The Hidden Fortress Movie Review
If Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress sounds a bit familiar, it should: It's the basic story line of not only George Lucas's Star Wars and The Phantom Menace but also Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke and countless other space operas and anime features in which a ragtag group has to bring a wayward princess through hostile territory to the safety of her throne.
The Hidden Fortress is told like a fairy tale: a mean and nasty fairy tale. Kurosawa centers this film, which is very much about class distinctions, through the eyes of the two lowlife peasants, and what they see through their eyes is childish and cruel. They argue and slap each other silly over basic needs -- food, shelter, sex -- and through their vision the world is a hard and cruel place. Kurosawa depicts them on an elemental level, pawing through an arid and rocky hill country and tearing their way through wild, overgrown forests and encountering soldiers and peasants just like themselves, only too eager to kill or cheat for money and food. When the Princess and Makabe enter the film, they are storybook figures of goodness and light but also of a higher, better class. When the Princess has to pretend to be a mute peasant girl so she can't be identified by her high-tone accent and bearing, Kurosawa subtly shifts the emphasis away from the two peasant stooges to the Princess and Makabe. This allows Kurosawa not only to get in the action scenes with Mifune but to show how the Princess's social conscious grows as she is forced to live like the peasants she lords over in her kingdom. It's why at film's end, when the Princess sings, "Ponder and you'll see / The world is dark / And this floating world is a dream," it is quite a moving moment of awakening.
For Kurosawa, The Hidden Fortress ushered in a number of firsts -- not only was it Kurosawa's biggest hit (until Yojimbo), it was the first time Kurosawa filmed in Cinemascope, announced with great fanfare in an opening credit as TohoScope. In his first scope film, Kurosawa already uses the wide frame like a master. It starts with the opening scene: The widescreen frame tracks behind the two beaten down peasants on a gravelly and baked open road, the barren expanse in front of them. Suddenly a terrified samurai emerges from the bottom of the frame and is chased into the distance by sword-bearing horsemen, who cut him down, leave the body, and ride off. It is a stunning introduction to KurosawaScope, and throughout the rest of the film, Kurosawa's compositions are composed so masterfully for the scope lens (the spear fight between Makabe and an enemy general, the hellish chaos in the POW camp, the mystical fire festival) that the film would be nonsensical viewed in any other format.
What makes The Hidden Fortress not a simple fairy tale but a disturbing one is the discomfiting tone of out-of-kilter mayhem running throughout the film. The landscapes are always too much -- too chalky, too rocky, too lush -- and the climatic conditions that reign down on the characters make it appear like the story is taking place on another planet (white parched dryness and brittle crags, monsoon-like rain and mud, otherworldly fog). The characters too are out-of-balance, particularly our two idiot peasants, who are always turning on each other and Makabe as soon as his back is turned: Tahei and Matakishi shockingly rush out and turn the Princess and Makabe in to the enemy and even more shockingly argue about who will be the first one to rape the Princess while she sleeps. These boys are not the cuddly Clifton Webb and Billy DeWolfe clones C3PO and R2D2 in Star Wars. Not by a mile.
The Hidden Fortress is an action-adventure tale played broadly but grandly, Kurosawa not only recalling John Ford but Beckett and Brecht in his characters and blighted landscapes. The Hidden Fortress is so much more than it seems, and it is Kurosawa is at the top of his game. What could have come off as an irritating comedy adventure instead is a masterpiece of composition, atmosphere, and subtext.
Aka Kakushi-toride no san-akunin.
Smells like Wookiee.