Best known as the major influence on George Lucas’ Star Wars, Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 The Hidden Fortress deserves recognition as a definitive cultural expression of Japan’s master filmmaker. After the international success of Rashomon (1952) and Seven Samurai (1955), Kurosawa abandoned his early interest in “gendai-mono” (modern-set pictures) and concentrated on “jidai-geki” (period-set pictures). For contemporary filmgoers, the term “jidai” should ring a bell suggesting knight-like chivalry, exotic adventure and historical myths from many ages. Those are exactly the elements Kurosawa began to emphasize in his medieval tales. Elaborating on his previous urban dramas, Kurosawa went back to early Japanese history, culminating in The Hidden Fortress’ fascinated concentration on basic moral themes.
For The Hidden Fortress Kurosawa devised a story both elaborate and simple. During feudal wartime, two farmers, Matashichi and Tahei, have escaped prison camp and are scavenging the wilderness for gold when they are dragooned by General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune), who is secretly safeguarding Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) in a camp hidden in a mountainous valley. Makabe tricks—and frightens—the foolish farmers into helping him escort Princess Yuki through the regional battles to claim her throne. En route to the safety of the Hayakawa province, the quartet’s personalities are tested; Makabe and the Princess show their steadfast tribal allegiance while Matashichi and Tahei’s personal loyalty outlasts their greed. Stealthily traversing the warring districts, hauling a treasure of gold-sticks on their backs and by cart, they evade warriors and renegades, while observing a nation in turmoil.
Among the many “jidai-geki” in the Japanese cinema’s tradition, Kurosawa’s most resemble their western counterparts. The Hidden Fortress holds a place in cinema history comparable to John Ford’s Stagecoach: It lays out the plot and characters of an on-the-road epic of self-discovery and heroic action. In a now-familiar fashion, Rokurota and Princess Yuki fight their way to allied territory, accompanied by a scheming, greedy comic duo who get surprised by their own good fortune. Kurosawa always balances valor and greed, seriousness and humor, while depicting the misfortunes of war. Action is underlined by Masaru Sato’s score; though percussive and tonally very Japanese, it has a rousing Hollywood intensity and lilt. Kurosawa’s plot, which falls into the adventure film lineage between John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, further shows his Hollywood/West leaning.
Yet The Hidden Fortress proves most distinctive when not merely reduced to genre type but rather appreciated for Kurosawa’s unique, excited exhibition of nature and different human characters. “We can rely on their greed,” Rokurota says of the two clownish farmers. Similarly, Princess Yuki’s nobility can’t be disguised by her tomboy masquerade. (In a rare superimposed double-image, Kurosawa shows her sobbing within her flag. “Her Highness is the real sacrifice,” Rokurota testifies). The emotional satisfaction of this type of epic morality play in which behavior reveals personality proves how effective Kurosawa could be at combining action and purpose, morality and thrills.
The Hidden Fortress answers a popular yearning (it was Kurosawa’s biggest financial success until Yojimbo in 1961) by literally expanding audience taste for mythic imagery. Capping the decade when CinemaScope became prominent, Kurosawa made his first foray into widescreen composition with The Hidden Fortress. The expanded image affects the sensory enjoyment of a story that in lesser hands would be simplistic; the steady accumulation of physical and psychological details make this an epic entertainment in the Ben-Hur sense—but by one of cinema’s great sensual poets. Rain, fog, dust, sunlight, and moonlight become part of the unfolding story. (Kurosawa even evokes the extraordinary Birnam Wood imagery from Throne of Blood.)
Designing these pictographs in terms of wide, rectangular compositions, Kurosawa offers a kinetic surprise in the way much of the action moves from the back of the image to the foreground, or from the top of the frame to the bottom. No other filmmaker since early D. W. Griffith or Fritz Lang in the ’20s has used the screen so dynamically. Much of Kurosawa’s genius can be seen as a direct benefit of the newness and inspiration of the CinemaScope (here Tohoscope) frame. This new format put special emphasis on the long exterior shot as adventure fans know, but what is less commonly recognized is the dynamism it afforded the close-up. Kurosawa’s use of a telephoto lens gave close imagery unusual density, as when Rokurota and Princess Yuki cast their gaze on the Hayakawa plains. Quick editing of fast-moving action across the vast frame—as when Rokurota fights four soldiers, charging through the landscape back to their headquarters—makes for unusually dazzling cinema.
Kurosawa set a new standard for visualized excitement that filmmakers have been imitating ever since. Photographing man in nature, man confronting fate, Kurosawa’s imagery depicts human beings as pawns to destiny or their own animal instincts. This extra-sensual significance derives from the photography’s tactile quality—the way the opening scenes of sand and rock give way to flora and water when the hidden fortress is revealed. The adventure film concept is philosophically, spectacularly rendered. When Rokurota’s band attend a bonfire, they join an existential chant: “Ponder and you’ll see the world is dark/ And this floating world is a dream/ Burn with abandon.” This scene’s startling visual contrasts of glistering black and white vivifies the song’s meaning. The clarity and vibrance of Ichio Yamazaki’s cinematography makes The Hidden Fortress a special pleasure; nighttime sequences are deep and velvety with images highlighted in gray sheen or shimmering whiteness.
All of this contributes to Kurosawa’s trailblazing widescreen exaltation of nature, a key part of his cinematic spectacle that has influenced numerous filmmakers. No wonder remakes of Kurosawa classics are numerous. They include The Magnificent Seven (from the 1955 Seven Samurai), The Outrage (from the 1953 Rashomon), A Fistful of Dollars (from the 1963 Yojimbo), and Ransom (from the 1963 High and Low). Kurosawa’s cultural influence becomes even more redoubtable when considering The Hidden Fortress. The episodic story was, of course, eventually borrowed by George Lucas for both the initial plot of Star Wars and the revived Princess Amidala-centered narrative of The Phantom Menace. But The Hidden Fortress also clearly influenced Hayao Miyazaki’s anime feature Princess Mononoke. It turns out that in The Hidden Fortress Kurosawa not only commemorated historical Japanese myths with new, vivid feeling but also created the source for many of the enduring entertainment tropes in world cinema today.
Armond White's film criticism has been published internationally. His collected pop culture criticism appears in the book The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World.