Cowardly, self-serving peasants Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) are on the run amidst a civil war in sixteenth century Japan. Stumbling across a cache of gold, the squabbling twosome think they’ve struck it rich and hatch a plan to smuggle these riches into Hayakawa. But the treasure belongs to the fallen Akizuki clan whose last remaining heir is being protected by courageous samurai general, Rokurota Makabe (Toshirô Mifune). Impressed with their plan, Rokurota coerces Tahei and Matashichi into helping him escort both the gold and feisty Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) across enemy territory so they can build a new kingdom.
Of all the classic chanbara films the great Akira Kurosawa made, The Hidden Fortress was his own personal favourite. Which makes it all the stranger so-called serious cinephiles these days routinely dismiss it as one of his most inconsequential films. Some of this might be down to residual snobbery given George Lucas famously incorporated aspects of its plot into Star Wars (1977) (which, lest we forget, was the film that ruined cinema forever, right folks?), though even admirers of the film often describe it as an example of Kurosawa the entertainer, not the artist, or simply action for action’s sake. Far from it. In fact, The Hidden Fortress eloquently expresses his political ideals and humanism, not least through his decision to tell this sweeping adventure yarn through the point of view of its “lowliest” characters - the bickering, greedy yet essentially lovable losers, Tahei and Matashichi. While the iconic Toshirô Mifune draws our admiration as the unflappable samurai superhero, Kurosawa keeps our sympathies with the peasants who are foolish and fallible yet profoundly human.
At the heart of the story rests the beautiful idea that humanity begets humanity, decency begets decency. Throughout the course of the film, snooty Princess Yuki has her eyes opened to the spirit and suffering of ordinary, hard-working people, which leads her to buy back the freedom of a captive peasant girl (Toshiko Higuchi) who devotes herself to protecting the princess. Having glimpsed this newfound love of humanity when the princess sings an old folk song, enemy samurai Hiyoei Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita) flouts the rigid code of bushido, listens to his heart and switches sides. This in turn inspires Rokurota, who has hitherto been somewhat of a bully towards Tahei and Matashichi, into an act of kindness that in the concluding scene leads the squabbling pair to start treating each other nicely. Ultimately, The Hidden Fortress tells a very human story concealed within a fairytale.
The one performance most viewers seem to complain about these days is that of Misa Uehara as snappy, sharp-tongued Princess Misa. This was Uehara’s only notable role in a brief screen career and while her character admittedly has less of an arc than successor Masami Nagasawa in the recent remake Hidden Fortress - The Last Princess (2008) she maintains a fantastically fiery and spirited presence throughout. Her stoicism and occasional impassive nature certainly rings true of a royal personage in feudal Japan. Nevertheless, the idea that a highborn noble could be profoundly affected by their exposure to peasant life (“I have seen people as they really are", gasps Yuki towards the climax) had a dramatic impact upon cinemagoers in Japan, where class distinctions were more rigid than in Europe or the United States. The film’s grand centrepiece isn’t one of its many rousing samurai battles but the traditional Fire Festival, which Kurosawa stages like a lavish musical number. It is a tremendously cathartic sequence with our heroes at first forced to join in the communal celebration then actually start to enjoy themselves.
Whilst some impatient modern viewers may find the pace slower and talkier than they are used to, there remains a tremendous cinematic verve to Kurosawa’s storytelling that thrills to this day. His bravura editing, painterly use of the scope format (his first film in widescreen), and the sheer force of his arresting imagery add up to a style of cinema that stimulates on a visceral, emotional and intellectual level.
Japanese director and writer, and one of the most important figures in 20th century cinema. Kurosawa was greatly influenced by Hollywood - John Ford being his idol - but more than any other film-maker was responsible for introducing Japanese films to West. He originally trained as an artist and worked as a studio scriptwriter, before directing his first film in 1943, the martial arts drama Judo Saga. Kurosawa's next few films were made during World War II and had to adhere to strict state guidelines; it was 1948's gangster movie Drunken Angel that first saw the director's emerging personal vision, and was his first film to star regular leading man Toshirô Mifune.
Rashomon was the film that brought Kurosawa acclaim in the West, winning top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, and a string of classics followed - Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Seven Samurai - all set in Feudal Japan and combining incredible cinematography and thrilling action with humour, sadness and deep insights into human behaviour. The director also turned in some superb non-period film around this time too, such as the thrillers The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low.
The following decade proved a frustrating one for Kurosawa, as he struggled to get projects off the ground, culminating with the box office failure of Dodesukaden and a suicide attempt in 1970. The director's fortunes turned when 1975's Russian epic Dersu Uzala won the Best Foreign Language Oscar, while his next two films were among his very best - the beautifully shot Kagemusha and 1985's spectacular, hugely successful King Lear adaptation, Ran. Kurosawa's final films were smaller and more personal - Dreams, Rhapsody in August and Not Yet. He died of a stroke in 1998, aged 88.
It's a darn good film, but would be a lot easier to listen to if they hadn't illustrated the Princess's toughness by giving her such a harsh voice. Imagine Princess Leia talking like Elaine Stritch and you have some idea of how she comes across.
25 Apr 2012
Misa Uehara's performance seems to be a major sticking point for a lot of viewers these days. She never acted again. Conversely, Masami Nagasawa's turn as the princess in the remake drew a lot of praise. Deservedly so.