Monday, June 18, 2012

The Hidden Fortress

Originally Written and Posted at on 11/17/08 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.

Directed by Akira Kurosawa with a script he co-wrote with Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Hideo Oguni. The Hidden Fortress tells the story of a battle's aftermath where two escaped peasant workers run into a general as they reluctantly help him transport a large amount of gold with help from a farmer's daughter in hopes to revive a princess' throne. Starring Kurosawa regulars Toshiro Mifune, Minoru Chiaki, Takashi Shimura, Kamatari Fujiwara, and Kichijiro Ueda along with Misa Uehara, Susumu Fujita, and Toshiko Higuchi. The Hidden Fortress is an adventurous, humorous, and powerful film from Akira Kurosawa and company.

After escaping the Yamana clan fortress, two peasants in Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matakishi (Kamatari Fujiwara) flee to the mountains hoping to go to the guarded Akizuki land for safety.  After finding two pieces of gold in the woods, they encounter General  Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) who aids them as he's trying to find Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) to protect her from the Yamana clan who offer 10 pieces of ryo for her capture.  Though Tahei and Matakishi are suspicious about Makabe, it wasn't until they meet a young woman in a watering hole as it's revealed to be Princess Yuki as Makabe revealed he got the 10 pieces of ryo by using his sister as a decoy.  Hiding out at a hidden fortress, Makabe confers with his old general (Takashi Shimura) and the princess' lady-in-waiting (Eiko Miyoshi) about what to do next.

With Tahei and Matakishi, Makabe decide to go the border with the princess pretending to be a mute girl to secretly transport 200 pieces of gold inside wood branches only for things to go wrong due to Tahei and Matakishi's greed.  Trapped and the fortress covered in smoke, Makabe makes a move to keep things going where they save an abused farmer's daughter (Toshiko Higuchi) by buying her from a slave trader (Kichijiro Ueda) much to Makabe's reluctance.  After an counter with some of Yamana's soldiers where Makabe would fight more as he enters a base that is run by General Hyoe Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita) who knows Makabe.  After a honorable duel that leaves both men alive, Makabe, the princess, and their entourage continue to hide only for Tahei and Matakashi to nearly get them in trouble once again.  With Yamana's men still trying to find them as all hope seems lost, it would take an unlikely ally and the princess' grace and dignity that would save Makabe and its entourage.

While the film's plot about a general using two greedy peasants to transport gold and accompany a princess into treacherous land from their hidden fortress is a simple story. Yet, what makes this film interesting on storytelling level is its emphasis to get the perspective of various characters and their situation. There's four central characters in the film that really are the focal point of the story. A determined general who is trying to protect the princess and gold in hopes to reclaim the princess' status to help win the war against feuding factions. A princess who has lived her life in a castle for most of her life pondering about the big role that she has to play now where she finally gets a closer look at the people she's supposed to rule over.

Then, we have the greedy peasants who are simply motivated by greed as they serve as a comical device while often getting Makabe and the princess into trouble at times. The film later introduces a farmer's daughter whose freedom is given because of the princess and a rival general who has a deep amount of respect for Makabe despite the fact that they're in different war factions.

The script is wonderfully told in its mix of adventure, humor, and drama while Kurosawa's direction is truly engrossing. The first Kurosawa film presented in a widescreen format, Kurosawa is given more to do in his vision and create scenes with a wide depth of field. One notable sequence where Kurosawa uses the new cinematic format to great heights is a duel between Makabe and Tadokoro. In its presentation, Kurosawa reveals the idea of respect and honor in a duel as it's about the duel and all of Tadokoro's soldiers watching. The movement and how Kurosawa captures that sequence is truly amazing where he also takes his time in letting the drama of the duel unfold. What happens in the end is about honor and respect where despite the fact that Makabe and Tadokoro are in different sides, there's a level of respect between those two.

Kurosawa's approach to humor is done wonderfully as it's all about how Tahei and Matakishi and their greed. Yet, the way Kurosawa sets up situations is to reveal their impatience in their characters and at times, the two often quarrel with each other over greed or how dumb they are. The visual approach that Kurosawa creates is more epic with images of Mt. Surabachi and its locations as a real inspiration while some of the shots in the forest has this dream-like quality. Kurosawa's editing with the use of frame-wipe transitions and rhythmic cutting for some of film's action sequences are very stylized yet has a great presentation and pacing that doesn't move too slow but rather leisurely. Overall, Kurosawa's vision of a big, epic story is heightened thanks to the use of the widescreen format that gives him more room as he creates a truly memorable and complex film.

