Lost in the Movies: The Hidden Fortress

The Hidden Fortress

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The Hidden Fortress, 1958, directed by Akira Kurosawa

The Story: A samurai general guards and transports his clan’s gold and princess across enemy territory, departing from a hidden fortress in the desert mountains. Along the way there are spear duels, close escapes, pursuits through the forest mists, scrapes with the executioner, and even a paganistic wood-burning ritual around a giant bonfire. The story is told largely from the perspective of two pathetic and bickering peasants who accompany the general and the princess on their journey.

The French director Jean-Luc Godard, a notorious iconoclast and subversive filmmaker, once said (perhaps ironically) that all you needed to make a picture was "a girl and a gun." In a sense, Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress has both, albeit in unusual forms. Instead of a gun we get swords - and for the most important battles, long spears - while the girl, hardly a passive damsel in distress, is a spunky and crafty heroine, a spitfire through and through. If the description sounds condescending, that's only appropriate. Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) can be as irritating as inspiring, her tomboyish stubbornness both a sign of immaturity and immense vitality. Her heartbreaking appeal lies in the simultaneous frustration, admiration, and poignance evoked by her fierce energy and emotional nakedness (whether it's her anger, irritation, or sorrow which is exposed at the moment).

The film's more conventional hero, General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) is certainly admirable, and displays a robust sense of humor (Mifune's blustering trademark) lest his heroics become too stiff. But Yuri and especially the focus on the viewpoint of bumbling farmers Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) and Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) ensure that Kurosawa's classic adventure remains surprising and refreshing despite drawing on mythic archetypes and Japanese feudal history. Critic David Ehrenstein called the focus on the two lowly (and remarkably petty, whiney, and greedy) peasants Kurosawa's "worm's eye view"; yes, we laugh at them, but we also see this remarkable epic largely through their eyes.

The Hidden Fortress is thus as fresh as it is stirring; as modern as it is old-fashioned - it can't help but be immensely satisfying. The film is alternately funny (several instances of reverse psychology, hammed up with Mifune's forghright bravado), moving (the weirdly intense juxtaposition of Nuri's tears with her lost country's flag amplifies the mostly neglected patriotism to a throbbing predominance for a few moments), and even sexy (despite her tomboy getup, or perhaps because of her assertiveness and defensive skill, Nuri is irresistably enticing - one of the great heroines of adventure genre history). The dance around the bonfire is a wonderful set piece, but also almost a throwaway - Kurosawa's got great sequences to burn (no pun intended).

The film is perhaps most widely famous (and has been for thirty years) as the inspiration for George Lucas' Star Wars. Certainly the peasants, especially in the first scene, recall (or rather, foreshadow) Lucas' robots in the 1977 classic, while the princess-disguised-as-a-commoner is limply and lamely echoed in the 1999 prequel The Phantom Menace. However, Lucas only took bits and pieces of the plot when crafting Star Wars' storyline. Actually, the greatest influence of The Hidden Fortress on Lucas' film (as well as on other modern blockbusters like Raiders of the Lost Ark) is not in any specific plot detail but in the overall feel of the movie: an epic that can be funny and dramatic from moment to moment, in which the characters are sharply drawn, the themes larger than life but - and this is crucial - the details idiosyncratic and illuminating.

Sadly, these touches have been lost in an epoch when blockbusters favor doom and gloom over exuberance and ebullience, painting in broad strokes for vague effect rather than filling in absorbing details on an epic canvas. Anyway, The Hidden Fortress is best appreciated not as the progenitor of big Hollywood adventures nor as the representative of a lost enthusiasm and clarity in cinema, but rather as a wonderful entertainment on its own terms. It does not have the universality of a Star Wars, in which historical specificities and genre conventions are displaced and cross-referenced in a new and unfamiliar context - but it has a purity which is just as thrilling, if not more so.

Looking at it, one feels like the heroes must when gazing across the welcoming plains of their homeland, captured with crystal clarity by Kurosawa's lens -  it just seems so right, so rich, so immensely satisfying, much like the perfectly composed triumvirate whom the peasants grovel before at film's end. A girl, a gun, a samurai, a sword...it doesn't matter what a director utilizes when his work feels this good.

This review was originally published at the Boston Examiner. Comments appeared on Wonders in the Dark, where the piece was linked in the summer of 2009.

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