(NOTE: I had planned to also review Seven Samurai for this blogathon, but personal issues and obligations made that impossible. I will definitely be seeing (and reviewing) it in the near future!)
Previous to watching Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, I had seen only one other of his films (Rashomon). As a long-time Star Wars fan, I was perfectly aware that The Hidden Fortress had been an influence on George Lucas when he wrote/directed A New Hope. For some reason, I never got around to seeing it, and decided this blogathon was the perfect opportunity to rectify the situation.
Here’s the thing. I never expected to find out he basically lifted the entire first act of The Hidden Fortress.
I mean, maybe that Kurosawa guy should have sued.
Of course, I’m being facetious. But it’s kind of stunning sitting through that first act of the film and seeing the many, many elements it shares with A New Hope.
Instead of two droids, we have two peasants Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) wandering the countryside. They had left their village to fight in a war, were erroneously believed to be on the losing side, and forced to bury their dead. Eventually, they are recaptured by Jawas–er, I mean, the winning side–to dig for gold but escape again during a prison uprising.
Finding gold with the crest of the Akizuki (the losing side) they plan to escape to neutral territory by crossing through Yamana (the winning side) territory. They encounter a man who turns out to be a general with the Akizuki clan, Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune), who is stunned that a pair of foolish peasants came up with such a clever plan. He takes them to the hidden fortress of the Akizuki clan so he can implement their plan to help the Akizuki princess, Yuki (Misa Uehara), escape from certain death at the hands of the Yamana clan.
What follows is mainly a road movie through dangerous territory as Makabe does all he can to safely transport the princess (who the peasants think is a mute girl merely helping them carry the gold). Complicating matters are the peasants, who want to make off with the gold and also plot to molest Yuki. A farmer’s daughter (Toshiko Higuchi) Yuki insisted Makabe save from a brothel loyally protects her from the two peasants.
Kurosawa conceived The Hidden Fortress after he had two box-office flops. Sensitive to criticism that his movies were too dark, it’s clear he wanted to prove he could make a crowd pleaser, and he totally succeeded. The two peasants (who put me even more in mind of the brownies in Ron Howard’s Willow—maybe Kurosawa should have sued him, too) contribute strong comic relief to a story of war and violence.
Mifune’s heroic general is deeply principled but also a total bad-ass (there’s a really rad duel scene between him and his nemesis mid-film). Yuki is spoiled and immature in some ways, but soon proves herself as heroic with the potential to become an exceptional leader. She is without question the prototype for Princess Leia (and, to a lesser extent, her mother Padme).
Some critics pooh-poohed The Hidden Fortress at the time of its release as escapist fluff. But like the movie franchise it helped inspire, there are many great themes, including loyalty, friendship, the responsibilities of those who have power, and what constitutes bravery. Add to that Kurosawa’s masterful direction and Mifune’s star presence (who, by the way, Lucas wanted to cast in A New Hope), and you end up with something that is way more than a simple crowd pleaser.
This last scene, though. Puts me in mind of another final scene . . .