DVD Review Of The Hidden Fortress

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/8/07


  Those film viewers who equate foreign films with pretense need to sit down for a couple of hours and watch director Akira Kurosawa’s first widescreen (Tohoscope) film, the black and white The Hidden Fortress (Kakushi-Toride No San-Akunin- literally The Three Villains Of The Hidden Fortress), from 1958. While it is a very good film, it is a great movie- in the feel good sense of the term. Filmmaker George Lucas claims this film was the inspiration for his third rate Star Wars films. Yes, there are a handful of similarities, but ‘influence’ is usually used when a great work of art is influenced by an equal or lesser work of art, not when bad art rips off greater art. In short, influence occurs in evolution, not devolution, and Lucas’s claims bear the stench of a lesser artist trying to parasitically sponge off a greater artist’s reputation.

  The Hidden Fortress runs 139 minutes, but it never slows down nor gets boring. It is action and humor nonstop, and Kurosawa reputedly only made the film to repay Toho Studios for allowing him to make riskier, more artistic films like Ikiru and Rashomon. In many ways, even though the film stars the great Toshirô Mifune, as General Rokurota Makabe, a role that is quite reserved in comparison to his other roles in period films- or jidai-geki (from where Lucas got the term Jedi), the film’s narrative and heart belong to the two peasant farmer fools, tubby Tahei (Minoru Chiaki- the good natured samurai from Seven Samurai) and tiny Matakishi (Kamatari Fujiwara- the farmer Manzo from Seven Samurai), who make a terrific comedy team- far better than their supposed Star Wars stand-ins, R2D2 and C3PO. This duo not only get the most screen time, but the tale is basically from their point of view, and the viewer roots for them, despite their greed and stupidity constantly endangering them; whereas the more conventional tale of the Princess and her General is backgrounded and rather rote.

  The plot is simple: it is war-torn feudal Japan- likely the 1600s, when guns have arrived. The film opens in media res, widescreen, on the backs of the two peasants- a great opening which augurs the comic overturning of many action film clichés, since peasant backs are not what widescreen was developed for. They soon see a samurai killed by horsemen who do not bother with them, yet they quarrel and split up, are captured by soldiers, and are reunited in a slave camp. Tahei and Matakishi are pals from the same village, and soon escape from the slave camp during a prisoner revolt, and head down steps that are an almost direct quotation from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. They hide in the mountains, and discover gold hidden in firewood. They then encounter the General, who bullies them, and lures them via their avarice, into helping him plot a rescue of his clan’s kingdom. They will need to haul gold (echoes of John Huston’s The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre) across enemy borders and help save the clan’s Princess, Yukihime (Misa Uehara)- a precocious and beautiful sixteen year old, oddly in a Robin Hood getup. She pretends to be mute, and the quartet eventually gathers a fifth member, a nameless slave girl (Toshiko Higuchi), who is willing to die for the Princess, much as the General’s sister did, as a double for the princess- another bit Star Wars ripped off.

  The General kills some soldiers in a horseback chase, has a great spear fight duel with a rival clan’s General Hyoe Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita), but spares his life, for he respects his foe (an element lifted from Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion)- which in most films of this sort is an act of humiliation, but which turns out to have karmic power in the end, as, when the General, Princess, and slave girl are caught and to be executed, Tadokoro frees them, and helps them re-establish the Princess’s clan. The two fools are caught with the gold they come across after the trio has been caught, tossed in jail, but then freed by the Princess and General, and given some minor financial compensation for their help. As they walk down another huge set of stairs (in a refrain of the Battleship Potemkin quotation) they resolve to be friends, and the film ends, although one knows they are mere seconds away from more bickering. It is an odd end, if not a weak one, but after such a rollicking ride, perhaps, an exhalation is the right end.

  There is not as much social depth nor commentary in this film, but it is great fun- almost what an Abbott And Costello Meet The Samurai film would have been like. There are many really funny moments; not only with the cowardly fools’ repeated penchant for finding trouble, but when the teen Princess- never the Western stereotyped damsel in distress, barks out orders, even though she is clueless to what she is saying half the time. Perhaps the funniest scene is when the General captures two enemy soldiers, after the fools try to get more gold from a pyre where their wood with the gold inside was burnt, and the two fools beat and bully the captives, as they are no longer the lowest on the totem pole. There are also excellent action sequences, such as a great scene where the General chases two other soldiers down on horseback before he meets and battles spears with Tadokoro. It is a realistic fight scene, and goes on for a while, with both of the famed warriors clumsily missing each other. Yet, there is even humor in that scene, when the General picks out and rejects several ‘inferior’ spears before settling on the one he will make battle with.

  The chase scene on horseback also illustrates Kurosawa’s mastery of the widescreen format, in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Most directors emphasize the width of action in that format, whereas Kurosawa expanded the depth of field- such as when, once Tadokoro helps the trio escape, and they look out over a mountain to their territory and much depth of field is sharpened, and its density heightened. In the chase scene, however, the camera moves diagonally, but with the riders, and closeup, so that the twigs of the trees are seen, rather than some awesome background landscape. The quick cuts in editing also make the scene crackle with kinetic energy. The cinematography of Ichio Yamazaki is filled with details, yet the clarity is amazing- especially at night, when there is an almost tactile depth to the grays on blacks. The score, by Masaru Sato, is full of throbbing percussion, yet it also has comic lilts to it- a nod to Kurosawa’s Western influence, whenever the fools are about to get into trouble. There is also a small cameo role for Kurosawa’s great early film star Takashi Shimura, as General Nagakura, the mentor to General Makabe.

  The DVD, by The Criterion Collection, is one of their earlier film releases- 2001, and lacks many features; only a long theatrical trailer, and an interview with George Lucas, called Lucas On Kurosawa, trying desperately to equate his schlock with this terrific movie. Yet, had Lucas not mentioned this film’s influence on his films, I doubt many others would find many nor deep similarities. Unfortunately, there are only white subtitles with this release, which often wash out against pale backgrounds, such as the rocks of the mountains where the Princess’s clan has their titular Hidden Fortress (which is only seen in a small portion of the film). In a film like this, however, any of the already pale arguments against dubbing the film into English are mooted, for this is a comic swashbuckling film, and the fealty to realism and dialogue that anti-dubbers obsess over (albeit wrongly) is not even present. Also, the subtitles in this edition are a bit anachronistic, for the fools use terms like, ‘It sucks,’ and the Princess tells the General not to try and use reverse psychology on her, when he wants her to feign muteness to avoid detection- a term that was centuries and continents away from being formulated. But, as this is a comedy, such anachronisms are not that big a solecism, and dubs are best used in comedies, for a voice can intone things in ways that no word for word translation can. While the former translation is silly, the latter may not be a subtitling error, but a script flaw in the screenplay by Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, and Shinobu Hashimoto.

  Fortunately, the occasional anachronism is about the only thing wrong with the tale, for The Hidden Fortress is a great adventure movie, as well as very funny. That said, I can state with the utmost seriousness that I know Akira Kurosawa. Akira Kurosawa is a friend of mine. And you, Mr. Lucas, are no Akira Kurosawa. Now, if only Tahei and Matakishi were around to beat him, as he so richly deserves.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]

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