Renowned film maker Akira Kurosawa wanted to make a film that would in his words be “a 100% entertainment film, full of thrills and fun”. It was his way of repaying Toho Film Studios for backing some of his artier and darker projects such as “Rashomon”. The result was a critical and box office success that became the inspiration for “Star Wars”.
Kurosawa favourite Toshiro Mifune is General Makabe Rokurota, charged with safely escorting Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) across treacherous enemy territory to restore their clan’s honour.
Helping in this quest are Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara), a pair of quibbling peasants driven by desperation and greed.
Two greedy peasants in feudal Japan, Tahei and Matashichi returning home from a failed attempt to profit from a war between neighbouring clans, encounter the remnants of the defeated Akizuki tribe, General Rokurota and Princess Yuki. The General and Princess are trying to escape into allied territory with their large supply of gold which will help rebuild their shattered clan. Rokurota tricks the peasants into helping with the promise of a large share of the gold when the destination is reached. The party have to face close encounters with the pursuing enemy, and as well as a number difficult situations caused by the greedy bumbling peasants.
Like all of Kurosawa’s films the narrative is carried along by stunning visuals, perfectly timed comedy and a story steeped in Samurai tradition. Working in partnership with cinematographer Kazuo Yamasaki, Kurosawa captured some exhilarating set pieces and captivating images as he maximised the cinemascope format to drive the narrative. The duo made the most unassuming locations such as desert terrain and war torn settlements seem more intricate and well designed. Kurosawa’s technique of shooting from angles and slowly expanding upwards creates some breathtakingly picturesque scenes such as the vast towers of the mountain ranges. These enhance some of the more noble aspects of the story, honour and nobility, whilst contrasting with the darker ones such as Tahei and Matashichi’s incessant greed.
Much of the film is a seamless blend of comedic bickering, bumbling and tension as the party treks through vast lands avoiding enemy capture. The tension bubble is burst when they are spotted by enemy soldiers, and Rokurota springs into action. For the horse back chase scene, Kurosawa employed his trademark stationary panning shots to capture Mifune’s dynamism as he combines horse riding skills with his usual Katana expertise, taking out the enemy before they can warn the nearby camp. The chase and fight element embodies all the thrills of a traditional Western with swords and spears replacing the six shooter.
For the spear (Yari) contest between Rokurota and General Tadokoro (Susumu Fujiwara) Kurosawa uses stationary panning with hand held cameras capturing every manoeuvre. Lasting for nearly ten minutes the contest is both a test of skill as well as strength and tactics as the two warriors’ weapons clash through various strikes and parries in between them sizing each other up, looking for a weakness in one another to end the contest. Both actors are clearly capable in Sōjutsu (art of spear) and whilst not the most spectacular of weapons form, still looks very effective with both actors convincing in their determination to outdo each other.
“The Hidden Fortress” is an effortless blend of action, drama and comedy, with less of the focus on the first two and more on the slapstick antics of Tahei and Matashichi. Some of the story also reflects on the characters’ motivations showing distinct contrasting points of view, the peasants’ obsessive greed with the noble valour of Rokurota risking his life for the Princess as well as Yuki’s reaction to impoverishment. This balance of seriousness and humour smoothly intercut with watchable action and beautiful cinematography keeps the film thought provoking and entertaining and is one of the most notable of Kurosawa’s work.
- The film’s plot and perspective which influenced “Star Wars” was reused for “The Phantom Menace”.
- This is the first Kurosawa film to be shot in widescreen and recorded in stereo sound.