Akira Kurosawa: The Hidden Fortress (1958) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Akira Kurosawa: The Hidden Fortress (1958)

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In terms of influence The Hidden Fortress is one of those mid-range Akira Kurosawa films and honestly that’s what it really feels like.  This is the first film of Kurosawa’s that I didn’t feel he was burdened with the expectation of producing something that would stand the test of time.  Even with The Most Beautiful it had a sense of urgency due to the conditions of its production and with his more respectful affairs at least he seemed somewhat indebted to the source material.  So while it’s refreshing to see a Kurosawa who is a bit more at ease and willing to just tell a fun story, this doesn’t have the same kind of punch I would have liked it to have.

This isn’t to say that The Hidden Fortress is just a decent movie as it’s a very well done flick.  This is the first film of Kurosawa’s to use a widescreen format (Tohoscope) and Kurosawa is definitely having fun playing with the widened field of view.  The expanded detail he can put onscreen leads to a more desolate feel in the opening act where two hapless peasants (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara, both hilarious) are stumbling across the desert searching for food after being forced to dig graves for soldiers.  Kurosawa lets his normal subtlety with the weather play in as the dark clouds form above them but do not provide rain.  But he also uses the expanded field to show just how alone they are, and even when more soldiers happen upon them they are just two specs that barely contrast with the rest of the desert.

The sense that all the players are very tiny in the grand scheme has played into Kurosawa’s films before but here takes on a perpetual joke with the audience.  Later on the two peasants are captured and there’s a breathtaking escape scene that shows them swept up in the current of the other rebelling slaves.  Kurosawa shows a massive tide of people rushing down the steps and the two bumblers are nowhere to be seen until they can secure a small piece of the frame for themselves before Kurosawa brings them back into view.

Kurosawa has a lot of fun showing how the tiniest detail in the picture often gets lost in the tide, either of people or of other circumstances beyond their control.  Many times Kurosawa will focus show the overwhelming expanse of their environment and then allow a tiny figure into the frame.  He does this a lot with Toshiro Mifune’s noble general, many times showing how he is able to overcome the environment by virtue of ignoring it and pressing onward.

So while Kurosawa is clearly having a lot of fun with the expanded frame, his story is a lot simpler this time as well, but I can’t say I enjoy it any more than his other epics.  Despite the fact that it deals with the efforts of a people to return their princess (Misa Uehara) to power, all of the big battles happen just off-screen and the one grand fight is a one-on-one duel.  Fun stuff, but many times to me it just felt like Kurosawa was testing out a new to so film itself didn’t seem as urgent, just a series of beautiful tourist pit-stops on the way to the conclusion.  That's certainly not a bad thing, but not one I feel too excited over.I was a bit surprised by this one—first, because I swore I had seen it long ago only to realize upon starting to watch it that I hadn't, and second because it really is just a fun adventure film that doesn't seem concerned with much else. There's nothing wrong with that.

You mentioned the visuals, with the sweeping shots of fields and forests—this seems to me some of the most classically visual storytelling since Rashomon. We talked after watching that about how the movie was simply a great example of classical storytelling in which Kurosawa finally seemed at total ease with the camera, and that level of ease is what I feel here. While I wanted The Idiot to be a silent film simply to make it interesting, I think The Hidden Fortress could be played on silent without losing much of its impact. It's not that I don't like the characters, but that those visual sequences capture all the spirit of adventure and grandiosity that the film needs—the plot and dialogue is just kind of a garnish.

One of movies I kept thinking of in the early scenes when the peasants follow Toshiro Mifune through the mountains into the hidden camp was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Though I haven't seen it in many years, I remember that movie as one of the first I saw as a kid that struck me distinctly for its use of landscape and the way its feeling of desolation played up the conflicts between the three characters—and these early scenes of Kurosawa's struck the same note of images that perfectly embody the nature of the story at that point (in the former, desperation, and in the latter, grand anticipation). It's nothing revolutionary—just incredibly solid visual storytelling.

I could probably watch The Hidden Fortress again and get plenty of enjoyment out of it. It's the kind of movie you could throw in on a weekend day, lay on the couch, and get a feeling approximating that of watching Sunday morning cartoons as a kid. I don't know that I will do that, but it doesn't seem like a terrible way to spend a day.Your succinct response actually highlights exactly why I can’t get too excited about The Hidden Fortress.  There’s very little I love and a lot of things I like.  When you talked about the plot and dialogue something triggered in my brain about why I’m a bit ambivalent.  This film, while not one of Kurosawa’s overt Shakespeare adaptations, made me think of his early plays like Titus, the sort of film that is a calling card and draws attention to the director.

Think about the response if this was Kurosawa’s first film instead of Sanshiro Sugata.  They share a lot in common with the generally jovial tone and willingness to play around with the visuals, it’s just that The Hidden Fortress is the work of someone who has proven himself a master at this point.  I know you don’t quite agree, but with Sanshiro Sugata I saw a lot of promise and fun but with The Hidden Fortress I suppose I expected to revisit it and find something a little grander.

I like that Kurosawa gives us a couple of peasants because we get a lot of rough dialogue that we normally wouldn’t.  I like that Kurosawa presents a strong female lead with the princess.  I like that Mifune gets to be a little meta with his performance and laugh at the overblown warrior that his reputation precedes him as (and that we’ve seen him play many times now.)

I just can’t bring myself to love it.  The point you made about this being the perfect rainy-day adventure flick is pretty spot on.  It’s the kind of film I would stop flipping channels for, but don’t know if I’d pop it back into my DVD player or not.You are exactly right, the career context makes a lot of difference. It's a weird phenomenon that occurs with modern directors for me too—someone has defined themselves as a masterful, innovative director/writer/etc. and so the expectation is set so high that when they come out with anything less than a masterpiece there's a struggle against disappointment. That's something that seems heightened by a project like this; the films exist as their own entities, but it's impossible to consider them exclusively as such.

There's one thing you touched on—one of the few strong female characters we've seen thus far for Kurosawa—that seems like it should stand out more in this discussion, and I'm not entirely sure why it doesn't. Though I took note of it while watching, it wasn't something that stuck in my mind afterward enough to talk at length (or even mention it) in my first response—maybe the generally more fun, lighthearted nature of the movie made it seem less like a significant change in Kurosawa's pattern.

Yet and still, this is the single most capable, confident, strong female character in any film we've watched (I think), and even though she requires the assistance of Mifune and the others, she exhibits a power and independence foreign to most of Kurosawa's women characters. Why is it that this comes up in one of the most light and dramatically insignificant of his movies?

Is this worth investigating further, possibly at the end of the project? I think so. Am I just asking this here because there isn't much else to say about The Hidden Fortress that we haven't already said about Kurosawa's storytelling strengths and aesthetic techniques? Probably.

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Next week we're back to another Shakespeare adaptation in the sure to be cheery The Bad Sleep Well.

Posted by Andrew

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