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At certain points in their careers, even cinema’s greatest auteurs have needed to cover their asses with a hit. For Akira Kurosawa at the height of his powers, that wasn’t going to be a problem. Kurosawa had earned a tremendous amount of goodwill after the critical and commercial success of 1954’s “Seven Samurai,” and by 1958 he’d spent every last scrap of it. First there was “I Live in Fear,” a difficult (but worthwhile) melodrama in which Toshiro Mifune played an elderly man so fraught with nuclear anxiety that he obliterates his own family. Kurosawa rebounded with the grim yet profitable “Macbeth” adaptation “Throne of Blood,” only to follow that with the most dire film he would ever make, a riff on Maxim Gorky’s miserablist play “The Lower Depths.”
Kurosawa knew that he was backing himself into a corner that he could only buy his way out of with box office receipts. “The Hidden Fortress” over-delivered on that front more than he ever could’ve imagined.
A self-described piece of “100% entertainment” that became the biggest hit of Kurosawa’s career to date, the fourth-highest-grossing film of its year in Japan, and later one of the most consecrated inspirations for a movie called “Star Wars,” “The Hidden Fortress” is typically remembered as a low-calorie snack or a historical footnote. And that’s if it’s remembered at all.
It was George Lucas who rescued the film from oblivion (and leveraged his own success to support Kurosawa after the industry had turned on the aging master like a wild tiger), but even Lucas has been reserved in his praise. He’s always been quick to credit “The Hidden Fortress” for informing the creation of R2-D2 and C-3PO, and for giving him the idea to introduce a galaxy far, far away through the eyes of its most innocuous characters, but that’s where it stops. Even when he agreed to participate in a video interview for the Criterion Collection DVD of “A Hidden Fortress,” all he could muster was a monotone “it’s not at the very top of my list — but I liked it.” It’s no wonder that people tend to think of it as a minor work in the career of a major artist.
It’s time to annihilate that idea from the inside out. “The Hidden Fortress” is a bracing adventure in its own right — not a frivolous outlier from one of cinema’s most formative oeuvres, but rather a Cervantes-inflected delight that complicates and enriches Kurosawa’s signature humanism by exploring the value of morality in an amoral world.
The initial moments of “The Hidden Fortress” reveal and undermine the film’s connection to “Star Wars” in equal measure. We open on a dusty, barren expanse at the end of Japan’s volatile Sengoku period (likely the late 16th century), as two sullied conscripts shuffle home after escaping someone else’s war by the skin of their teeth. Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) and his even more unscrupulous pal Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) might see the world from the same low-status perspective as Lucas’ droids, but they’re not quite as polite about it.
“Stay away from me,” Tahei barks at Matashichi in the first line of the film. “You stink of dead bodies!” To which Matashichi replies: “Shitworms can’t smell shit! You’re a shitworm! You make me sick.” And so begins a jidaigeki (the term for a Japanese period drama that’s just a stone’s throw away from “Jedi story”), and it saturates an old-fashioned adventure yarn with the true savagery of war.
Moments later, a runaway soldier is slashed to death right in front of them, and after Matashichi insists on stealing the armor off the corpse’s body, he and Tahei split up. They both wind up in the same labor camp anyway, happily reuniting amidst a prisoner rebellion that Kurosawa shoots with the widescreen panache of a D.W. Griffith epic. Tahei and Matashichi recognize that chaos is their only chance for upward mobility, but the fog of war makes it hard for them to see how much they depend on each other for survival.
Tahei and Matashichi are starving in a country that has been tearing itself into scraps for hundreds of years; naturally, the higher-born characters just call them “greedy.” Mifune’s ultra-masculine (but uncharacteristically jocular) Rokurota Makabe looks down on the peasants like they’re ants. A famed Akizuki general who’s searching for a way to smuggle his clan’s stolen gold back home through enemy territory, Makabe plans on killing Tahei and Matashichi until he realizes how to use their poverty to his advantage: By acting like another hopeless peon, disguising the young Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) as a mute nobody, and hiding the invaluable ore in sticks of basic driftwood, Makabe will simply walk Akizuki’s fortune (and its ferocious leader) straight through the heart of the empire.
