This post is part of the “Try It, You’ll Like It!” Blogathon, hosted by Sister Celluloid and Movies Silently, where we write about “gateway films” that might bring non-classic-film lovers into the fold! For all the entries, click here!
I’m going to start off by explaining that I’m no film scholar nor have any kind of expertise in film analysis. My comments on film on this website are only my personal thoughts about films I’ve watched and felt motivated to review. Most of what’s presented here is only my opinions or observations; any facts that I share I will try to present along with the sources where I’ve found them.
I’m such a fan of films directed by Akira Kurosawa that I naturally want to share these films with others. But, to be honest, I haven’t had the most success in introducing Kurosawa‘s films to others. I’ve praised his work and then lent my copies of his DVDs to friends. But my friends’ reactions haven’t always been what I expected. I’m hoping that by my participating in this blogathon I’ll be more successful in introducing to others the great works of Kurosawa.
Akira Kurosawa is recognized by many as one of the greatest filmmakers. Although he’s been praised for work he’s done as a scriptwriter or as an assistant director on many other films, it’s for the thirty films he directed over a fifty-year career that he’s mostly known. Before becoming a fan, I thought of him as just a maker of samurai movies. And he was such a filmmaker; some of his most well-known films feature samurai (Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Kagemusha). Kurosawa made other period films that didn’t feature samurai (the Sanshiro Sugata films, Throne of Blood, Red Beard, Ran) and also made films contemporary to when they were made (No Regrets for Our Youth, Ikiru, High and Low, Dodes’ka-Den). Most of Kurosawa’s movies were filmed in black-and-white, up until the mid-’60s. And, while I’ve read great reviews for many of the color films he made, I’m more a fan of the non-color films made before 1970.
My first Kurosawa film was Seven Samurai. But, while that film has become my most favorite, not just of Kurosawa’s films but of all movies, I kind of feel that it isn’t necessarily the best introduction to Kurosawa’s work. I say this not to deliberately put down Seven Samurai but I think that the film being over three hours long, in black-and-white, and foreign and subtitled is overwhelming, at least to everyone I’ve shared it with. I realize that The Hidden Fortress shares two of those three reasons, being also black-and-white and foreign and subtitled. But I’ve discovered that when I’ve shared it as a first Kurosawa film, my friends find it more palatable.
The Hidden Fortress
According to Donald Richie’s The Films of Akira Kurosawa, The Hidden Fortress was released in Japan December 28, 1958, as Kakushi Toride no San-Akunin, which translates as Three Bad Men in a Hidden Fortress. The film starred actors known for often working in Kurosawa films: Toshiro Mifune, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Susumu Fujita, and Takashi Shimura, and also starred Misa Uehara in her first movie and only appearance in a Kurosawa film.
A grand-scale adventure as only Akira Kurosawa could make one, The Hidden Fortress stars the inimitable Toshiro Mifune as a general charged with guarding his defeated clan’s princess (a fierce Misa Uehara) as the two smuggle royal treasure across hostile territory. Accompanying them are a pair of bumbling, conniving peasants who may or may not be their friends. This rip-roaring ride is among the director’s most beloved films and was a primary influence on George Lucas’s Star Wars. The Hidden Fortress delivers Kurosawa’s trademark deft blend of wry humor, breathtaking action, and compassionate humanity.
To elaborate on this synopsis, the film begins by following two peasants walking home after their failed attempt to participate in a current civil war. The peasants, humorously played by Chiaki and Fujiwara, learn of the search for a princess, played by Uehara, with her clan’s gold treasure. Of course, the peasants happen upon the searched-for princess and meet her protector, General Makabe Rokurota, played by Mifune in one of his greatest roles. Rokurota enlists the assistance of the peasants in transporting the gold treasure and the princess away from the territory where they’re being hunted. Their travels allow much opportunity for adventure, including action on the part of Mifune and comedy featuring Chiaki and Fujiwara, and even comment on social themes of differences among classes, as observed by Uehara’s character.
