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Film Club: The Hidden Fortress (1958)

The Hidden FortressThe Hidden Fortress is our film club title for March, and throughout the month we will be discussing this 1958 work by Kurosawa, known as 隠し砦の三悪人 (literally “Three bad men of a hidden fortress”) in its original Japanese.

After the three thematically fairly heavy films Record of a Living Being, Throne of Blood and The Lower Depths, Kurosawa felt the need to make something lighter and more entertaining. The three films had also been visually fairly confined, and Kurosawa was now interested in the possibility of utilising more screen space. The result was Kurosawa’s first wide screen film and probably his lightest, least intellectually challenging film, The Hidden Fortress.

While Kurosawa’s three previous films had been limited in their number of locations, culminating in the single lodging house of The Lower Depths, The Hidden Fortress was conceived as an action adventure film with movement as its narrative motive. Not since The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945), and to a lesser extent One Wonderful Sunday (1947), had Kurosawa used travelling and movement as such a central plot device. The former film was influential also in other ways, with The Hidden Fortress reusing its basic story of a group of individuals trying to escape through enemy lines.

However, while Tiger’s Tail is rich in subtext, arguably working as a commentary both on the (then) on-going war as well as Japanese performance arts, similarly complex interpretations of The Hidden Fortress are more difficult to come by. In fact, while generally liked — Richie calls it “near to being the most lovable film Kurosawa has ever made” (135) — The Hidden Fortress is typically considered as one of Kurosawa’s weakest efforts, “primarily a rousing action-comedy” (Desser, 92), or as Yoshimoto puts it somewhat more bluntly, “technically superb yet trite”, “too formulaic and shallow” (272-273).

While indeed rhythmically spot on and excellently cinematographed, it lacks depth in its story and characters, and this isn’t really helped by the performance of its central actors, Misa Uehara as Princess Yuki. While the other characters in the film are largely played by long time acting veterans, Uehara was a total unknown appearing in her first role in a film career that lasted altogether three years. Much of the criticism can and should probably be directed at Kurosawa, whose casting decision fails to provide the necessary depth and roundness to the only character in the story that undergoes any psychological and moral growth.

Despite the film’s shortcomings, Martinez nevertheless considers The Hidden Fortress as “a pivotal film between [Kurosawa’s] earlier work that focused on issues of guilt and the later films that were more interested in the theme of responsibility”. (163) Martinez argues that unlike in Kurosawa’s films of the early 50s, where “characters have to learn (or fail to learn) how to accept responsibility for their actions”, the latter films, starting with The Hidden Fortress, “are more interested in the acceptance of responsibility as the way in which true heroism is made” (163), manifested in The Hidden Fortress primarily in Princess Yuki’s growth story.

Although not generally considered among Kurosawa’s best work, The Hidden Fortress is nevertheless one of his most watched, a fact that is at least partly due to its role as a source for George Lucas’s Star Wars, which will be our film club title for April. The Hidden Fortress was also a big box office success at the time of its release, making back the considerable investment that Toho put into the production. The same fate did not befall the film’s 2008 remake The Last Princess, which failed to excite audiences either in Japan or overseas, but did sort of excite me.

Just like it has not really invited much in-depth discussion from the usual Kurosawa scholars, discussion of The Hidden Fortress has been quite muted also here at akirakurosawa.info. In fact, the only substantial threads that I was able to find are the following three:

The Princess Problem
The Star Wars Connection
Hidden Fortress Question

So, is that all there is to say about The Hidden Fortress, or have we — and those who have come before us — missed something important? And if you do like The Hidden Fortress, as I know many here do, what is it that makes you love it?

As usual, information about the availability of the film can be found from the DVD releases page, while a full schedule of our film club is available from the film club page. As I mentioned before, The Hidden Fortress will be followed by Star Wars (episode 4, that is, the first one that was made), so get your lightsabers ready!


Discussion

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Ugetsu

So, is that all there is to say about The Hidden Fortress, or have we — and those who have come before us — missed something important? And if you do like The Hidden Fortress, as I know many here do, what is it that makes you love it?

