A few days ago Matt Brown wrote a fantastic piece on being underwhelmed by two films that cinephiles collectively consider essential viewing. He cautions that lists like the Blind Spot series has mistakenly turned the film loving experience into mandatory viewing rather than something organic. He argues that it provides a false notion that one must see certain films, deemed essential by an arbitrary group, in order to enhance ones overall film literacy. Personally, I have always treated the Blind Spot series as a personal house cleaning of sorts. A way to cut down on the figurative, and at times literal, DVDs piling up on the “films I am interested in seeing” bookshelf. However, I can identify with the indifference that Brown felt with his recent screenings as I had a similar experience watching Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress.
For years I kept hearing that The Hidden Fortress was a major influence for George Lucas’ Star Wars. Lucas detractors would frequently comment on how his space opera pales in comparison to Kurosawa’s masterpiece. Without reopening this age-old “apples to oranges” debate, I will merely say that I prefer Star Wars. You can put your pitchforks away as this is by no means a knock on what Kurosawa achieves with the film, but more a matter of preference. I just prefer the way that Lucas tackled the themes regarding heroic self-discovery, greed, and the ruling class. I also enjoyed how Lucas keeps the comic-relief a little more contained, but more on that later.
Arguably one of Kurosawa’s most accessible films, The Hidden Fortress is one of those crowd pleasing epics that entertains, but does not necessarily linger in one’s mind for too long. Set during a time of civil war between The Yamana Clan and Akizuki Clan, the story revolves around two farmers, Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) and Tahei (Minoru Chiaki), who escape a prison camp and unknowingly find themselves in the company of General Rokurota Makabe (Toshirô Mifune) and Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara). Only concerned with finding gold, the farmers do not realize that they are in the presence of Princess Yuki, the woman who can restore power to the Akizuki Clan. Using Matashichi and Tahei’s greed, and inherent fear, against them, Makabe tricks the two men into escorting him and Princess Yuki safely through enemy territory. Navigating the Yamana region, with a ton of hidden gold, Makabe must do whatever it takes to keep the group safe. A task made extra difficult by the fact that Matasichi and Tahei’s loyalty is as fragile as the stick where Yuki has hidden her gold.
One of the things that immediately struck me about The Hidden Fortress was the large amount of humour within the film. I honestly struggled to think of another Kurosawa film that had so many comedic beats. One of the best moments comes when Makabe must pretend to be a greedy farmer in order for the group to pass through a Yamana Clan checkpoint. At times the comedy is both a gift and a curse for the film. While it was rather invented, from a structural point, to focus the first act solely on Matashichi and Tahei, the novelty wears out its welcome pretty fast. Although Fujiwara and Chiaki give good performances, I started to get distracted by their buffoonery as the film progressed. Say what you will about Lucas, but at least he knew that C-3PO and R2-D2 worked better in doses. He ensured that the engaging characters, like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, were firmly in the driver’s seat.
Of course, the Han Solo of The Hidden Fortress, and for a number of Kurosawa films, is Toshirô Mifune. As a constant example of chivalry, wits and manliness, Mifune’s Makabe is what helps to give the film much needed gravitas. It is through Makabe, and eventually Yuki, that we get a true understanding of the turmoil that persist throughout the land. Makabe’s willingness to sacrifice himself in order to keep the ideals and hopes of the people alive carries far more weight in a few mere scenes than Matashichi and Tahei transformation over the course of the entire film.
From a technical perspective The Hidden Fortress is a sight to behold, though I would expect no less from a Kurosawa film. For his first foray into the widescreen format, Kurosawa crafts a film that feels visually epic in scope. I loved how he not only captures the chaos of the prison camp revolt, but also the beauty of the fire festival. He skillfully creates a good sense of the various landscapes in which his characters must travel through. All of which adds to the overall epic adventure feel.
While I understand both the technical and historical importance of The Hidden Fortress, which is already well documented so no need to repeat it here, I just could not help but feel a little underwhelmed by it all. The film entertained me but did not grab me the way other Kurosawa films, such as Yojimbo, Ran and Rashomon for example, did in the past. I think the main reason for this was the large amount of focus placed on Matashichi and Tahei. The Hidden Fortress has much going for it, but it is not a film that I would rank amongst my favourites in Kurosawa’s canon.