part of the humor is them making light of serious situations. There is no short of serious situations due to the wartime setting. There are occasions that Tahei and Matashichi do irk me because they’re too self-serving for their own good. I’m not exaggerating when I say they might be potential ”rapists”. It’s quite alarming, but I suppose it’s an odd sign of how depraved Japan has become due to constant warfare.
Toshiro Mifune is here in all of his glory. The character Rokurota Makabe is older than the typical samurai he plays. Instead, Rokurota Makabe operates more like a mentor, but is none the less; he is capable of amazing feats. Rokurota Makabe can switch between the role of a loving mentor or a fearsome warrior so seamlessly that it makes him such a great dynamic character. And, he doesn’t lack a mischievous side, much to the dismay of Tahei and Matashichi.
Perhaps my favorite character in the picture is Princess Yuki. With almost a feral edge to her character, she has a dazzling presence. A trademark characteristic of her is to hold a bamboo stick in such dramatic way that it leaves an impression on you. Yuki’s rough exterior is merely one side to her personality, she is part of the nobility, yet she is willing to denounce the shortcomings of the feudal system. A trait of her that helps make her an inspiring figure. Making her more deserving of her birthright. Much of the hardship endured by all of the characters is for her sake, so Yuki being an inspiring figure makes the journey more rewarding. Even her attire sets her apart; she’s a woman yet she opts to wear loose fitting clothes closer to men’s clothing. A symbol of her inner free spirit.
The main journey of the film doesn’t happen until a quite bit of time into the film. This shouldn’t imply the film is anyway a ”slow” film; there is always something entertaining happening to keep your attention. The advantage of the slow setup is the motivations behind the journey are firmly established and the character dynamics as well. The character dynamics is what makes probably the journey of moving the gold so entertaining. Dangers created from the journey produces some breathtaking tensions. The odds stacked against our ”heroes” yet the writing is solid enough to make each victory over the various obstacles well earned. What’s more, not all of our ”heroes” are seeing eye to eye. The Tahei and Matashichi duo are pursuing their greedy ends while Yuki and Rokurota Makabe are trying to save their dying kingdom. The principal cast not being on good terms works to the benefit of the setting. Feudal Japan was a heavily stratified society, so the common people and the nobility lived in different worlds, it isn’t that far fetched to see these two class having troubles communicating with each other. But, I would say the disconnect between the cast is the result of them pursuing polar opposite goals, for one the journey is a purely selfish one, in contrast to the other an altruistic one. What’s surprising, the heavy amount of comedy doesn’t undermine the serious and intense moments of the journey.
There is also a great focus on the physical toils of the characters in the journey. Such a focus showcases the great human endeavor that was the central trek of this film that’s aided by a strong cinematic direction.
The climax isn’t what you would expect; it’s a great tribute to Yuki’s hidden wisdom. Yuki’s hidden wisdom that was awakened by the journey. According to the commentary by Stephen Prince, there is a eureka moment for Yuki at the fire festival. Indeed, Yuki’s persona takes a different turn from that moment on, she is calmer and always maintains her composure even at the sight of death. Yuki is a catalyst for a certain character’s redemption that brings further significance to her prior disdain that she expressed for the shortcomings of the feudal system.
The Hidden Fortress has a significance of its own beyond just being an inspiration for Star Wars. It’s a galloping romp that unfolds through the eyes of two unwilling bystanders that has great laughs and great themes.