Criterion: The Hidden Fortress (****) Gold in the wood

The Hidden Fortress – 1959

Director Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay Ryūzō Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, Akira Kurosawa
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Misa Uehara, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Susumu Fujita, Toshiko Higuchi

The Hidden Fortress is the film many point to as a key to George Lucas’ vision of Star Wars: A New Hope. In truth, maybe the first two acts borrow from this tale. There is the two bumbling sidemen Matashichi and Tahei (Fujiwara and Chiaki), a loyal soldier (Mifune) and importantly, a Princess set in the tomboy nature of Leia (Uehara). There is a formidable, yet porous Yamana Empire. After this, the similarities narrow down a burned out former home or two, those who’d rather save their skins and those who’d “prefer a fight to all this sneaking around,” and a simple awards ceremony in the end.

The story starts with the two goofballs stumbling their way through the wasteland of war. They’d thought to join the winning side, but were mistaken for losers. They argue and separate, then both are caught by the Empire. They meet again while digging for gold in the just destroyed castle of Princess Yuki’s Akizuki clan. After a revolt of the slaves, they are on the road.

The princess and two comical characters

They stumble across gold held within sticks. Then they are followed then joined by Akizuki General Rokurōta (Mifune). He leads them to a hidden fortress, where the Princess has been hiding with her handlers, including Shimura’s General Nagakura.

We discover that Rokurōta had lost a sister. She pretended to be Yuki, and dies in her place. Rokurōta convinces the others that he, the Princess and the two bumblers are going to try to get to safety through a plan devised by Matashichi and Tahei. Thus begins their dangerous journey.

The story is a solid one. The idea of entering the lion’s den, then going through it with a load of gold is intriguing as hell. Mifune and Uehara are spectacular. Seeing the former utilize his brawn mixed with cunning is astounding as usual. He changes gears effortlessly and the story benefits.

Uehara and Mifune

Uehara is a phenomenal presence. She commands each scene with her carefully sculpted eyes and intense glare. She is perfect as a person who knows her value and has no fear. This doesn’t mean she is foolish. She loves her subjects, as shown when she insists on buying a girl who was sold into slavery to give her freedom. It is a shame that Uehara stopped acting after such a short career.

There is about 30 minutes too much of Matashichi and Tahei. Even if one understands the premise behind their characters, it’s the law of diminishing returns in action.

The same goes for the Yamana soldiers. Whenever one of them needs to be fooled, it happens. When they need to be scary, that happens too. The one great moment here is when Rokurōta runs into the center of a group of them while chasing down and killing two (like Han Solo). He meets up with an old friend turned foe and duels him one on one. The results of the duel last into the third act.

This is a good film, with some wonderful elements. Even if it is a bit too indulgent with wackiness, the story and Kurosawa’s eloquent use of wide screen are worth repeated viewings. This is a master who understands how to make entertaining films in between the ones that mean most to him, as the next few years will show.

(**** out of *****)

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