The Classic Movie Ice Cream Social: The Hidden Fortress (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1958)

Out of all of Kurosawa’s 1950s output, The Hidden Fortress may be the lightest. Seven Samurai may be more action-packed, but it still has numerous heavy dramatic moments and an ending tinged with melancholy. By contrast, Fortress is more of an adventure story and features more comedy, particularly in the peasant duo played by Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara, who almost resemble Laurel and Hardy in their bickering and friendship. The premise is simple: two peasants named Tahei and Matashichi end up unwittingly accompanying a disguised princess and general as they cross enemy territory with gold in tow. The peasants try to make a quick buck whenever they can and the princess experiences culture shock as she encounters the world outside the palace walls for the first time.

The charms of The Hidden Fortress are plenty: beautiful widescreen images, Tohsiro Mifune in shorts (swoon), and sweeping action sequences. There is plenty of comedy, but the story and its world are hardly made of sweetness and light. There is definite danger. Kahei and Matashichi, as hilarious as they are, have a sinister side: their first impulse upon seeing the princess for the first time is to force themselves upon her while the general is not looking. Even after traveling alongside her for days, they still try assaulting her in her sleep, staved off only by the fury of a sex worker the princess had rescued earlier and a big boulder! And yet, the two do possess qualities that endear them to the audience, such as their committed friendship.

For me, it is Misa Uehara who steals the show as the tough-as-nails teenage Princess Yuki. Severe with her eye make-up and masculine stance, she is nevertheless still vulnerable and human. Her sheltered upbringing makes her more curious about the lives of the common people. She is brave and kind, willing to help others at the expense of her own safety. She undergoes a spiritual transformation during the Buddhist fire festival, dancing and singing along with the peasants in abandon. Kurosawa isn’t known for having too many great female characters, but Princess Yuki is one of his best characters period. Out of all the characters in the film, her arc is the most dynamic and by the end, you’re left wondering what kind of woman she will grow to be.

The first thing most people hear about The Hidden Fortress is that it was the model for the original 1977 Star Wars. According to The Making of Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler, George Lucas’s early treatments of the plot were basically word for word the summary of Kurosawa’s film, though the story moved farther away from this outline with each subsequent draft. Star Wars does share much with this film, particularly its enchanting mix of light adventure and a gritty, dangerous setting. Still, the weird thing about The Hidden Fortress’s relation to Star Wars is that it resembles The Phantom Menace more than it does A New Hope! Think about it, both movies feature: 1) A member of royalty in disguise and a stoic warrior out to protect her, 2) prominent comic relief sidekick character(s), and 3) a journey into enemy territory that ends with an awards ceremony. But hell, I don’t need to tell you which movie is better, do I?

If you have never seen a Kurosawa film and you are intimidated by the run time of Seven Samurai or heavier fare like Rashomon or Ikiru, then this may be a good place to start. Accessible and fun, The Hidden Fortress is a great adventure.

This is part of the Classic Movie Ice Cream Social hosted by Movies Silently. Check out her blog for more sweetness!