Saturday, May 30, 2015

Tonight's Movie: The Hidden Fortress (1958)

Last weekend Kristina and I each watched and reviewed a film from her list of 10 Classics to see in 2015, BIGGER THAN LIFE (1956).

Now we've turned our attention to a film from my 10 Classics list, THE HIDDEN FORTRESS (1958). Be sure to check out Kristina's review of THE HIDDEN FORTRESS at Speakeasy, as she always has interesting insights to share.

THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, known as KAKUSHI-TORIDE NO SAN-AKUNIN in its native Japan, was directed by Akira Kurosawa. This was only the second Kurosawa film I've ever seen, following HIGH AND LOW (1963) earlier this year -- which happens to have been another film from Kristina's list!

Prior to seeing HIGH AND LOW, my interest in THE HIDDEN FORTRESS was sparked in part as it is widely credited with being an influence on STAR WARS (1977), which incidentally came out 38 years ago as of May 25th! How is it even possible it was that long ago?!

THE HIDDEN FORTRESS tells the story of Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), whose kingdom has been lost to war and who is struggling to make it through enemy territory to an allied country. Yuki is guided by the loyal General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune). A pair of silly, greedy peasants (Kamatari Fujiwara and Minoru Chiaki) accompany them; the peasants don't realize the true identities of Yuki and the general, but are lured to help by the princess's fortune in gold, which she is taking along with her to help rebuild her empire. There are many adventures and narrow escapes as the group tries to make it to safety.

THE HIDDEN FORTRESS was quite an enjoyable film, thanks especially to the imposing presence of Mifune, who surely must be to a Japanese period film of this type as John Wayne is to the Western. He's a towering presence from the very first shot, seen in the distance by the peasants. That said, he was also terrific in the modern detective drama HIGH AND LOW, so he really fits in anywhere. Mifune is an extremely charismatic actor, and I look forward to catching up with more of his work; I'm told YOJIMBO (1961) is a must!

The original three STAR WARS films are among my favorite movies, so it was fun to pick out the STAR WARS influences in THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, with the struggling peasants a clear inspiration for C-3PO and R2-D2. Unfortunately the peasants were also the movie's only weak link; Kurosawa, who does his own editing, should have left more of them on the cutting room floor, as they become tiresome, and paring their parts would have also trimmed the film's 139 minutes to a more manageable length. The overdoing of the peasants, my only significant criticism of the film, made the movie "very good" but not "great" in my eyes.

The widescreen black and white photography of THE HIDDEN FORTRESS by Ichio Yamazeki (also known as Kazuo Yamasaki) includes many stunning shots. In terms of STAR WARS influence, I was struck by the scene where the Princess looks back toward her hidden fortress and sees it ablaze, which felt very much like the moment where Princess Leia watches Alderaan destroyed. The Princess gazing off into the distance early in the film also reminded me of Luke and the setting suns on Tatooine.

One of my favorite moments was when General Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita), whom the general had dueled but refused to kill, switches sides. A foreshadowing of Lando Calrissian in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)?

THE HIDDEN FORTRESS is a satisfying adventure film, and seeing it has also served to continue to deepen my interest in Japanese cinema. It's rather exciting to know there are so many great Japanese films still ahead of me to see for the first time.

THE HIDDEN FORTRESS is available from the Criterion Collection in a dual-format Blu-ray/DVD set, or on DVD from Criterion's bare-bones Essential Art House Collection.


Blogger Kristina said...

This was fun, I can see why it's counted as the most crowd pleasing one of Kurosawa's. For all the antics, comedy, the fun adventures and the battles, I loved how the focus was human decency and giving those losers chances to be better. So many influences on STAR WARS, as you talk about here. And the photography was gorgeous! Thanks for having me along on this one, glad I saw it :) Best.

1:44 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'm so glad you watched this one along with me, Kristina! I absolutely loved your beautifully written review, which has many insights into the characters and the film in general. Great point above about the strong positive themes underlying the adventures. This film would be a great beginning point for anyone just starting to explore Japanese cinema.

Thanks again!

Best wishes,

1:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Finally watched this after reading your review. My first Japanese film! And I did enjoy it though it was rather long.I liked the two comic characters. The settings among the mountains reminded me of Lone Pine.
I hope to see The Seven Samurai soon.

9:56 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Vienna, I'm delighted you tried this! Seeing THE FORCE AWAKENS last weekend, and thus thinking back to the original STAR WARS, caused me to realize anew just how strongly this film inspired it.

I recently got THE SEVEN SAMURAI on sale, as well as YOJIMBO and SANJURO. Looking forward to trying them!

I also very strongly recommend the films of Yasujiro Ozu. I have loved them all.

Best wishes,

11:47 AM  

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