Star Wars connection
The influence The Hidden Fortress had on George Lucas and Star Wars is well-known. I think the connection between these two films is one of the greatest reasons for watching The Hidden Fortress, especially with the recent renewed interest in Star Wars. The Criterion Collection website features this interview of George Lucas speaking about Kurosawa’s influence and mentions direct connections between Star Wars and The Hidden Fortress:
Having the Star Wars connection in mind when rewatching The Hidden Fortress recently, it was immediately obvious that the two peasant characters inspired Star Wars‘ droids. This isn’t to say that R2-D2 and C-3PO were each based on a specific peasant. But, the situation, two characters making their way, encountering difficulties, getting separated and reunited, and the bickering interplay between them throughout, obviously inspired the dynamic between the droids. That connection, in my opinion, should be enough for any fan of Star Wars to check out The Hidden Fortress. Of course, there are more connections between the two films, but the peasant/droid connection is the most prominent.
I’ve read other reviews of The Hidden Fortress that were critical of the characters of the two peasants. But, honestly, they’re my favorite characters in the film. I can’t imagine that I would like the film as much if the two peasants weren’t present or played differently. I’m a fan of the actors portraying them, Minoru Chiaki playing Tahei
and Kamatari Fujiwara playing Matashichi.
Each actor had a prominent role in my favorite film Seven Samurai, Chiaki playing samurai Heihachi
and Fujiwara playing villager Manzo.
Other Kurosawa films feature the two actors, and each appears separately in even other films directed by Kurosawa. (Part of the fun of enjoying Kurosawa’s movies, at least to me, is identifying actors who’ve appeared in others of his films.) Although Chiaki and Fujiwara played memorable parts in other Kurosawa films, my favorite performances of theirs are in The Hidden Fortress.
I can’t say that I’d want to actually know each of the peasant characters, but they’re definitely fun to watch. I especially enjoy their reactions when they get cut down to size. For example, when they first meet General Makabe Rokurota when he barges in on their camp, they try to appear tough. But just Rokurota’s look at them breaks each one down to the fools they are:
Also, the peasants’ attempt to mime to the princess that they’ll be taking the group’s horses to water is hilarious:
I also thought their confused looks while dancing at the Fire Festival were very funny:
Other great actors
The Hidden Fortress features three other great actors who were regulars in Kurosawa films: Susumu Fujita,
and the legendary Toshiro Mifune.
Mifune, the star of this movie, was well-known for his work in Kurosawa’s films. In Seven Samurai he played samurai Kikuchiyo, but his greatest performance, in my opinion, was in I Live in Fear.
Most of Kurosawa’s films featured Shimura, my favorite of all the actors regularly used by Kurosawa. In Seven Samurai he played lead samurai Kambei, but my favorite of his roles was his starring in Ikiru.
Fujita was the first Kurosawa action hero, Sanshiro Sugata, in two of Kurosawa’s earliest films. But his place as the main action actor for Kurosawa was taken over by Mifune. Fortunately, Fujita continued to appear in Kurosawa films, such as No Regrets for Our Youth and Yojimbo.
My favorite of Fujita’s performances is here in The Hidden Fortress. I consider the duel between Fujita and Mifune’s characters a highlight of this and all of Kurosawa’s films.
I don’t have much to say about Misa Uehara as Princess Yuki (the original Princess Leia). Uehara did just fine in her role and in showing how the princess was moved by what she witnessed of the differences among the classes of people she encountered.
I hope that I’ve been able to show that The Hidden Fortress is not just an enjoyable movie but also a great introduction to the films of Akira Kurosawa. If this movie leads anyone to seek out more of Kurosawa’s movie-making genius, I recommend Seven Samurai (of course); it, too, like The Hidden Fortress, offers much entertainment in the form of social commentary, touches of comedy, and lots of action. For more samurai action, I recommend Yojimbo and Sanjuro (you can’t watch one of these without the other). Red Beard doesn’t feature samurai action, but it’s also a period film and another of Kurosawa’s masterpieces. For non-period films, I highly recommend The Most Beautiful, Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, Ikiru, I Live in Fear, and High and Low.
Additionally, I’d like to recommend two more resources. The Akira Kurosawa Info website contains a wealth of information about Kurosawa’s life and works. The site features a forum where Kurosawa fans can discuss his genius and includes a film club centered on his and related movies. I also have very much enjoyed Kurosawa’s book Something Like an Autobiography. This is Kurosawa’s memoir where he discusses his life from birth to the international success of Rashomon in the early ’50s. Unfortunately, the period in which Kurosawa’s post-Rashomon films were made are hardly touched upon in the book. But, despite that, I found the book very entertaining and very much enjoyed learning a little about how the mind of this genius worked.