The Hidden Fortress

Toshiro Mifune

The Hidden Fortress is a 1958 jidai-geki (period drama) film directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshiro Mifune as General Makabe Rokurōta and Misa Uehara as Princess Yuki. The film begins with two bedraggled peasants, Tahei and Matashichi (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara).

Through conversation, they reveal that they had intended to fight with the Yamana clan, but turned up too late, were taken for soldiers of the defeated Akizuki clan, and forced to bury dead. After quarreling and splitting up, the two are both captured again and forced to dig for gold in the Akizuki castle with other prisoners.

This was Kurosawa’s first feature filmed in a widescreen format, Tohoscope, which he continued to use for the next decade. In box-office terms, it was Kurosawa’s most successful film until the 1961 release of ‘Yojimbo.’ Writing for ‘The Criterion Collection’ in 1987, David Ehrenstein called it ‘one of the greatest action-adventure films ever made’ and a ‘fast-paced, witty and visually stunning chambara film’ (‘sword fighting’ movie). According to Ehrenstein: ‘The battle on the steps in Chapter 2 (anticipating the climax of ‘Ran’) is as visually overwhelming as any of the similar scenes in Griffith’s ‘Intolerance.’ The use of composition in depth in the fortress scene in Chapter 4 is likewise as arresting as the best of Eisenstein or David Lean. Toshiro Mifune’s muscular demonstrations of heroic derring-do in the horse-charge scene (Chapter 11) and the scrupulously choreographed swordfight climax that follows it (Chapter 12) is in the finest tradition of Douglas Fairbanks. Overall, there’s a sense of sheer ‘movieness’ to ‘The Hidden Fortress’ that places it plainly in the ranks of such grand adventure entertainments as ‘Gunga Din,’ ‘The Thief of Baghdad,’ and Fritz Lang’s celebrated diptych ‘The Tiger of Eschnapur’ and ‘The Hindu Tomb.’

Writing for ‘The Criterion Collection’ in 2001, Armond White said ‘The Hidden Fortress holds a place in cinema history comparable to John Ford’s ‘Stagecoach’: It lays out the plot and characters of an on-the-road epic of self-discovery and heroic action. In a now-familiar fashion, Rokurōta and Princess Yuki fight their way to allied territory, accompanied by a scheming, greedy comic duo who get surprised by their own good fortune. Kurosawa always balances valor and greed, seriousness and humor, while depicting the misfortunes of war.’

George Lucas has acknowledged heavy influence of ‘The Hidden Fortress’ on his original ‘Star Wars’ film, particularly in the technique of telling the story from the perspective of the film’s lowliest characters, C-3PO and R2-D2. Kurosawa’s use of frame wipes (sometimes cleverly hidden by motion within the frame) as a transition device also influenced Star Wars. Lucas’ original plot outline for ‘Star Wars’ also had a strong resemblance to the plot of ‘The Hidden Fortress.’

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