From that simple premise, Kurosawa spirits us away on a nuanced and even hilarious journey about people at odds with their environment. You might expect that Kurosawa’s first experiment with anamorphic widescreen to indulge in vast scenery and an epic scale (and sometimes it does), but “The Hidden Fortress” primarily finds the director using his new aspect-ratio to express character. Everything you need to know about Tahei and Matashichi can be seen during one indelible shot in which the two men walk along opposite sides of a turret and towards the outer edges of the frame, as the Akizuki clan’s hidden fortress juts up between them like a bloody abscess.
Soon after that, Kurosawa squeezes Toho-scope for all its worth as Princess Yuki — furious that Makabe sacrificed his own sister in her place so they could escape — surveys the landscape from the top of a hill. Makabe insists that Yuki’s kindness will be her downfall, but as the sheltered royal wends her way through the country over the next two hours — meeting people high and low, and measuring their qualities against their plights — the opposite proves true. The princess never wavers. Uehara’s performance is delicate but possessed in a screen debut that’s equal parts Audrey Hepburn and Lady Snowblood (at least in hindsight), and it verges into iconic territory as Kurosawa superimposes the Akizuki clan’s crescent flag over the actress’ face. It’s a crucial, breathtaking moment in a light film that hinges on the force of the human conscience.
Whereas “Star Wars” simplifies many of these same ingredients into an intergalactic story of good vs. evil, “A Hidden Fortress” sees the world through a more nuanced moral spectrum. Kurosawa believed that goodness was better earned than found. Princess Yuki is as memorable (and straight up cool) as anyone ever was in a Kurosawa movie, but there’s a reason why the noble badass is a minor character in this story, while the grieving Makabe and his two self-interested lackeys are never off-screen for long.
The Japanese title for “The Hidden Fortress” literally translates as “Three Bad Men in a Hidden Fortress,” and divining the irony behind Kurosawa’s intention is an adventure unto itself. Makabe at first seems happy-go-lucky compared to Mifune’s other period roles, but his butch warrior affect hides a growing sense of grief that complicates his faith in feudal allegiances. The mercy he shows to a rival after beating him in a spear duel — among the longest and most exciting one-on-one fights that Kurosawa ever staged — reflects a profound sense of doubt in the prescriptive roles that people of his time were assigned at birth. That doubt leads to sympathy, that sympathy leads to salvation, and that salvation leads to happiness — a chain of events that unfolds with the easy joy of a Saturday morning serial.
For much of the movie, Tahei and Matashichi are motivated only by money, self-preservation, or some combination of the two; their complete lack of a moral compass makes it easier for us to see where other characters are being pointed. When Yuki liberates a girl from indentured sex work, the girl becomes as loyal to her as a ship following true north. Later, as Tahei is about to rape a sleeping Yuki, that same girl is able to return the favor by stopping the act.
The two lowly conscripts are obviously hard to think of as heroes, and Kurosawa’s not all that interested in getting them there; the bumbling droids never save the day, or discover some kind of altruism that was dormant inside of them all along. Instead, “The Hidden Fortress” uses them to enhance a realistic narrative arc that might otherwise be reduced to a series of simple karmic boomerangs. Tahei and Matashichi aren’t on a journey from vice to virtue so much as they’re being led towards a place where they might not have to think of themselves as vultures anymore — where they recognize the power to be better than how they were born.
Their final moment is a small but rewarding expression of the socioeconomic flexibility that Kurosawa borrowed from his favorite American films, and transposed over a feudal system that would never have allowed for it. The moral character of his post-war films reflects the mindset of a country that was being rebuilt from the ruins. In that context, “The Hidden Fortress” can be seen as a hugely entertaining movie that restores the status quo while also leaving its characters with a newfound freedom to make it better. Beggars don’t become landowners, generals don’t get to marry their princesses, and the war still rages on outside the Akizuki palace, but these characters are only alive to fight it because — not in spite — of their common humanity. Watching Tahei and Matashichi internalize that idea hits with as much ecstatic oomph as watching Luke blow up the Death Star, or at least as much as watching the ewoks party on Endor. War reduces people to their worst, but it also makes it that much easier to see the better angels of our nature.
Kurosawa never lost sight of them, whether making neo-realistic noirs or rip-snorting jidaigeki adventures. Like all his films, “The Hidden Fortress” flattened the hierarchy between high and low art, while dismantling the hierarchy between people. The film has been dismissed because it’s too much fun, but that’s exactly why it deserves to be mentioned alongside his other masterpieces.
“The Hidden Fortress” is streaming on The Criterion Channel.