(1958) dir. Akira Kurosawa
My continued travels in the realm of the samurai film bring me back yet again to the Japanese master director, Akira Kurosawa, whose own works in the genre make up for almost half of the notable films listed on Wikipedia. And while other directors have been quite interesting, Kurosawa, as noted, made so many films in this genre, that it’s almost a career unto itself, a series of films that can be viewed as part of a whole. And while I am still far from understanding that whole, my comprehension does grow every film.
The Hidden Fortress is perhaps more comical than many of his other films, whose humor is often more subtle or just low-key. But the film starts with a pair of thieving peasants, escaping from a battle scene in which they’d hoped to profit, having been forced to bury the dead and now reek of death and quibble and fight constantly. These two are actors Kurosawa uses frequently, and their characters here are simpleminded and singleminded, driven by fear and only tempered by cowardice. Their bantering and arguments (and perspective, being the lowest on the social order in the film) have been noted by George Lucas as his inspiration for the droids in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977).
They happen upon a wily fellow, Toshiro Mifune, who sees that these two have happened upon some of the store of gold that belongs to his embattled princess that he serves. She is holed up in the titular hidden fortress, hiding out from other clans that would have her dead. And Mifune is trying to move her across the realms to a place where she can be reinstated to power along with her family’s store of gold. The peasants never fully understand what is happening, but are cowed to play along for fear and greed.
The princess is kind of interesting. Raised “as a boy” according to one line of dialogue, she runs around in shorts and often takes a pose, arms akimbo, atop mountain passes, with a decidedly authoritative way, meant to be read as masculine. She’s clearly feminine, but her disguise is one of class, to make her appear as a deaf-mute peasant woman (whose value is considered extremely low, so low that once a man realizes that she cannot hear or speak, opts out of trying to purchase her as a slave). She’s a bit of a proto-feminist, never quailing in her protective needs, but enthralled by the life on the outside, enjoying deeply a pagan burning of firewood and dancing that is held by some peasants while they are on the run.
It’s an enjoyable film, certainly, and it features many good characters and some interesting action, including a duel with spears and an impressive race on horses for Mifune to cut down some soldiers who might report back about them. The tonality switches between the more intended comedy of the two peasant thieves and the more noble adventure of the nobles. But I have to say that some of the comedy was harder to appreciate than others. Some moments of the two peasants’ bickering have genuine flair and humor, like when one of them complains that the other “blinks too much”. But also, they are so shallow, so given to switching their loyalties to one another given an opportunity at more money that it’s less funny than tedious. But that’s just me.
Not my favorite of Kurosawa’s films, but still a solid, excellent film. He was indeed “the man.”