The Hidden Fortress (1958) Movie Review

Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress’ full name is actually The 3 Villains of the Hidden Fortress, and in interviews of the past, George Lucas of Star Wars fame has admitted that there were elements of his space opus that were based on this Kurosawa film. Fortress once again teams Kurosawa with his favorite actor, Toshiro Mifune. The two had previously worked together on numerous films, including Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Yojimbo’s sequel, Sanjuro. This copy of Fortress had been in my possession for a while, but I have neglected to do a full review of it. Now, hoping to wash the stink of death that was put into my mouth by my miserable experience with another Japanese movie called Ring 2, I’ve decided to do a full review of Kurosawa’s Fortress. Surely the work of a master filmmaker like Kurosawa can wash away the stench of Ring 2!

The engines of Fortress’ story are two down-on-their-luck mercenaries. Or more accurately, would-be-mercenaries who not only joined a war between 3 rival clans too late but joined the wrong side. When the movie opens, the two bumbling mercenaries have just escaped from life as prisoners forced to dig graves for the dead. The two are constantly at each other’s throats but deep inside they’re very good friends who enjoys the bickering and each other’s company.

The two men are obviously the inspirations for Lucas’ R2D2 and C3P0. Lucas slapped chrome metal on Kurosawa’s characters, gave them groovy initials, and tossed them into outer space. Other than that, the translation is literal between the two films. Like the two robots of Lucas’ flick, Kurosawa’s bumbling peasants-turned-wannabe mercenaries always manage to miraculously survive one encounter after another, though no one, least of all them, are quite sure how.

Following the bumbling mercs, we learn they’re greedy as well, especially when they find gold hidden inside firewood. It isn’t long before a mysterious stranger name Makabe shows up and through sheer force of will and a lot of bullying, turns the two mercs into his personal slaves. Of course, the promise of more gold didn’t hurt. The three locates the “hidden fortress” of the title (by now you’ll notice that the “3 villains” of the title actually refers to the two mercs and Makabe) and a 16-year old girl.

We quickly learn that things aren’t what they appear, and Makabe turns out to be a great samurai general for one of the 3 warring clans, and the girl is the Princess, the last surviving royal family member since her entire clan has been wiped out. It is now up to Makabe to escort the strong-willed young woman out of enemy territory in order to rebuild the clan. Makabe, using the two mercs’ overflowing sense of greed, tricks the two men into help him escort the princess and the gold to safety. The gold, of course, is meant as starter money for the Princess to rebuild her clan.

Fortress teeters easily from comedy to seriousness. Moments of hilarity suddenly turn into very serious situations and vice versa. Another change of pace is that there is no forced “change of motives” for the characters. The two bumbling mercs are forever bumbling, greedy, and at more than one point, even would-be rapists. Makabe remains the stern General who can pose as a peasant or a thief if the need arises; but at his core he’s a loyal soldier, and he’ll do anything to guard the Princess, even sacrifice his sister. The Princess, too, is a fiery fighter first and fugitive second; even as they’re pursued across the country, she can’t help but ignore her obligation to help one of her people who have been sold into slavery.

Kurosawa’s not concerned with character arcs, or any of the Hollywood “paradigm” that’s become so popular. Kurosawa’s movies are not about change; they’re not even about the journey.

At their core, Kurosawa makes movies about the human soul — how heroes are always heroes, and cowards always cowards. Greedy men will always be greedy men, and steely Princesses will always be steely Princess no matter the situation. His characters, like us, are not so easy to change. In lieu of total change that could be seen as forced or out of left field, Kurosawa’s characters are simply given new layers to their personality. They’re always more than we think, or perhaps they’re exactly as we think, but they will never act in a way that doesn’t meet with their character. They are, in effect, human who isn’t aware they’re in a movie and “must change” in order to achieve some mysterious “character arc” as deemed by Joseph Campbell.

Akira Kurosawa (director) / Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni (screenplay)
CAST: Minoru Chiaki …. Tahei
Susumu Fujita …. General Hyoe Tadokoro
Kamatari Fujiwara …. Matakishi

Buy The Hidden Fortress on DVD