The Hidden Fortress
The first time I saw The Hidden Fortress, I wasn't blown away by it. Then I had the opportunity to see it on a big screen, and the difference was night and day. For the film to have its full impact, it needs to be viewed as Kurosawa intended it to be, and a pan-and-scan VHS copy doesn't do the trick. Short of watching it at a revival house, the best bet is the Criterion DVD. Of all Kurosawa's great films, this is the lightest. It lacks the grandeur of The Seven Samurai, the grit of Yojimbo, and the thematic depth of Rashomon. However, it makes up for any deficiencies with a significant dose of comedy. I haven't seen all of Kurosawa's films, but I have seen a majority of them, and none provoked as many laughs as The Hidden Fortress. Plus, for action fans, it includes a couple of memorable scenes. Ever since George Lucas indicated that aspects of The Hidden Fortress inspired Star Wars, the movie has gained a higher profile. Nevertheless, watching this film in the hope of seeing a precursor to Lucas' space saga is a fool's errand. The seeds of inspiration, such as they are, have barely germinated. Watch The Hidden Fortress for what it is, not for what it might have influenced.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
The Hidden Fortress takes place in a war-torn feudal Japan. Two peasants, Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matakishi (Kamatari Fujiwara), have escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp and are heading home when they encounter General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune). The General, appealing to the men's greed by indicating he knows the whereabouts of a large amount of gold, persuades Tahei and Mataskishi to join him in transporting Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) to safety. So, with Yuki disguised as a mute farming girl (she cannot speak because her imperious manner of speech would give her away) and the gold hidden in hollowed-out faggots, the small group traverses the countryside, mostly avoiding enemy soldiers except during those occasions when the situation forces General Makabe to swing into action.
The Hidden Fortress is the third-most influential of Akira Kurosawa's films. Unlike many of the great Japanese director's best-known efforts, The Hidden Fortress has not been remade in another language, but aspects of its production have found their way into numerous films released during the last 45 years. The movie represents a nearly perfect blend of absurd comedy and rousing adventure. Many critics consider The Hidden Fortress to be one of Kurosawa's "lesser" films, but, after numerous careful, considered viewings, I find myself in a position to dispute that claim. Coming in between Throne of Blood and Yojimbo, this represents a confident filmmaker at the height of his creative abilities. By introducing comedy into the mixture and telling the tale from an atypical perspective, Kurosawa has differentiated The Hidden Fortress from nearly every similar feudal era Japanese epic ever committed to the screen. This is a masterpiece that deserves more credit than it is often given.
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