#24 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.
Famously one of the main points of inspiration that George Lucas used to write the first Star Wars film, The Hidden Fortress was Akira Kurosawa chasing financial success with a big, brash action adventure after his last film, an adaptation of a Maxim Gorky play, didn’t exactly set the box office on fire. The film feels like a boys adventure story brought to life with close calls, chases, and danger around every corner. I could have done with a slightly different focus and the earlier introductions of some important later elements, but I still have a solidly good experience every time I come back to revisit the movie.
Two peasants, Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) are returning from their efforts to try and make it rich in a war between the Akizuki and Yamana clans where the Akizuki have been all but wiped out. The two peasants are completely destitute and barely even dressed when they witness the killing of a lone Akizuki soldier by Yamana cavalry, and the two decide to split in different directions. Tahei stumbles up against the tightly controlled border between Akizuki and Hayakawa by Yamana forces before being captured by Yamana forces. Matashichi gets immediately captured with stolen Akizuki armor and is pressganged in with dozens of other prisoners to dig under the Akizuki castle for two-hundred gold pieces that they supposedly left behind. The two end up back together and escape during a prisoner revolt, figuring out a way to get back into Hayakawa territory by going into Yamana territory and then back up into Hayakawa.
As they make their way, they accidentally come across a bit of wood that has a piece of Akizuki gold hidden inside. They strike out searching for more and encounter a mysterious man, Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune), who decides to join them in their plan of escape, leading the pair to the titular hidden fortress in the mountains. It is here the that the last remaining member of the Akizuki royal family, Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), is hiding under Makabe’s protection as her last general. They have the gold hidden in wooden sticks, and decide to use the two peasants and their greed to help them on the perilous journey.
The movie puts what I think is an inordinate focus on Tahei and Matashichi. This story isn’t theirs. They are side characters in Makabe’s story. The focus on them, that only ever wanes in the film’s last third or so, reminds me of early John Ford, especially in something like The Iron Horse. The side characters are fun and entertaining, for sure, but since the story isn’t actually theirs, they end up a large distraction. Makabe is the central character here. He has the most interesting relationships. He goes on the most interesting emotional journey. He’s the one driving the plot. He really should be the focus once the two peasants meet him, but we get so many scenes of the pair being blinded by the greed of the gold. Always amusing they are, but they just take the focus away from Makabe.
The group of four strike out from the hiding space, Yuki pretending to be a mute to hide her royal upbringing, and they immediately find trouble when the border to Yamana is more tightly controlled than they had suspected. Using one of the pieces of gold as a distraction, Makabe causes a scene with the commander of the border crossing that allows Yuki and the two peasants to slip by unnoticed. Word reaches the border station of the description of the party, based on the tracks from the hidden fortress that had been found and burned out, and the chase is on. Yuki forces Makabe to buy the freedom of an Akizuki girl (Toshiko Higuchi) that had been sold into a whorehouse. They trade their horses for a cart, and it seems like they should be able to sneak through having changed both their numbers and mode of transportation, but the Yamana soldiers aren’t that simple. They figure it out, forcing Makabe into a chase back to their staging area, and we get, 90 minutes into the film, the most interesting relationship in the whole movie.
Makabe faces off against the Yamana commander, General Hyoe Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita), and the two have a history. They are long time friends who ended up on the wrong sides of this conflict that they did not choose. They have a spear duel, tense and ever-changing in that great action way, and Makabe wins, refusing to kill his foe as an act of compassion. I really, really wish Tadokoro had been introduced earlier, especially since he comes up later in a very important way that gets our heroes out of a desperate jam. The quick dialogue at the start of the duel about how they are friends just isn’t enough, I don’t think. Something early, like Tahei or Matashachi overhearing Tadokoro talk about Makabe, might have been enough, but introducing him at the 90-minute point underserves the characters.
The group gets in with a procession of festival goers to celebrate the Fire Festival, thinking that they’ll blend in well enough, but they can’t get away and end up needing to dump the wood that hides the gold into the fire to blend in. They collect the melted bits of metal the next morning, packing it all into heavy sacks, and we’re ready for the final confrontation near the Hayakawa border. Makabe, Yuki, and the girl get captured after Tahei and Matashachi run away. The Yamana have the princess and the gold, and all seems lost when Tadokoro shows up, listens to their pleas after having been beaten for his failure with Makabe by his lord, and he fights to let them all go. This is a big turn of events for an important secondary character, and I really just wish he had been given more time earlier in the film to more firmly establish himself before he made such a large change that affected the story.
So, my complaints are relatively small. A greater focus on Makabe instead of our two amusing peasants and an earlier introduction of Tadokoro really would have helped the film. Outside of that, this is fun adventure stuff that I really do enjoy. The spear duel between Makabe and Tadokoro is tense and well-filmed. There’s a real sense of danger as the group moves closer to peril in an effort to protect themselves. The overall action of the movement of characters is very clearly laid out early, allowing us to just go along with the story.
I also want to say that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a director move from the Academy aspect ratio of 1.33:1 to scope 2.35:1 more adeptly than Kurosawa did here. The Lower Depths was his last film in the Academy ratio, and he embraced the wider frame of Tohoscope unbelievably well. I remembered John Ford’s first attempt, The Long Gray Line, and how it often felt like he was still trying to frame for Academy, leaving characters in the center of frame with almost absurd amounts of space left to the sides. That never happens here in The Hidden Fortress. Kurosawa utilizes the full frame, unafraid to paint at the edges, place two conversing characters at the far sides of the frame with something interesting in the middle to separate them, or allow action to move from one side to the other. He was well-known for storyboarding his films through paintings, and it’s obvious he learned quickly that he could and should use the whole space. In addition, it might be his most impressive physical production with huge sets that he utilizes fully as well. It’s honestly one of Kurosawa’s best looking films.
The Hidden Fortress is a fun adventure film that’s never dull but probably could have been improved with a couple of smallish narrative changes. It’s also great to look at and has Toshiro Mifune being the movie star he was, carrying the whole thing with humor and intensity.