I think that to a certain extent its not a film which stands up to too much discussion – it is what it is – a great, rousing example of film as entertainment. What I do find interesting about it is that it seems to tap into deeper traditional tropes of storytelling, hence its long life as the unacknowledged influence for many later sci fi and fantasy films. I agree very much with Martinez’s arguments that traditional folk tales were a much greater influence on Kurosawa than is often acknowledged.

As to liking or loving it, curiously it was one of the few Kurosawa films I didn’t like on first viewing, although as so often, this may have been the circumstances when I viewed it. But on later views, it has grown on me, although being honest I would never reach for it for another look as I frequently do for Seven Samurai or Yojimbo. But I’ll have another look this month and I’ll see if it changes my mind.

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Ugetsu

I watched it again last night for the first time in a few years I think. I enjoyed it, and curiously, my reaction was quite different from previous viewings.

I was never bored watching it, even if I found the constant focus on the squabbling pair a bit irritating. I would guess the constant banter between them is much funnier in the original Japanese. I keep wondering though at how we (along with the Princess and the General) look on them with a kindly eye, despite their despicable behaviour. I presume this is something of a comic trope, common to a lot of Japanese films, going back into kabuki?

I did find myself wishing that the film focused more on the Princess and the General than the pair. Mifune I think was particularly good, as he managed to convey the humanity beneath the noble warrior in just a few subtle gestures. I liked Misa Uehara a little more on this viewing, I thought she was very much the weak link previously. But her performance is still I think annoyingly one-dimensional. It is a pity I think that the character is supposed to be so young, I suppose Kurosawa didn’t cast one of his regular actresses for age reasons. I couldn’t help thinking that a younger Kyoko Kagawa would have been great in the role, even if it would have been casting against type (but she did that brilliantly in Red Beard).

One curious thing I found from this viewing is the overall pace of the film. I think the rhythm of the film works well, but it is unusually conventional and mono-paced compared to any other of AK films I can think of. There are no structural innovations, and no subtle stepping up in tension as with Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, etc. I’m wondering if this was deliberate or whether Kurosawa simply thought it wasn’t necessary for a film of this sort. This isn’t to say its badly paced, just conventional – as Vili has pointed out on previous occasions, its only when you see remakes of Kurosawa films that you realise just how good Kurosawa was at getting pace and structure right, lesser directors can’t even do it when copying his template. I think this film falls under the category of those where the skill of the director is such that you don’t notice the hand of the director, which is maybe the toughest trick of all.

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lawless

I haven’t commented because I needed to watch and return my current Netflix selection before I can get The Hidden Fortress. I just sent it back today, so I should have The Hidden Fortress in a couple of days. We’ll see if my opinion of it changes at all.

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Vili Maunula

It’s been a busy month, so I’m a little late to the party.

Ugetsu: I was never bored watching it, even if I found the constant focus on the squabbling pair a bit irritating.

Yes, I think that it doesn’t quite work, at least for a foreigner. I also think that it’s because of this that the first hour or so is actually quite boring. Apart from the bickering, we pretty much only have the relationship between the peasants and the general to follow, and as it’s clear to the viewer from very early on who the general and the princess really are, there is little to hold one’s interest. I think that the first act could have been made much shorter. The film does pick up a little once they start moving.

I also think that the film would be better if there wasn’t so much screaming and shouting. It’s just constant screaming and shouting, isn’t it? Hurts my ears every time I watch it.

And when they aren’t shouting, there’s the constant soundtrack looming on the background.

Ugetsu: I keep wondering though at how we (along with the Princess and the General) look on them with a kindly eye, despite their despicable behaviour. I presume this is something of a comic trope, common to a lot of Japanese films, going back into kabuki?

You can speak for yourself, here. I really don’t like the two characters at all. 🙂

As for the potential kabuki connection, I wouldn’t know. But maybe!

I’m not entirely sure why I always have such a negative reaction to this film (maybe it’s the constant screaming?), but I always seem to pick something new to not like about it. This time, it appeared to be Kurosawa’s long shots.

