Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Kurosawa Watch: The Hidden Fortress (1958)

Watched:  05/21/2024
Format:  Criterion
Viewing:  First
Director:  Akira Kurosawa

A really pretty fascinating, human movie about a princess being smuggled incognito across feudal Japan, The Hidden Fortress (1958) is a cinema classic that I'd missed til this point.  A large-scale, gorgeous film, it can read a bit like a fable, with the point - beyond its existence as a rollicking samurai movie - revealing itself in the final scenes, feels organic and still provides a bit of catharsis as the plot threads come together.

The story follows two bumbling, inept peasants who can't seem to do anything right.  They're greedy to a fault, believe themselves clever (they are not, and are constantly shown to make terrible mistakes), and probably terrible people.  They even arrived too late to participate in a war they thought would enrich them, and were caught and pressed into work digging graves.  Heading home, they stumble across a Toshiro Mifune, who is a samurai general travelling incognito.  He's stowed the heir to the throne of his clan in a hidden fortress.

Taking the wealth needed to restart the clan and the princess, the peasants, the general and the princess (posing as a mute country girl) travel across the land trying to reach home and safe harbor, the peasants unaware of their companions' identity and doing it for the massive amounts of gold that they're transporting.

There's plenty of action as the group travels, with run ins with locals and the enemy army.  They pick up a girl kidnapped and pressed into prostitution.  And generally its a race against time and fortune.

As the film draws to a close, the good deeds performed by the general and the servant girl pay off, and the princess, returned to her thrown, has seen the world with new eyes.  Unable to bark commands, and forced into an observer role, she's gained a new perspective that appreciates the nobility of her general while also seeing how the world really works - via her bumbling travelling companions and sacrifice of others.

Since probably the late 1990's, I'd heard of The Hidden Fortress as an influence on George Lucas and his writing of Star Wars.  I figured "oh, yeah, well, I guess the Death Star is a hidden fortress".  And I'd heard that there were two characters who would inform R2D2 and C3PO.  It's like the fourth sentence in the wikipedia article on the movie.

Look, Star Wars is a mish mash of pop culture references and the use of very old story telling techniques.  I won't get into it too much here, but I think the comparisons are overblown, just as much as they are to The Searchers, the other movie people are constantly saying "this is Star Wars!"  But the actual hidden fortress of the film has nothing to do with death stars and the two who are supposed to be our droid pals play a completely different role and have personalities and motives that have nothing in common with the peasants. There's a princess who's tough as nails, but the role is vastly different. 

It's a superficial comparison at best, but there's a plot beat or two where I can see it.  And from I understand of at least one draft of Luke Starkiller, there likely were many more comparisons at one point.

Mostly, the comparison detracts from what this film is about, and what it does on its own.  It's not serving as a template for something else, nor is it a stepping stone so we get a movie with which we're already familiar.  

The Hidden Fortress occasionally feels like an epic.  There's a huge cast of extras, amazing sets and costumes, stunning sequences like the fire festival, terrific fight scenes and sweeping vistas.  It moves effortlessly between the low comedy of the peasants and their ability to put themselves into dumb situations and the higher air of the noble characters as they interact with each other as well as with the peasants.

It's also a movie for not-kids.  While certainly safe for teens to watch, there's the constant threat of sexual violence to the princess and others, and the violence that can occur.  And I'm not sure the themes and discussions within the film will mean much to anyone under the age of 13.  I was a bit surprised with the blunt depiction of women (very Team Bear) in the movie.

I dug it.  It was not what I figured based on all the Star Wars chatter, and that's great.  It's certainly something I'd watch again, once I'm more familiar with this brand of film making, the era and other films in the genre.

As a side note, it is interesting to consider the negotiations between Criterion and Toho.  As Toho is responsible for a lot of Kurosawa, as well as Godzilla, the internal discussions at Criterion as to what they'd distribute must have been interesting.  Must have been a curious negotiation.

No comments: