Hidden Fortress, The (Japan, 1958)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Hidden Fortress is the third-most influential of Akira Kurosawa's films (behind Rashomon and The Seven Samurai). 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 most highly publicized of these is Star Wars. George Lucas has openly admitted that the droids C3PO and R2D2 are based on The Hidden Fortress' characters of Tahei and Matakishi. (There are also aspects of The Phantom Menace that echo The Hidden Fortress.) Many period piece Asian action epics have drawn their inspiration from The Hidden Fortress (certainly, more than one features a legendary hero protecting an outspoken princess). And even animation master Hayao Miyazaki has incorporated elements of The Hidden Fortress in Princess Mononoke.

Yet, even if you have watched all of the movies that owe a debt to The Hidden Fortress, you have not experienced Kurosawa's movie until you have seen it. Unlike many of the more artistically obscure products of Japanese cinema (particularly the works of Ozu), Kurosawa's oeuvre is entirely accessible to a Western audience. After all, his primary inspiration was American films, especially the work of John Ford. Kurosawa and the Western make a beautiful pairing. The director's movies were influenced by early entries in the genre, then, in turn, became a blue-print for '60s and '70s editions. Without Kurosawa, there would have been no A Fistful of Dollars or The Magnificent Seven.

In some ways, The Hidden Fortress is a departure for Kurosawa. Although there is plenty of action in the picture, it is as much a comedy as it is an adventure film. The story is presented from the point-of-view of two secondary characters, which reduces the need for the central figures to be fully developed or three dimensional. Thus, General Rokurota Makabe is defined by his valor and honor. Princess Yuki is stubborn and haughty. And Tahei and Matakishi are bumbling and greedy.

The Hidden Fortress features an undisguised element of social commentary. Echoing the age-old theme of "The Prince and the Pauper," the story forces a princess to come face-to-face with the daily travails suffered by members of the lower castes when circumstances demand that she pretends to be a mute peasant. For Western viewers, this is a secondary aspect, but it is a more significant one for Japanese audiences, who are cognizant of historical and contemporary class distinctions within their society that may not be obvious to "outsiders."

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 represents a nearly perfect blend of absurd comedy and rousing adventure. The actions and interaction of Tahei and Matakisihi are a consistent source of amusement, as these two untrustworthy rogues bicker, whine, and exhibit stunning lapses of intelligence. Because the film is largely presented from their viewpoint, and because they are depicted as generally harmless, it's hard to dislike Tahei and Mataskisihi, even though avarice and cowardice are their primary characteristics. Their purpose is to react, not to act. Their function is to hide and make amusing comments, not to display heroism. That's left up to General Makabe.

The movie's tone shifts subtly during the second half, when the focus strays somewhat from the Greek chorus-like observations of the two peasants. The Hidden Fortress' best action sequences occur during the last forty minutes. The most memorable of these is a horseback chase that leads to a spear duel. Later, there's a mad dash for the border with Princess Yuki's small group being hemmed in on all sides by hundreds of opposing warriors. By the standards of the day, this was spectacular, breathtaking filmmaking. Even judged by today's methods, it stands up extraordinarily well. There is tension, suspense, and the adrenaline starts pumping. And, in contrast with the chaotic approach that many directors have applied to battle sequences in recent years, Kurosawa's methods are clear. There's never any question who's who and what's going on. The camerawork is dynamic, but we are not subjected to the rapid cutting that has become necessary in modern action films. Watching how Kurosawa approaches scenes like these, one laments how few contemporary directors pursue this kind of style.

As always in Kurosawa's early work, the screen is dominated by Toshiro Mifune. Although the legendary actor was certainly capable of giving deep, multifaceted performances, Kurosawa used him more for his star quality than his acting ability. Like John Wayne, Mifune commands attention when he's on camera. He's a magnet for the eyes; an icon who towers above everyone else. In The Hidden Fortress, he is playing a type – the honor-bound superhero samurai safeguarding his princess – and, as a result, all the stops are pulled out. Mifune is not expected to show characteristics foreign to the General's nature, so he is allowed to be at his grandest. Only in The Seven Samurai does Mifune match the larger-than-life attributes he displays here.

The supporting cast is well suited to the material, although all of them work in Mifune's shadow. Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara mesh well, creating the kind of salty chemistry that has characterized oddly matched buddies through the years. These two would be at home playing the two gravediggers in "Hamlet," the loiterers in "Waiting for Godot," Felix and Oscar in "The Odd Couple," or (yes) C3PO and R2D2. Misa Uehara meshes strength, regal authority, and arrogance in a performance that never leaves the audience in any doubt about her true rank. (Although Tahei and Mataskishi are clueless, and it's interesting to note that they view her as a sex object – something that would never be the case if they were aware that she was other than a mute peasant.)

The Hidden Fortress represented Kurosawa's first venture into widescreen cinematography. (The CinemaScope process is referred to as "Toho-scope.") He uses every millimeter of the frame, creating gorgeous compositions that stretch from one side of the screen to the other. Not only is it an injustice to watch The Hidden Fortress in any non-widescreen format, but it's an impossibility. Action moves across the entire screen; Kurosawa is unimpeded by concerns about staying in the 4:3 "television box." The spear duel between Makabe and rival general Hyoe Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita) is a perfect example of a sequence that could not be captured in the same way in anything less than widescreen. The visual component of The Hidden Fortress should not be underestimated. It was groundbreaking. Viewing it today, when directors use the 2.35:1 aspect ratio as a playground rather than a canvas, it comes across as all the more impressive.

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.

Hidden Fortress, The (Japan, 1958)

Ranked #41 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 2:19
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence)
Subtitles: English subtitled Japanese
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1