The Hidden Fortress (1958)
The Hidden Fortress (1958)

Genre: Adventure Running Time: 2 hrs. 6 min.

Release Date: December 28th, 1958 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Akira Kurosawa Actors: Toshiro Mifune, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Susumu Fujita, Takashi Shimura, Misa Uehara

 


 

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easants Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) wander from a battlefield, complaining of each other’s stench as they trudge away from an unsuccessful attempt to make money from the war. Not only did they arrive late, they were mistaken for members of the losing side – and forced to bury the dead. And now, it’s been two days since they’ve had any water. Enraged at their failures, and sick of one another’s company, they part ways. But, near a Yamana checkpoint, Tahei comes across enemy forces, while Matashichi is corralled into a labor camp in a nearby city; in a comical coincidence, they both end up forced to dig in the belly of a castle for missing gold.

During the night, the prisoners revolt, crashing through the gates and tumbling down massive stone steps against throngs of rifle-toting soldiers. Miraculously, both Tahei and Matashichi survive the riot, managing to flee. After they steal some rice and set up camp in the mountains, they muse over how to locate the escaped Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), the last of the Akizuki clan, whose capture is worth 10 ryo. Instead, they’re distracted by the discovery of a sliver of gold hidden inside a tree branch – and then by a stranger who saunters down an embankment, silently and stoically following them as they retreat with their prize.

The first notable component of “The Hidden Fortress” is its leading men – two unfortunate, miserable lowlifes, who are at the very bottom of the hierarchy of warring clans. Largely told from their perspective, the various people they meet are all nobler, stronger, and braver. But there are plenty of relatable, identifiable qualities for these bumbling fools; they’re mainly trying to survive, in a time when being heroic often ends in death. And secondly, they provide the brunt of the comic relief; they may be unskilled, greedy, distrustful, and without morals, but their interactions are quirky, full of colorful insults, and regularly involve slapstick. Accompanying them at every turn is playful, inquisitive music, which highlights their incompetence and haplessness.

On their quest to the safety of Akizuki, journeying through the hazardous territory of Hayakawa, the sunburnt, parched twosome crosses paths with legendary samurai general Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune), the first of many larger-than-life characters, whose presence outranks and outshines the measly peons. Although they’re bullied into working for everyone they encounter, Tahei and Matashichi are also conniving enough to plot against their bosses. And then, of course, there’s the 16-year-old princess, a headstrong and rebellious yet tough leader, who eventually proves she’s every bit as formidable as her male companions.

The stage is set for a treacherous campaign across enemy lands, promising plenty of adventure. There’s also time for humor, however, amidst the decoys, disguises, reverse psychology, scheming, and encounters with firing squads. Even in the moments of levity, cleverness works its way into forms of manipulation, trickery, and lucky escapes (one of which, the Fire Festival, seems contrived initially, though the script is too smart to let it become yet another mere coincidence). At its heart, “The Hidden Fortress” is about good versus evil; underdog survivors against conquering warlords. But it’s also about unearthing components of humanity – from the loftier responsibilities of royalty, kindness toward victims of war, eternal friendships, and the honor of a proper duel, to the baser qualities of fear, avarice, and lust. The beauty stands right alongside the ugliness.

In the hands of writer/director Akira Kurosawa, “The Hidden Fortress” is also quite the actioner, building exceptional excitement through anticipation. The lead-ins to confrontations are much lengthier than the actual fights; when it comes to life or death scenarios, there’s an undeniable realism in strategic planning over reckless engagement. A spear duel against longtime rival General Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita) is particularly tense, thanks to this design of remarkable caution in the choreography. Toward the end, after some unbelievably thrilling chases and harrowing circumventions of certain doom, the comedy returns, leaving audiences with the satisfaction of the two annoying peasants not quite acquiring courage, but finally getting a bit of gold for their troubles.

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10