One of the greatest action-adventure films ever made, The Hidden Fortress stands alongside the finest achievements of its creator—Japanese film master Akira Kurosawa. Produced in 1958, this thrilling Cinemascope epic—starring Kurosawa’s favorite actor Toshiro Mifune—is set squarely within the traditions of the Japanese film genre known as the “Chambara.”
Costume and swordplay epics set in the 16th-century feudal period, “Chambara” films mix history and folklore with the conventions of theatrical melodrama much as American westerns do. And like the majority of westerns, most “Chambara” films are “programmers”—routine action “quickies” ground out like so many sausages and tossed out on the movie marketplace. In the hands of the man who made such films as Rashomon, Ikiru, Yojimbo, and Ran, however, genre particulars appear as anything but routine. Fast-paced, witty and visually stunning, The Hidden Fortress has delighted audiences not only on its home turf, but throughout the world—something few “Chambara” films ever managed to do.
At heart the story is a simple one. Having escaped the clutches of an enemy clan, Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), her loyal retainers, and her faithful military commandant, General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune), are hiding out in a secret mountain fortress. With their clan’s precious gold horde hidden in sticks of firewood, they plan to make their escape across a nearby border by disguising themselves as peasants. Once on their way, it’s one chase, swordfight, and hairs-breadth escape after another.
Straightforward as this seems on paper, this same scenario unfolds in a somewhat oblique manner on screen. For rather than deal with his heroes directly, Kurosawa elects to tell their story through the eyes of two minor characters—a pair of peasant farmers that the Princess Yuki and the General use to aid their escape.
Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) and Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) live on the lowest possible level of the feudal totem pole. They’re entirely at the mercy of whatever miliary faction is currently holding sway. Threatened with death at one moment, forced into slavery at another, their lives are one long process of victimization. Still these pieces of peasant flotsam and jetsam aren’t noble sufferers. Constantly bickering between themselves, they’re as corrupt as their exploiters. When they discover the clan gold, they leap on it like starving animals—each claiming sole ownership rights.
For the Princess and the General, this greed proves useful. They need help in carrying the gold across the border. With troops on the lookout for them, the peasants will provide something of a disguise. Matashichi and Tahei, for their part, have no idea who the Princess and the General are, and are only too glad to help. Blinded by greed, they plot to steal the gold along the escape route. Part Shakespearean clowns, part Laurel and Hardy, the pair’s antics provide both a “worm’s eye view” of history, and form a backdrop for Kurosawa’s particular take on certain aspects of Japanese tradition—which is at once both celebratory and critical. Kurosawa clearly revels in the high adventure of the story he’s telling, and the excitement of the era it reflects. But such enjoyment doesn’t rule out criticism of the feudal honor code’s loyalty unto-death ideals. The General’s defense of the Princess comes at the cost of the life of his own sister. Likewise, the peasant farmers’ antics may be amusing, but the desperation of their situation is nevertheless made real.
Serious as these grace notes are, they’re minor in terms of the film’s overall plan. For The Hidden Fortress is first and foremost a flat-out “pure entertainment” in the grand tradition—and a stunning demonstration of the visual power of the wide-screen film. The battle on the steps in Chapter 2 (anticipating the climax of Ran) is as visually overwhelming as any of the similar scenes in Griffith’s Intolerance. The use of composition in depth in the fortress scene in Chapter 4 is likewise as arresting as the best of Eisenstein or David Lean. Toshiro Mifune’s muscular demonstrations of heroic derring-do in the horse-charge scene (Chapter 11) and the scrupulously choreographed swordfight climax that follows it (Chapter 12) is in the finest tradition of Douglas Fairbanks. Overall, there’s a sense of sheer “movieness” to The Hidden Fortress that places it plainly in the ranks of such grand adventure entertainments as Gunga Din, The Thief of Baghdad, and Fritz Lang’s celebrated diptych The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Hindu Tomb.
But as much as it’s part of one tradition, The Hidden Fortress can also lay claim to starting one of its own. The “worm’s eye view” of its story is taken up by Sergio Leone for his meta-westerns, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. Kurosawa’s action set pieces likewise reappear in a slightly different guise in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Indy’s whip replacing Makabe’s sword). Most important of all, there’s Star Wars. George Lucas has himself acknowledged his debt to Kurosawa for much of the scenario of his space opera in which a Princess (Leia) and soldier (Han Solo) escaped from enemy forces with the help of two bickering “peasant farmer” robots—R2D2 and C3PO. It was fun, but for some of us it can’t hold a candle to the original adventure “a long time ago” in a land “far far away.”
May the “Chambara” be with you!