The Hidden Fortress (1958)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

The Hidden Fortress
Kakushi-toride no san-akunin
Starring Toshiro Mifune (Makabe), Misa Uehara (Yuki), Minoru Chiaki (Tahei), Kamatari Fujiwara (Matakishi), Takashi Shimura (Nagakura), Susumu Fujita (Tadokoro), Toshiko Higuchi (the freed farmgirl)
Screenplay by Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni
Cinematography by Kazuo Yamasaki
Music by Masaru Sato

Toho Company, 139 minutes
B&W, 2.35:1 scope ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Criterion

The Hidden Fortress is arguably the most conventional of Kurosawa's jidai-geki films. Each of the others seems to possess some sort of subversive agenda or stylistic innovation, but this one is basically just a straightforward adventure movie. Following his successes with Rashomon and Seven Samurai, it's as if Kurosawa was growing comfortable working in the genre and wanted to have some fun with it.

Our unlikely heroes are Tahei and Matakishi, a pair of avaricious peasants who gambled their meager life savings to take up arms in a feudal war in hopes of getting rich, only to end up on the losing side, broke and desperate. They're like an even more pathetic version of Tokezo and Matahachi from the start of the Musashi Miyamoto legend. Scrounging for firewood, Tahei and Matakishi are amazed to discover sticks of wood with gold bars hidden inside. Their search for more of this miracle kindling leads them to run across a stern figure who turns out to be a samurai general in disguise. Rokuruta Makabe is keeping the princess of the Akizuki clan in hiding until he can get her safely back home. The gold the peasants found belongs to the concealed Akizuki treasury that likewise needs transport. After Tahei and Matakishi unwittingly illuminate Makabe on the best way to cross enemy lines, they all set off with the princess and the gold in the Kurosawa version of a road movie comedy.

Of course, The Hidden Fortress is best known to us today for its celebrated role as an inspiration for Star Wars, and the lowly, bickering Tahei and Matakishi are the progenitors of See-Threepio and Artoo-Detoo. That said, I will do my best to restrict further Lucas-related discussion of this film to the introduction section titled The Obi-Wan Connection.

Leaving myself without the usual Star Wars references to talk about, I think I can sum up my appraisal of The Hidden Fortress with this one key observation: this could likely be the only jidai-geki film ever made in which all the main characters spend the bulk of movie wearing shorts. That may sound like a trivial remark, but please permit me to elaborate.

Tahei and Matakishi wear shorts because they're penniless and don't have any nicer clothes to wear. General Makabe and Princess Yuki are in disguise as commoners, and perhaps because of the warm weather around Hayakawa around that time of year, they have both chosen to wear shorts. This makes each of them highly unusual in the realm of samurai movies.

I recall Makabe's appearance made quite an impression on me back when I first saw The Hidden Fortress as a teenager. Makabe didn't seem like much of a sympathetic or interesting character since he was so stoic and unemotional. And he didn't look like a real samurai at all – in his short sleeves and briefs, Makabe looked more like a circus performer. He didn't even wear swords. Maybe that was pretty dumb of me, but I didn't realize until I revisited the film years later that he looked that way because he was in disguise, not because Kurosawa made a goofy wardrobe selection. But the point remains that Makabe doesn't present the audience the typical visual iconography of the samurai, so we look at his character as a human being first and as a chivalrous warrior second.

Of greater importance is Princess Yuki's skimpy attire. It's extremely rare to see a woman's bare legs in vintage jidai-geki films, especially if the character is a woman of high social status. Back before sex and nudity became commonplace in the grindhouse chambara of the swinging '70s, Japanese films were quite puritanical in terms of showing skin. So it must have caused quite a stir in 1958 Japan when the young and nubile Princess Yuki appears wearing shorts – and in the first scene where Tahei and Matakishi first get a close-up look at her, she even bends over to reveal a fleeting glimpse of buttock. Scandal and depravity!

So, while The Hidden Fortress is a fairly conventional jidai-geki story in its structure and content, it's wrapped up in a different packaging. Instead of the elaborate period costuming and castle sets we would normally see cloaking the aristocracy, here the high-ranking characters are stripped of their customary trappings in the wilderness.

This theme extends to the one indicator of wealth that remains present during our heroes' exile, which is the Akizuki clan's gold in their custody. Like Matabe and Yuki, the gold is in disguise to appear worthless at a glance. And the gold is the only incentive motivating Tahei and Matakishi to lend their reluctant assistance. During their perilous journey, the enemy forces get word that the Akizuki gold is being smuggled inside firewood and set out to search for it. This might have spelled doom for Matabe and Yuki, but an escape appears in the form of a local fire festival. Townspeople are carting wood to be burned at the celebration, so the concealed gold is able to blend right in with all the rest of the kindling. Tahei and Matakishi are delighted at their good fortune, until they find the townspeople demanding that they contribute their stacks of wood to the flames. To their horror, Matabe demands that they throw it in the fire. The idea of letting go of material possessions is reflecting in the austere words of the fire festival chant: "The life of a man, throw it in the fire." Later, when Yuki and Matabe are in a desperate situation and all seems lost, she tells him she has no regrets for their as fugitives, and dancing at the fire festival was fun. The simple joys of life are more important than riches and power.

Putting that heaviness aside, at its core The Hidden Fortress is a great comedy, with Tahei and Matakishi taking the spotlight in one hilarious scene after another. With them thinking Yuki is a deaf/mute, the greedy duo attempt to explain to Yuki that they're taking the gold-bearing horses to have some water, while actually making an attempt to steal all the gold while Matabe is away. A lousy mime, Matakishi tries to communicate the idea of a horse drinking by tilting up his outstretched hands to his face. "Fool!" Tahei yells. "They're not drinking sake!" That totally cracks me up every time!

Later on, after Yuki has liberated an Akizuki girl from a brothel, Tahei and Matakishi have lustful thoughts while Yuki is asleep, slobbering over those lovely bare legs. When they try making a move towards her, the freed girl comes to Yuki's defense with a large rock she threatens to pelt them with. There's a Kurosawa wipe to sometime later, and she's still scowling on guard with the rock, hefting it back over her head when the peasants move a muscle. And there's another great comic scene when our heroes are retrieving the gold from the ashes of the festival fire. Tahei and Matakishi load up so much on their backs that they can barely stand, and yet they go back to the ash heap and try to sift for one more piece. These are great moments of pure physical comedy in the manner of Laurel and Hardy or a Chuck Jones cartoon, which require no subtitles to elicit a laugh.

One other significant note of interest is that The Hidden Fortress marked Kurosawa's first film to be shot in glorious 2.35:1 Cinemascope, or "Toho Scope." As if relieved to escape the confines of the square box that had confined him since Sanshiro Sugata, Kurosawa immediately showed complete mastery of the widescreen aspect ratio with compositions exquisitely designed to fill the newly available space. This helps to explain why I was not so totally impressed with this movie the first time I saw it – that was on a pan-and-scan VHS tape, and in that bastardized format The Hidden Fortress has a great many stretches where you would have no idea what was supposed to be happening.

The Jidai-Geki Knights