Off-List: The Hidden Fortress
Two years ago or so I bought a box-set of Kurosawa movies thinking that with all the Kurosawa films on the List that would be a convenient solution. As a bonus the box-set includes titles not on the List and given the Kurosawa track record those are must-sees as well. One of these is “The Hidden Castle” from 1958. I know, I am already past 58, but so what?
“The Hidden Fortress” is famous for being the inspiration for “Star Wars”. George Lucas has openly and repeatedly mentioned that and in my silly head that made me expect an early version of “A New Hope”, which is not at all what Lucas meant. Inspiration is not the same as a remake. As a result I was somewhat disappointed by “The Hidden Fortress” and only near the end did I come to terms with the fact that this was not even intended to be “A New Hope”. Instead “The Hidden Fortress” is more akin to “The Stagecoach” both in plot and feel.
The one element Lucas did pick up from this movie was that the story is told from the viewpoint of the lowest characters. In Star Wars it was the droids, in “The Hidden Castle” it is the two peasants Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara). They are cowards and clowns like the droids, but a lot more than that. They are greedy, opportunistic, stupid and vicious. In fact they have no redeeming features at all, not even loyalty to each other. They are funny like the droids, but not sympathetic at all. We never love them but take pleasure in mocking them for their small minds and petty squabbles. To place two so comical, yet unsympathetic characters in the foreground was something new Kurosawa brought to the table and while interesting it only works half way. Lucas fixed that by making the droids sympathetic.
The peasants find themselves on the wrong side of the border in a bloody civil war. I am not sure of the period, but these are samurai with guns so seventeenth century is probably not entirely off. While on the run from yet another prison camp they stumble upon a gold treasure hidden inside firewood. The gold belong to the defeated Akizuki clan, whose remaining members are hiding out in a hidden fortress in the mountains. The two most important members are Princess Yuki Akizuki (Misa Uehara) and General Makabe Rokurota (Toshiro Mifune). Rokurota is a tough samurai who unflinchingly sacrifices his own sister for the cause so when he takes in the peasants it is not a friendly partnership, but simply a new master for the peasant although it does take a while to seep through their dense skulls. The princess is a true aristocrat and together as the venture out to find a route through the enemy lines they are a motley group.
This voyage is like in “The Stagecoach” the core of the movie. As they travel the land and encounter all sorts of hazards they learn a lot about each other and we learn about them. The Princess see a world she has never known and take pity and the general for all his valor learns humility. Only the peasants never seem to learn anything until the very last scene of the movie.
I really did not like Misa Uehara as the princess. Her pose as a tom-boy with a whip in her hand certainly conveys strength and superiority and is effective almost as a caricature, but as soon as she opens her mouth it falls apart. She sounds utterly hysterical and while I feel certain it is a cultural thing and that I just do not get it, it does make her sound annoying and half out of her mind.
The parallel to the western genre is the selling point of the movie. It is such an interesting idea to place a western in ancient Japan and although Kurosawa was already here in “The Seven Samurai” “The Hidden Fortress” is much more true to the western genre. If you had any doubts they would finally evaporate in the final escape scene on horseback with a western theme on the soundtrack.
This is not my favorite Kurosawa, not by a long shot, also after recovering from my disappointment of not seeing more of “Star Wars” in it, and I understand why it is not on the List. Yet, it has enough quality and plenty of interesting components to warrant a viewing and I know that I will probably end up liking it a lot better over the next few days as the dust settles.