Many things went through my mind as I began to watch Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 chanbara film, set during Japan’s warring states period.
The connection between George Lucas’s Star Wars was obviously at the forefront, with the film being an influence on Episode 4: A New Hope. Watching Toshirô Mifune blaze across the screen was another thought; I kept asking myself how on Earth could someone be so charismatic, it almost bleeds off the screen. 1958 puts this film well after the films Kurosawa is most known for, Seven Samurai and Rashomon, so watching the film in that context was also interesting, as the director made an attempt to making a more commercial and light-hearted film.
But at the forefront of my mind, what I was thinking about was this: The people who make films do not follow the rules dictated to people who want to make films. Hidden Fortress is a prime example.
What aspiring screenwriters and directors are taught are such things like introducing your protagonist immediately and have an inciting incident within twenty minutes, etc.
Hidden Fortress ignores these rules, much like most of your favourite films do. Because like I say, the rules are not followed by established artists, and nor should they be. But as a result of this rule-breaking, Hidden Fortress may be a hard watch for some, as we spend the first 30 minutes in the company of two witless peasants surviving one calamity after another, before stumbling upon gold near a mountain fortress harbouring an exiled princess on the run with her general.
Lucas essentially took these two characters and turned them into C-3PO and R2-D2, but there’s nothing in common with the two pairs other than the idea that they’re used for comic relief and manage to survive world-changing events. Kurosawa’s pair are actually quite scumbag-ish with greed motivating them more than survival instinct, but it’s this greed which Toshiro Mifune’s general Rokurota Makabe plans on taking advantage of, hiring them to carry their gold (needed to rebuild their kingdom) and accompanying him and the princess across enemy lines to voyage to safe territory.
Along the way, princess Yuki (played by tomboyish Misa Uehara) has to pretend to be mute to avoid suspicion and finds herself living like a peasant, the general must contend with the two scoundrels who honestly have no redeeming qualities whatsoever, while dodging the roving search parties of enemy soldiers constantly at their heels. There are great moments of tension as they strive to avoid detection, usually hindered by the idiotic pair of Tahei and Matashichi. (played by Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara)
The highlight of the film has to be an extremely tense spear battle as Makabe fights for his life against an admired rival. Brilliantly directed, with so many subtle quirks throughout, such as how the crowd of soldiers react to each jab and swing of a spear as Mifune practices before the battle itself; how the circle slowly expands due to Mifune’s presence alone. Honestly, the fight is probably better than any that features in all 3 hours of Seven Samurai, it’s that good.
The film feels long, as a journey should, and reaches a powerful climax despite the majority of the film being light-hearted compared to most Kurosawa films. The connections between Hidden Fortress and Star Wars are tenuous at best, and that’s a good thing. People are inspired in different ways, and the fact that Lucas didn’t crib the entire template of the film makes me glad.