A long time ago, in a Japan far, far away…It is a period of civil war…
It’s time for another joint view and review of a title from a 10 Classics to Watch in 2015 list. This time it’s one of Laura’s 10 picks, Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958). I’ve seen many of Kurosawa’s essentials (and too long ago, which makes me want to revisit them soon) but this one was new to me and I loved it. It was a fun, light and pleasant adventure, a gorgeous epic with good characters, and never felt slow or dull through 139 minutes. The story is about two peasants (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) lamenting their rotten luck at joining the war too late, missing all the adventure and profit, and getting caught up in the losing side. When they stumble upon some sticks of gold hidden in wood, a legendary samurai general (Toshiro Mifune) promises them a handsome reward if they help him transport much more of that treasure, as well as the refugee Princess (Misa Uehara), through enemy territory and into friendly land. With all that wealth for the taking, not to mention a different reward for betraying the whereabouts of the Princess, the greedy peasants spend the whole time scheming to find the easiest way to get the most gain out of the least amount of work (if they put half as much energy into honest work they’d be rich) while trying to keep up with all the exciting adventures and dangerous situations they find themselves in.
This was Akira Kurosawa’s first widescreen movie and he makes the most of the larger canvas, creating many beautiful images that tell stories and reveal character (I said much the same about the urban settings in his High and Low). The fortress in the valley, with its white rocks and lush treeline is most impressive but just as nicely photographed were the deep mud-filled mines, the fresh streams in the thick forests, the battlefields and the busy villages. Groups of people don’t just move from here to there, they pour down hillsides, like the troops with their banners fluttering, or they rush down a mountain of steps, like the prisoners who overwhelm their captors. Earlier on those steps the two peasants were swept away from each other, caught up in crowds moving like swift currents. And in these giant settings you get clever placement of single figures, so that you have to look for them like searching for gold: the Princess stands alone on a faraway peak or Mifune appears in a gap between boulders. They’re placed up high, on the edges of the frame, they vanish and reappear.
Kurosawa spends several suspenseful and funny minutes showing us the couple of bumblers scramble up the loose rocks, slide down, kick away each other’s clutching hands and then finally make it to the top, only to look down the other side and see Mifune waiting there impatiently. My favourite part had Mifune on horseback chasing the enemy guard, cutting them down and then riding straight into their camp where an exciting battle ensues. The choreography of that duel is fantastic, with the troops reacting and stepping back in unison, parting to make room for the samurai, and the fighters’ blades slicing through banners and screens.
For all the grand sights, this movie is about this band of travellers, and about humanity and compassion, mostly displayed by the nobles but also, eventually, and somewhat miraculously, by those selfish and ignorant losers. When Mifune defeats General Hyoe (Susumu Fujita) in battle, he shows mercy and walks away; that favour and respect is returned later when Fujita is in the power position and helps Mifune and his group escape. Uehara mourns for Mifune’s sister, who acted as decoy and was captured and beheaded. The people they leave behind in the hidden fortress give up their lives by staying to send up smoke signals, when they easily could have escaped. No life is worthless and no character unfeeling. Uehara demands Mifune buy and take along an abused slave girl, to save her from her desperate situation. When that girl discovers she’s in the company of royalty, she could sell them all out but instead dedicates herself to protecting Uehara.
Uehara overdoes it sometimes by barking nearly every line–no wonder Mifune wants her to play mute for the trip–but she’s a teenager, she was raised to be mannish, hard and commanding, and her impulses, dramatic gestures and declarations are an important part of the character. She softens and improves as she interacts with “regular” people and experiences real life and joy. You have to admire her restraint: she finds an isolated spot before she breaks down and cries, and during the trek she doesn’t reveal who she is or that she’s overheard the peasants’ scheming. There’s a great bit where they debate right in front of her how to steal her horses, then play charades to convince her that they just want to take her horses to water. The way she smacks their hands, then shadows and tricks them at their own game is so fun to watch. To see such a headstrong and fiery woman trying to contain that energy when you know she wants to murder somebody, it’s good acting and a lesson in maturity and control for the character. She stares daggers so intense that you can even feel her glare when she’s mostly hidden behind a curtain. She has this signature move: stomping into frame, stopping in a wide stance right in the middle of it and then firing a look at the camera or another character. Efficient way to communicate and give orders, but she’s as powerful when she’s not posturing or reminding anyone of her status, when she’s underestimated and silently observing the men. She inspires loyalty from everyone, especially the slave girl who imitates her strength by swinging a stick at the peasants when they get too close to the Princess.
Mifune’s acting is spare and subtle, and he’s magnetic when he seems to be doing nothing at all. He’s every inch the warrior (cue an imperial march as Mifune makes his way under the waterfall into the caves where the women are hiding), noble and dangerous, but he remains a selfless servant bound to his mistress by the honour of the samurai code. He teases, mocks or schemes to use the peasants as tools or to deflate the Princess’ ego, and he isn’t above apologizing for his failure when the end seems near. When everyone panics he urges calm and thinks fast. For most of the movie he’s scowling and silent, and you get only hints of his legendary skill, only glances that reveal his deep emotion and nobility. That makes it all the more striking when he flashes his brilliant smile after winning the duel, when he gives Uehera a meaningful look or hands her a dagger to prepare for the worst.
The two cowardly misfits whine during every difficulty. Every failure brings another round of hilarious curses, insults and bickering: I hate the way you blink all the time, your face makes me uncomfortable, you and your filthy teeth, one about a worm that I can’t repeat in polite company, and so on. Those arguments are followed by “hold me I’m scared” moments and declarations of eternal brotherhood. Their bright ideas lead to some epic close calls, my favourite of which is joining the wood festival procession to disguise their sticks among many, not thinking through that the destination for all that wood might just be a giant bonfire. Oh, the bitter tears as they dance around the fire and watch their gold burn while Mifune tells them to shut up and play along (Uehara finds the meaning of life in that dance). The two are pathetic and childish, they never seem to learn their lesson, and they plan some nasty things, but you just can’t hate them; they get forgiveness and many chances at redemption, from the other characters, from Kurosawa and from the viewer. The whole time, they complain about missing the action, being failures, and how their luck is so awful it’s funny. What’s funny is they’re so busy doing all that, they don’t even realize they’re part of a grand adventure, or notice that by the end they’ve somehow become halfway decent people.
And I made it all the way to the end without going into this film’s considerable and unmistakable influence on STAR WARS. I’m sure Laura will, so go read her thoughts on The Hidden Fortress.