The Hidden Fortress (1958) is a good example of why Akira Kurosawa has long been considered one of the most consistently entertaining of the world-class directors. It’s also a reminder that his was a cinema consisting of a personal visual style yoked to an old-fashioned sensibility. There was an undeniable thread of humanism running through his work, as well as the occasional darker view. Still, he was first and foremost a storyteller and his best films are the ones where he’s lashed onto a solid plot, either adapted or cobbled together with his various collaborators (Fortress’ story is attributed to Kurosawa and three co-writers). No doubt this is why he’s always been, in the West, the most popular of all the Japanese directors and, conversely, why some film buffs rank him below more demanding fellow countrymen such as Ozu and Mizoguchi. But, strictly speaking, Kurosawa didn’t make art films even though he was a foreigner. The best points of comparison when assessing his accomplishments are popular auteurs such as John Ford and Howard Hawks.
Or maybe even George Lucas, since the most interesting thing about Fortress, before you see it, is that Lucas has claimed it to be a major inspiration for Star Wars. After you see it, the undeniable Star Wars parallels seem irrelevant, since the movie has a tone and rhythm uniquely its own. The film is structured like a shaggy-dog story. It’s a series of fantastic events seen mostly from the point of view of two peasant farmers, Tehei (Minoru Chaika) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara), who come across as a mix of Laurel and Hardy and Vladimir and Estragon from Waiting for Godot. The setting is medieval Japan during an era of warring clans and, as the film opens, the hapless duo are wandering in the wilderness, war refugees in a hostile province. One short and one tall, they’re the movie’s R2-D2 and C-3PO and have the fierce love-hate relationship shared by all classic comedy teams.
This is a comic adventure, but from the beginning we’re warned that it’s going to have some harsh edges. Tehei and Matashichi’s humorous bickering is interrupted when a grotesque figure stumbles in from off-screen, followed by a group of soldiers on horseback who brutally murder him, then ride off ignoring the dazed farmers. The two are briefly separated, then end up in the same slave-labor camp where they’re forced to dig for gold, nonstop, all day long. (“We’re in hell now,” says Tehei.) They escape during a workers riot in a beautifully violent sequence where the soldiers gun down as many of the rioters as they can, but are still overwhelmed by their sheer numbers. And the story proper hasn’t even begun yet.
That happens when, having returned to their wanderings, the two farmers discover gold, mysteriously packed in sticks of wood. They are, in turn, discovered by Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune), a general of the defeated Akizazi clan. Rokurota is guarding the princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), who is hiding in a mountain fortress and the disguised gold is meant to be smuggled, along with the princess, out of the hostile province. Rokurota decides to dragoon the two farmers into his cause. From there it’s one damn thing after another, a series of close encounters and narrow escapes, Rokurota contending with the stubborn princess, the decidedly untrustworthy farmers and the enemy soldiers on his trail.
Mifune is in his grim-faced heroic mode here, though he does manage to briefly flash a charismatically dazzling smile after defeating an enemy general in a wonderfully choreographed lance duel. He’s impressively stoic and somewhat superhuman (one character refers to him as “the awesome Gen. Rokurota”) and no matter how many soldiers confront him there’s no doubt he’s going to get the drop on everybody. But such predictability isn’t a hindrance to the film’s effect, since Kurosawa was always one of the great action directors, one who knew how to intensify the already vicarious pleasure one gleans from watching the good guy kick ass.
The Hidden Fortress may not be a very profound film, but it is a great deal of fun. It is, in fact, an escapist masterpiece.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
E-mail Richard C. Walls at firstname.lastname@example.org.