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The Hidden Fortress was Akira Kurosawa’s first hit after 1954’s Seven Samurai, four years and four films earlier. It won even bigger at the box office and scooped up a handful of Japanese and international awards, proving that its director was not merely an art-house auteur but could fill theaters as well. The film’s popularity in Japan was instrumental in securing financial guarantees for Kurosawa’s own production company, which supported all his subsequent films up to 1970. The pacing and characters of The Hidden Fortress, its landscapes and epic feel, make it a great action film, and as Kurosawa’s first use of widescreen, it is one of his most stylish movies. With this film, the director’s artistry and humanist ideology spectacularly fused with the entertainment values of adventure films and comedies. Still, although it shares a great deal, thematically and stylistically, with his previous films, including Seven Samurai and its nation-building enthusiasm, many critics in Japan and the U.S. originally dismissed The Hidden Fortress as “frivolous entertainment,” not up to the art-house standards of such works as Rashomon (1950), Ikiru (1952), and Throne of Blood (1957). The film was rescued from critical oblivion when it was recognized as an important influence on Star Wars, and it is now widely viewed as a key film in the history of action-adventure cinema, encapsulating the American-Asian roots of the genre as it has evolved since the 1970s.
As a genre film, The Hidden Fortress is difficult to categorize: it is at once a samurai film and a road movie, with a significant nod to the American western. The Japanese title translates literally as “Three Bad Men in a Hidden Fortress,” which may underscore Kurosawa’s debt to John Ford (who made a film called Three Bad Men in 1926) but tends to obscure the important role of Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), one of the first woman characters in a Japanese period film who is neither a suffering beauty nor a femme fatale. The “three bad men,” moreover, are actually not that bad, although two of them, the comic duo at the center of the film, are mercenary outlaws (a.k.a. starving peasants). The third man, General Rokurota Makabe, is one in a long line of Toshiro Mifune’s tough, charming, highly skilled samurai. These three come together to escort the princess, heir to a besieged empire, to safety through treacherous enemy territory.
As Kurosawa’s first use of TohoScope, The Hidden Fortress is also an important film stylistically in the director’s career. He uses the long lenses and wide frame to set characters off against a landscape that is, for the most part, dry and barren—an expanse of nothingness against which the human drama is played out. The eponymous fortress is an oddity, nestled in a valley and completely surrounded by steep hills. It seems to be mainly an underground labyrinth of passageways and caverns that are linked to a dense forest otherwise hidden from view. When this curious place is obliterated in a puff of smoke by the enemy, it comes as no surprise, given its vulnerability. It was only a temporary hideout for the princess and her retinue, on the run with their great treasure of gold.
The more spectacular set is the ruined fortress that Yuki’s clan has left behind, a monumental structure of stone and burned wood. In this hell of tyranny, the occupiers have enslaved hundreds of displaced soldiers and farmers, depicted as a seething mass of decimated and destroyed men from which the two peasants, Tahei and Matashichi, emerge as homeless travelers. In fact, they are introduced earlier as pals who separate over a dispute about honesty. One will rob a dead samurai and one will not. The samurai in question has been slashed to death by a group of mounted men bearing clan flags in a quick, bloody, horrific slaughter. This scene sets the tone for the ensuing drama, in which the two peasants’ point of view is privileged in a land of cutthroat violence. And yet there is already a level of irony in the peasants’ clownish response to the cold-blooded murder, in Masaru Sato’s whimsical score, and in the dead man’s curious rigor mortis posture. In the Scope frame, the peasants are truly alone with their morality, evoking the wasteland of Waiting for Godot.
The two are played by veteran actors Minoru Chiaki (Tahei) and Kamatari Fujiwara (Matashichi), who are more frequently cast in minor roles but deliver extraordinary performances in The Hidden Fortress. Thus the “democratic” humanism of the film includes their opportunity to shine as leading actors, even if the narrative ends up with the feudal social hierarchy firmly in place. After carrying the burden of the gold treasure through thick and thin, they are offered a pittance as a reward, which Matashichi uncharacteristically allows Tahei to keep. The plot of The Hidden Fortress essentially revolves around Rokurota’s ability to manipulate the peasants’ basic greed, conning them into the task of escorting the princess and transporting her gold. As in all the best road movies, the characters are transformed by the journey. The princess learns the plight of the commoners, and the commoners learn that their greediness was a misguided attempt to upset the social order.
The Hidden Fortress does not put forward a class critique, and yet the depiction of the social hierarchy is complex and contradictory. Although the comic point of view of the two peasants is privileged for most of the film, the use of deep focus and expansive long shots situates the two men within a larger worldview. They can’t see as far as Yuki and Rokurota can when the princess and her bodyguard stand or ride on top of hills overlooking huge expanses of landscape. The landowners’ view is celebrated by triumphant music and heroic stances, while the peasants remain unmounted, on ground level. In the film’s penultimate scene, Yuki, Rokurota, and a second samurai who has changed sides to join them laugh heartily at the sight of their gold being borne by galloping unmanned horses in their own territory. With this laughter, the ideological point of view finally shifts to them.
