***½/**** Image A Sound B Extras A
starring Toshiro Mifune, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Susumu Fujita
screenplay by Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto and Akira Kurosawa
directed by Akira Kurosawa
by Walter Chaw It is many things, but Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress is rare for its ability to evoke a feeling ineffable of finding yourself in the company of betters and wanting desperately/doing your best to fit in. It's a weightless feeling. There's euphoria in it. Fear, too, the understanding that being a cool kid is a temporary state, at least for you. And then there's the nagging embarrassment for the friend along for the ride, what that friend says about your unworthiness, and how sick it makes you that you could feel this way about your only real ally in this whole mess. It's two movies, then: the stylized slapstick of opportunistic peasants Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara); and a more standard jidaigeki involving a princess in exile (Misa Uehara) and her bodyguard/retainer General Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) trying to transport a fortune in gold to re-establish their fallen kingdom. The Hidden Fortress would work without the peasants, but it would be a different movie. It would be about heroes like The Seven Samurai, or royalty like Throne of Blood. With the peasants, The Hidden Fortress is about being ordinary in a world inhabited by heroes and royalty, and the existential suffering attendant to that state. The best of Kurosawa is eternally skating along that divide; Kurosawa's own suicide attempt, I think, had more than a little to do with a Kierkegaardian fear and self-loathing. His best--films like Ikiru, Throne of Blood, High and Low--are distinctly revealing. It's a measure of an artist that his reflection in his art is helpless to intention or style. Hitchcock's films lay Hitchcock bare, as Mann's, Vidor's, Lang's, and Welles's do them. Kurosawa feared his worthiness; he feared being judged and found wanting.
The Hidden Fortress opens, famously, with Tahei and Matashichi bickering as they trundle through a war-ravaged wasteland, stinking of the corpses they'd been conscripted to bury. They taunt each other. Their language is low, coarse, hilarious. A samurai runs among them to be cut down by a small group of other samurai on horseback. When we see them again, Matashichi is wearing the freshly-assassinated samurai's armour--and then they're discovered, conscripted again to dig for lost gold, and swept up in a massive slave revolt that allows Kurosawa, shooting for the first time in 'scope, to demonstrate that he was a master painter no matter the size of the canvas. Taking his cues from Eisenstein and Ford, Kurosawa trumps both in terms of audacity and eye. His instincts are absurd. The flood of unfortunates coursing down long stone steps seems impossible in its volume and choreography, the timing required to pull it off. It's like the opening sequence of Aguirre: The Wrath of God--it shouldn't be, but it is. The rest of the film is smaller in scale, as Tahei and Matashichi discover sticks of gold hidden in firewood. They're found by Makabe and Princess Yuki around the titular fortress, and rather than taken into their confidence, our erstwhile heroes are ridiculed, demeaned, abused, and otherwise used as tools for Makabe and Yuki's repatriation. The brilliance of The Hidden Fortress is that the characters with whom we've identified through the first quarter of the picture are Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. Later, Makabe says (laughing heartily) that he was about to kill the two idiots when, surprisingly, the two idiots somehow came up with a good idea.
And they never get smarter. A running joke is that Tahei and Matashichi are rapists, drawing straws at one point so they can decide which of them will get to ravage the sleeping princess first. A parallel subplot, played less lightly, involves a slave girl's coercion into prostitution by a vile innkeeper. Taken as a whole, Kurosawa reveals a difficult complexity in his treatment of gender issues. On the one hand, the 16-year-old princess is a tomboy who needs to be corralled by her elders; and on the other hand, she's too smart to be tricked by Makabe's "reverse psychology," and in the film's defining moment, she demonstrates an empathy (in a rare Kurosawa double-exposure) that underscores her innate leadership qualities. The Hidden Fortress suggests, in fact, that the best leader is this young woman, for her feminine-coded aspects and not in spite of them. Makabe serves his purpose, definitely, but he sacrifices young women like Yuki in pursuit of a greater good--he doesn't recognize, perhaps until the end, when Yuki recruits their chief antagonist, that she is a shogun in more than birthright. Tahei and Matashichi try to run off with the gold multiple times; they endanger the party with their greed and cowardice; they're captured repeatedly, always bemoaning their fate; and their confusion and terror is the butt of a final joke before they're sent packing. Watch how Kurosawa sets them apart in a "reveal" sequence that will influence the way countrymen like Takashi Miike and Beat Takeshi use master shots. There's no question of these two classes ever truly intersecting, no possibility for that kind of happy ending. The Hidden Fortress ends with the pair exiled from the kingdom they've helped restore, back into the wasteland of the opening, the laughter of royalty winging them on their way. It has about it the bittersweetness of the ending to Modern Times.
Indeed, 1958 was "modern times" for Kurosawa and The Hidden Fortress, released the same year as Vertigo in the United States. Kurosawa would follow it with the bleak noir The Bad Sleep Well, then the anti-heroic, dirty, vicious, hilarious Yojimbo and its sequel, the barriers-breaking bloodbath Sanjuro. It's a cycle of films that moved Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, of course, and then boomeranged back to the United States in how those films shaped Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Kurosawa's impact on the American Seventies is incalculable. He identified the anti-heroic action hero in a vital, essential way. He served as a bridge between America's own western tradition, full of certainty and masculinity, and the new American hero riddled with self-doubt, psychopathy, violence, and senses of honour tied to traditions long-since devalued. The feeling of helplessness when Yuki, forced to play the mute, watches her idiot underlings wander off the path and into the enemy's line of sight, flowers into two decades of powerlessness and frustration in the broken heroes of American cinema. Makabe gets his moment in a grand spear fight and some horse-bound combat (indeed, there has never been anyone better for these sequences than Mifune), but his derring-do results in the humiliation and torture of a respected comrade. It's further recognition that the world has turned away from that sort of nobility.
