Friday, July 26, 2013

Kakushi-toride no san-akunin (The Hidden Fortress) (1958)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix.

So I've been working in a museum shop where we have a Japanese exhibit going, so we have some Miyazaki and Kurosawa DVDs for sale, and I've had The Hidden Fortress playing on silent on the tv behind me for a while which constantly reminds me I've never seen it. That, and the number of customers who sidle up to me to drop the "Did you know this movie is the basis for Star Wars?!" as if that bit of well-known trivia will impress me. Hah! Anyway, Kurosawa's adventure tale follows the experience of two bumbling peasants (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) returning from a war, who stumble upon a famous general (Toshiro Mifune) and his mysterious charge (Misa Uehara) while in the mountains. They team up to transport a large cache of gold found there, moving through enemy territory to make it back to their own province. But vicious enemies, mistrust, secrets, and most of all greed will make their destination that much more difficult to reach.

Kurosawa's earnest attempt at a straight-up adventure film, The Hidden Fortress is a fun, fairly light slice of storytelling that aims for comedy but excels more with its exciting plot and likable characters. The central pair of Tahei and Matashichi (the proto-C-3PO and R2-D2) offers the narrative a point of view, but their comedic relief function becomes somewhat tired as the film progresses. They're nothing more than caricatures, basically just idiots motivated by greed and self-interest, and their over the top physical humor wears thin eventually. Luckily the actual heroes are really interesting and this is mostly their story once things get going. I loved Mifune as the hardened General Rokurata Makabe, with those wild eyes and passionate exclamations. And of course I loved the fierce-as-fuck Misa Uehara as Princess Yuki. When she's not standing authoritatively with legs spread and a whipping cane in her hands, she's yelling every single one of her lines and it is excellent. I wish she didn't have to pretend to be mute for part of the movie but then it does lead to some funny, intriguing scenes with Tahei and Matashichi.

The script is complex but entertaining, the action moves steadily, the settings are fantastic, and of course the visuals are thoughtful and compelling. For me the only failing is the unnecessary focus on comedy in the peasant characters, who spend a lot of time stumbling around a war zone and making doofy faces in the first half hour or so. They're funny guys and I didn't mind their presence in general, but there is far too much time devoted to their less-than-gripping exploits. It's a strong enough story that we don't need all the humorous asides to keep things upbeat. Plus they kind of sucked as people and all their small-mindedness and greed and lighthearted considerations of rape didn't exactly endear them to me.


Pair This Movie With: I mean, it's obviously gonna be Star Wars, right?


  1. I am sure Lucas' film school professors would have explained the relationship of story and visual challenge this way. So that is the real template Lucas took in conceiving his project. His goal was a similar marriage of the visual (space) with story (Joseph Campbell inspired myth). His hidden gold is that miraculous alchemical element in Jedi blood.

    Cleo Rogers (