Akira Kurosawa Series – The Hidden Fortress (1958)

  As someone who has been a massive fan of Star Wars for longer than I have been a major cinephile and film enthusiast, whispers of Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 film The Hidden Fortress have entered the conversation many times surrounding George Lucas’ space opera. I had always heard that Kurosawa was perhaps Lucas’ biggest inspiration as a filmmaker in general, but The Hidden Fortress in particular seemed to be “The Thing” on which Lucas modeled many of the core aspects of his famous story. Now that I have seen Kurosawa’s 1958 classic for myself, my appreciation for the cycle of artistic influence continues to grow deeper.

The Hidden Fortress could be considered a war drama in a sense, but it could also be called an action epic, a road trip comedy, or even a heist film, depending on which chapter of the story you find yourself in. Kurosawa uses various elements from each of these genres and sub-genres to explore the power of kindness and selflessness, against questions of the importance of self-preservation and living to fight another day. Loyalties are tested, ties of family and friendship are stretched to the limit, and small groups – and even single individuals – stand in defiance of entire armies and empires. There is a fugitive princess with a heart of gold on the run; there are decoys and deceptions and heroes going undercover to sneak behind enemy lines; and there are a couple of bumbling fools that wander through the mountains and desert, finding themselves strung along in this adventure of which they have absolutely no business being a part. There are duels between master swordsman, speeder bike pursuits across the countryside (or maybe they were horses), and honorable warriors who recognize the power of thoughtfulness, reflection, and the delicate weight of any given moment. There are screen wipe editing transitions that seamlessly connect the motion and kinetic energy of one scene to the next, along with a gratifying musical score by Masaru Satô. A young George Lucas obviously saw that Kurosawa’s film was ripe with some of the most exciting ideas and actions in storytelling and filmmaking. It really is quite something that one of the largest intellectual properties in history – a sweeping science fantasy universe of untold depth and breadth – has its roots in Kurosawa’s vision of medieval Japan.

On the surface, The Hidden Fortress is indeed a thrilling adventure – but Kurosawa has never been known to sacrifice character for spectacle. Nor does he allow his ego to get in the way of sharing a story that progresses at a gripping pace. As director, co-writer, and editor on this project – along with many others from his filmography – I never get the feeling that Kurosawa is indulging in his raw talents and years of experience as a filmmaker. His stories are stunning and grand, yet digestible and accessible. He has an ability to make intimate character moments as dynamic and breathtaking as the most spectacular of action sequences. Conversely, the miraculous action set pieces Kurosawa conceives retain individuality and quintessential human energy.

 One of these moments in The Hidden Fortress that caught my eye involves a duel between General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiró Mifune) of the Akizuki Clan, and General Hyoe Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita) of the Yamana Clan. There is a mutual respect between these two old friends who happen to be on opposing sides of a civil war. Makabe has stumbled into the enemy camp, and he is heavily outnumbered – but this samurai warrior is never quite outmatched. Tadokoro is well aware of Makabe’s unmatched skill and lethality in combat. Thus, Tadokoro challenges him to a one-on-one duel, in lieu of making a mess of things with a skirmish involving the dozens of other soldiers in the encampment. And, if this is going to be the death of his friend, it should be an honorable one. This sentiment tells you all you need to know about the prestige and authority of Makabe as a character. This notion is personified as the Yamana soldiers form a circle around Makabe and Tadakoro as they begin their bout. Everybody on screen appears to be struck by the sheer presence of Makabe – even the camera, with photography directed by Kazuo Yamazaki. The shots illustrate the Akizuki general as a force to be reckoned with, revered, and even feared. He is clearly in control of the situation. Toshirô Mifune is up to the task of shouldering the weight of this immensely charismatic character – but of course, has Mifune ever NOT been capable of doing whatever the role requires? Not that I can think of. Kurosawa’s direction in this scene and Yamazaki’s photography ensure that the focus never completely strays from the characters’ motivations. The filmmaking decisions here are as deliberate and confident as Makabe’s actions within the duel. As for the outcome of the duel itself, let us just say that this is a rather pivotal juncture in the narrative. The choices made by the characters in this moment have a ripple effect throughout the rest of the film as it unravels. Interestingly enough, in a sequence featuring two men attempting to kill one another, the central theme of “kindness” is measured carefully and lays the groundwork for a satisfying payoff at a later point in the story.

Toshirô Mifune as General Makabe and Susumu Fujita as General Tadokoro.

Toshirô Mifune is not the only person or entity on screen that the camera respects with veneration. The physical environments – the craggy mountains, the rolling hillsides, the pulchritudinous valleys – everything about their presentation is mighty and majestic. These landscapes are pretty to look at, but they can also kill you if you are not careful – just like Mifune as General Rokoruta Makabe.

Mifune as General Makabe.

 Kurosawa has a delightful sense of humor that shines through in unique ways in his films. Notably in The Hidden Fortress, it is the antics and tomfoolery of the two peasants, Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Mataschichi (Kamatari Fujiwara). The big picture of the narrative is not fixated specifically on their characters, but the story itself is told through their eyes.

Consider this quote from George Lucas from an interview in 2001, celebrating the Criterion Collection’s release of The Hidden Fortress:

“The one thing that really struck me about The Hidden Fortress was the fact that the story was told from the [perspective of] the two lowest characters. I decided that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story, which was to take the two lowest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view, which in the Star Wars case is the two droids.”

Humor can act as a vehicle for the delivery of rich, emotionally stirring narratives, with the contrast of levity and solemnity producing a potent reaction. The Hidden Fortress is a textbook example of this sensation.

Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Mataschichi (Kamatari Fujiwara).

“You cannot make my heart mute, too,” says Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) of the Akizuki Clan, as General Rokurota Makabe – her protector and bodyguard – pleads with her to conceal her identity under the guise of a mute person. Makabe wants to shield her from danger at all costs, even if that comes at the expense of others’ safety. He wants her to turn a blind eye to the pain of her family and friends who are surrendering themselves in her place. Princess Yuki is saddened by this dilemma, and often rebels against the orders of the man who is responsible for her well-being. Yet, she does this because she is a leader in the truest sense. Yuki would rather put her life in harm’s way than save herself at the cost of her loyal companions. With most of the Kurosawa pictures I have studied thus far, you can find a single word or phrase to roughly aggregate the messaging of the story – ie. “truth” for Scandal, “legacy” for Ikiru, and “friendship” for The Seven Samurai. For The Hidden Fortress, I would indeed say “kindness,” a word that is spoken aloud multiple times during the movie, but I would also add “selflessness.” This film is Kurosawa’s plea for EVERYONE – wealthy or poor, young or old, tall or short, thin or hefty, handsome or…less than handsome – to be kind and selfless to EVERYONE. If you make a film with that kind of message, and you also happen to inspire the creation of Star Wars along the way, then I would say you have a good thing going for yourself.

Misa Uehara as Princess Yuki.

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