Cinematographer Kazuo Yamasaki does great work with the film's black-and-white photography, notably in the use of sunlight shining against the forest that creates one of the film's most gorgeous sequences. Yamasaki's exterior work whether its day or night is wonderfully lit where in the night scenes, there's a suspenseful tone while in the day. It's more comical and adventurous with a gray look for other scenes as Yamasaki's camera work is truly phenomenal. Production designer Yoshiro Muraki does excellent work in the look of the houses inside of the fortress along with the cave and other homes that have a traditional look. Costume designer Masahiro Kato does great work in the downtrodden looks of the peasants along with Makabe while the princess wears shorts and a shirt to make herself look like common folk. Sound recordist Fumio Yanoguchi does excellent work in capturing the intensity of the duel along with the sounds of gunshots and breaking wood.

Composer Masaru Sato, a longtime collaborator of Kurosawa, does great work in proving an amazing, suspenseful film score with numerous themes to accompany each character. Sato provides a comical, swift, and melodic score for the theme of Tahei and Matakishi while a more serene, flute-driven score for the princess. The rest filled with traditional Japanese percussions and drums along with orchestral arrangements is truly phenomenal for the film's sense of adventure and suspense.

The cast is phenomenal with small appearances from Eiko Miyoshi as an old lady-in-waiting who helps Makabe in planning the transport the princess to safety along with Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura as an old general who Makabe turns to for advice. Kichijiro Ueda is funny as a slave trader while Toshiko Higuchi is very good as a farmer's daughter who is aware of who the people are she's traveling with while playing an unlikely protector to the princess. Susumu Fujita is brilliant as General Tadokoro, a rivaling general who has great respect for Makabe as the aftermath of battle has him dealing with his own confusion about honor as Fujita is truly phenomenal. Kurosawa regulars Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara in their respective roles of Tahei and Matakishi are wonderful to watch. The two men bring a great chemistry to their performances with Tahei as the smarter of the two and Matakishi as the more risk-taker. Yet, they both bring a great sense of humor and complexity to their greedy characters as they add a nice balance to the film.

Misa Uehara is brilliant as Princess Yuki, a stubborn yet graceful princess who feels overwhelmed and trapped in her new royal position as she has to act mute and observe all that's going on. What happens is a transformation of her character who becomes aware of what role she has to play while providing wonderful insight into her journey. Uehara's performance is phenomenal and a rare moment where a female character takes charge in a positive light in a film by Kurosawa. Finally, there's Toshiro Mifune in an amazing performance as General Rokurota Makabe. Mifune's tough yet intelligence performance reveals a man who has a great mind for strategy while knowing he can't take too many risks. Even with people around him that he has to take care of. While he's a man of honor, he is also dealing with loss that he knew has to deal with while it's only because he's doing it for the princess. Mifune's performance is definitely brilliant in its complexity as he carries the film with such power and also a bit of humor.

The Hidden Fortress is a brilliant and adventurous film from Akira Kurosawa and company. With great performances from Toshiro Mifune, Misa Uehara, Minoru Chiaki, and Kamatari Fujiwara and amazing sequences, notably the duel scene. It's definitely a film that fans of Kurosawa will no doubt enjoy as it's regarded as one of his great works. Fans of the Star Wars franchise should check this film out to see where George Lucas got all of the ideas for the film and see where Lucas made references towards this film. In the end, The Hidden Fortress is a fascinating yet entertaining film from Akira Kurosawa.

Akira Kurosawa Films: (Sanshiro Sugata) - (The Most Beautiful) - (Sanshiro Sugata Part II) - (The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail) - No Regrets on Our Youth - (One Wonderful Sunday) - Drunken Angel - (The Quiet Duel) - Stray Dog - Scandal (1950 film) - Rashomon - The Idiot (1951 film) - Ikiru - The Seven Samurai - (I Live in Fear) - Throne of Blood - (The Lower Depths (1957 film)) - The Bad Sleep Well - Yojimbo - Sanjuro - High and Low - Red Beard - Dodesukaden - Dersu Uzala - Kagemusha - Ran - Dreams (1990 film) - (Rhapsody in August) - (Madadayo)

© thevoid99 2012


Chip Lary said...

You didn't mention Star Wars until the very end. I was getting ready to post a comment saying I didn't remember all those Japanese people in that movie.

I liked this film, but would put in on a tier below the top films from Kurosawa.

thevoid99 said...

This is a top tier Kurosawa film. It's one of his essentials and I could see where George Lucas got the idea for C-3PO and R2-D2

Chip Lary said...

Oh, Lucas definitely took big parts from this film, plus some things from Seven Samurai, to create Star Wars.

As for "tier below" perhaps this will help put things into perspective on where I was coming from:

First tier = Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, and Ikiru.

Second tier = Rashomon, Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, High and Low, Ran.

Second tier is still classic films that are better than many directors' best works.

thevoid99 said...

@Chip-I remember the scenes where Yoda rubs his head in Revenge of the Sith is a reference to Takashi Shimura's character in The Seven Samurai since he too rubbed his head a lot.

The next series of reviews I'm going to release and rewrite of Kurosawa are some of his work in the early 60s and then his 2 films from the 1980s.