The contrast between the peasants and the nobility is one of personality, but also one of acting styles. The exaggerated clownishness of the two ruffians is very different from the equally exaggerated stiffness and gruffness of the princess and the samurai. Such stylized acting distinguishes the film sharply from American westerns of the period, and is also strangely ironic in the natural settings of dense forests and rocky plains. The “realness” of the impoverished peasants, fighting for their lives but constantly distracted by the promise of treasure, keeps the film down-to-earth. In the best tradition of postwar humanism, poverty underscores reality. Even so, Kurosawa’s liberal use of rapid pans and montage, extreme angles and sudden violence, makes the picture one of his most stylized. It sets the tone for his masterpiece Yojimbo (1961) and its sequel, Sanjuro (1962)—as well as Leone’s remake of the first, A Fistful of Dollars—introducing the distinctive combination of an exaggerated visual style and a hardscrabble, violent world without moral bearings, in which heroism flourishes alongside the grotesque and the comic.
What sets this film apart and gives it what some describe as a fairy-tale logic is the role of the princess. Kurosawa wanted a “new face” for this part, so he cast novice actress Misa Uehara as Yuki. She is less a character than a figure of awesome power and authority. She walks and talks like a man, which is why Rokurota asks her to pass as a mute on their journey, as she is apparently unable to adopt the feminine, submissive speech of an ordinary woman. Wearing shorts and with makeup based on a Noh mask, she is a kind of phallic woman. Stripped of sexuality, she is arguably symptomatic of the changing gender roles of postwar Japan. Women’s liberation was received with deep ambivalence after the American occupation, as it reeked of Western values. In The Hidden Fortress, we see a new woman of the 1950s, echoing the great western roles of Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck, but even more powerful than they, and far more independent, if somewhat less seductive.
Yuki’s journey of self-discovery is triggered by a fire festival that the adventurers witness one night in the forest. She is moved by the spirit of the dancing crowd, the magic of the firelight, and especially the Buddhist hymn to transience: “Life is just a dream.” Later in the film, bound to a pole, she chants these words to her captor, who is moved enough to let her and her companions go. It may not be the poetry itself that changes Yuki, however, so much as the experience of the forest dance when she joins the chanting, ceremonial crowd. This is the film’s only image of a functional society, an idealized one, to be sure, but central to the film’s project of social reconciliation and peaceful nation-building. Yuki is also moved to rescue a young woman being forced into sex work, and the woman joins the posse as a handmaiden and companion. This character is more typical of jidai-geki, as is her story (although Yuki’s mission to save her is a gesture from the 1950s, when the sex industry finally came under scrutiny). If this were an American film, Yuki and Rokurota would inevitably have a romantic ending; but in sixteenth-century Japan, a bodyguard was far too lowly a partner for a princess, and so in the end, he assumes a ceremonial role at her feet.
The Hidden Fortress shares the humanist ideology of so much Japanese cinema of the 1950s, accommodating democratic values of social equality to a renewed history of the nation. A heroic montage of Yuki’s face superimposed on the crescent-moon flag of her clan as she surveys the landscape is legible as a nostalgic longing for an imaginary nation. The film’s sixteenth-century setting, the so-called era of Warring States, or the Sengoku period, is one that Kurosawa had also used for Seven Samurai. Mizoguchi’s postwar humanist epic Ugetsu monogatari (1953) takes place at this time as well. The parallels with postwar Japan include the destroyed landscape and the unsettled social formation, in which class boundaries are weakened and danger is balanced with opportunity. Before the Tokugawa era (1603–1867) and its codes of Bushido, samurai were able—according to the mythology of Kurosawa’s cinema—to follow their conscience rather than their master. Thus Rokurota lets his rival live after beating him in a jousting match; said rival, Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita), lets Rokurota and Yuki go later in the film after hearing Yuki’s fire festival song. The trajectory of the two peasants, from the hell of the burning fortress at the beginning of the film to the gift of humility and generosity at the end, is perhaps an optimistic allegory for the reestablishment of the status quo after the decades of social and economic upheaval of the postwar period. It is a fantasy, but like all fairy tales, it is a fiction of its own time.
The Hidden Fortress is, like so many of Kurosawa’s films, Mifune’s movie. Of all the characters, he alone is unchanged, because he is an ideal figure from the get-go, a pillar of certitude in an uncertain world. First appearing twenty minutes into the film, framed by the steep hills of the labyrinthine landscape, Rokurota asserts himself with a physical bravado that is nevertheless deeply humane. He impresses and intimidates everyone around him, and seduces the viewer easily with his sheer charm and exuberance. His movements are fluid and fast. He cuts men down in the blink of an eye, but is equally capable of choosing not to. This is, of course, the ideal profile of the Western cowboy (as the critic Robert Warshow pointed out many years ago): a man who has the power over life and death and the moral integrity to use such power wisely. Mifune’s taut body, muscular yet surprisingly agile and quick, is perfectly attuned to Ichio Yamazaki’s dynamic cinematography. The multiplanar traveling shots through thick forest, following characters on the run, are reminiscent of Rashomon, and the intense low-angle close-ups of expressive faces anticipate the physiognomic landscape of Yojimbo (although both of them were shot by Kazuo Miyagawa). The characters are all larger than life, but their story is gripping, and what Kurosawa achieves through his pacing and his comedy is a lightness that has made the film one of the most important and influential action films of world cinema.
Catherine Russell is Professor of Film Studies at Concordia University, Montreal. She is the author of four books and numerous articles on narrative theory, experimental ethnography, Japanese cinema, experimental film, Canadian cinema, and Walter Benjamin. Please see www.catherinerussell.ca.