The Hidden Fortress is wonderful, not for its action sequences or overwhelming artistry, but for how it cleanly redefined the western hero as, on the one side, aloof and alien, and on the other "low," even ridiculous. For all its scale, it is at its heart a "nerd" comedy in which a couple of losers try to infiltrate the jock culture and fail, but manage nonetheless to win some degree of esteem from them. It's a John Hughes film on a grand, historical scale. Oft-mentioned as a key influence on Star Wars, the better analogy is to things like Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles. It even explains the appeal of Molly Ringwald's characters in those movies: girls who, like Yuki, are in a state of exile from what they see as their place amongst the glitterati--and no matter the Anthony Michael Halls and Jon Cryers making their claim, in the end it's always only Jake. The Hidden Fortress, too, locates a place in a fractured universe for the lone hero--the Mifunes and the Eastwoods--so long as they withstand hardships and humiliations, so long as they remain to some degree outcast as the world falls down around them. Makabe is the antecedent to John McClane.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The Hidden Fortress is a font, a major one, and Criterion lavishes due attention on it with an above-reproach Blu-ray presentation. Taken from a 2K scan of a 35mm fine-grain master positive, the 2.39:1, 1080p transfer possibly yields softer definition and narrower dynamic range than a negative source would have (alas, the original negative is lost), although fine detail is strong enough to count the hairs on Mifune's face in the flickering glow of campfire during the first meeting between our central duo and Makabe. I noticed a hair in the gate that lasts all of ten seconds just past the movie's midpoint (which could be a cinematographic artifact), as well as occasional flecks of dirt that escaped Criterion's usual rigorous cleanup, but overall the image is pristine, stable, and beautiful. The original soundmix is encoded in LPCM 1.0 and free entirely of distortion while responding well to amplification. Also on board in 5.1 DTS-HD MA is the film's "Perspecta" soundtrack: An early experiment in directional sound, Perspecta consisted of a single audio channel that was panned left or right as desired; though not a discrete format, the Perspecta decoder could control the volume of each speaker individually. Props to Criterion for going to the trouble of replicating the Perspecta experience, even if it's ultimately hard to tell this 3.0 option apart from the mono alternative.
A third track containing a feature-length commentary by author and scholar Stephen Prince just plain kicks butt. Exhaustively researched and delivered with verve and energy, Prince's yakker helped me appreciate aspects of the film that would have soared over my head without his guidance. He discusses craft and technique, breaking down specific scenes to their core. If there's not as much history as I would like, there is in his book, The Warrior's Camera: as valuable a resource on Kurosawa as anything by Donald Richie. His bits about silence and the Noh tradition allowed me to draw a line from The Hidden Fortress to Beat Takeshi's work.
"Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create" (40 mins., 1080i) is a fragment of a 2003 Toho Masterworks special covering the making of The Hidden Fortress, featuring behind-the-scenes stills and an interview with the master himself wherein he declares that the best movies are simple. I enjoyed tales of Kurosawa molding Uehasa's performance as Sternberg did Dietrich's once upon a time. Much emphasis is placed on the film's horseriding stunts, and it's always a pleasure to hear Kurosawa talk about Ford at every opportunity. In "George Lucas on Akira Kurosawa" (8 mins., 1080i), Lucas recalls first seeing a Kurosawa flick with buddy John Milius. He reveals that his favourites are The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, then identifies the many ways that Kurosawa inspired him. All I know is that Lucas never made anything worth half a shit without Marsha. A four-minute trailer rounds out the disc-bound bounty.
Catharine Russell delivers a well-modulated essay on The Hidden Fortress in the 14-page booklet insert, replacing Armond White's more impassioned if less-focused essay from the DVD release. I can't help but think that White's recent notoriety has resulted in his exclusion from the Blu-ray, which, if true, is a terrible shame. White's essay is still available on the Criterion website and well worth the read. His conclusion that this is Kurosawa's "definitive cultural expression" is a powerful collection of words that don't really land anywhere. He can't be referring to Japanese culture, because he refutes that by testifying to Kurosawa's debt to the American western. Could he be referring to American culture, then? Or to Kurosawa Culture, that hinterland of genius where the artist has defined his own borders? Anyway, there's something to chew on in White's essay--not so much in Russell's more general, certainly not controversial piece. Also missing is a David Ehrenstein write-up on the film from 1987 that falls somewhere between Russell and White. It, too, takes on the idea of The Hidden Fortress as a grand action-adventure, identifying the Indiana Jones pictures as owing it a debt in addition to Star Wars. But the lingering impression of Ehrenstein's article is unlikeably slick. Regardles, only Russell's words appear in the new Criterion package, a dual-format release that also, hence, includes a DVD version of the film.