Although I should really watch Dersu Uzala again before I make any sweeping statements about this, it got me thinking about how Kurosawa was usually better when he could frame his shots with background objects or a forest or something. His long shots with more open landscape backgrounds come across as rather empty and uninteresting. I also think that his choice of lenses is working against him there, as everything becomes so flat that the landscapes lose much of their effect.

Having said that, Kagemusha and Ran do have some good uses of landscape shots, although also in them it’s perhaps rather because of how Kurosawa has learnt to treat the 2D space (the scene in Kagemusha with the soldiers riding against a sunset comes in mind) and not because of the use of actual visual depth.

And then, I wonder if the artificiality of space in The Hidden Fortress was actually intentional. In my intro I remarked about Kurosawa’s desire to open up the screen after his “stage play dramas”. However, on this my most recent viewing, I kept thinking how stage-like the film actually is, not only with its acting but also both visually and in terms of its rhythm. Scenes for instance don’t really flow from one to another, but instead there usually is a little narrative/temporal jump, as in theatre.

Similarly, while I didn’t really do a thorough study of the camera work, I think that we are for much of the time allowed to see scenes only from one side, with a fairly loyal following (for Kurosawa anyway) of the 180 degree rule. There are exceptions to this, of course, one good counter example being the duel between the general and his rival, which has much more freedom of camera angles, as is the case also with the fire festival. But generally, I would say the cameras are positioned mainly on one side of the action, as would be in theatre, and the characters tend to form horizontal lines across the screen space.

It may of course be that because of my day job I see more theatre in Kurosawa than really is there, but if there has been one large shift in the past couple of years in how I see and understand Kurosawa, it is the idea of how much both traditional Japanese theatre as well as the more western kind actually influenced him. And the late 50s and early 60s films seem to be drawing particularly heavily on those sources.

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lawless

My opinion about The Hidden Fortress is largely unchanged, although my feelings about different aspects of the movie have changed. It’s technically terrific, with Kurosawa and his cinematographer demonstrating their usual shot-making prowess, but the script and plot are less than stellar.

The princess didn’t bother me as much as before, although I still can’t stand her shrill voice; based on Fred‘s remarks, this seems to be a Western hangup. I agree with Vili that the first hour plods a bit and could have been shortened, and the two peasants’ quarreling was more annoying this time around than the first two times I saw the movie. And this time around, it seemed particularly hard to believe that they never realized who it was they were accompanying. On the other hand, the cheesiness of the fire festival didn’t bother me as much as it used to because I viewed it more as a performance than as a ritual.

There is something of a thread of male harassment/female empowerment running through the film, what with the peasants’ several unsuccessful attempts to accost the princess and the rescue of the prostitute/sex slave.

In summary, this is more of a Saturday afternoon matinee-type movie on a par with, say, the work of Steven Spielberg or George Lucas’ first three Star Wars movies, which is why it doesn’t seem to have a lot of heft compared to the rest of Kurosawa’s movies.

Also, am I the only one to have the greedy peasants here remind them of the greedy brothers at the center of Ugetsu Monogotari?

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Ugetsu

Lawless

On the other hand, the cheesiness of the fire festival didn’t bother me as much as it used to because I viewed it more as a performance than as a ritual.

I never really had a problem with the fire festival scene – maybe because the only experience I’ve had with Japanese traditional dance is with watching Kodo drummers, and the dance is formal and expressive like that – but of course that is a modern touristy version – so it may not be ‘real’ in that sense. But following your Spielberg reference it does seem to me that the scene is very influential for him, that type of scenario comes up a lot in his Indiana Jones films.

Also, am I the only one to have the greedy peasants here remind them of the greedy brothers at the center of Ugetsu Monogotari?

They are very similar, but I think (maybe Fred or someone else can confirm this?), the notion of a squabbling Laurel and Hardy type comedy duo in an otherwise serious story is a very common feature of Kabuki and other forms of Japanese theatre.

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Vili Maunula

Lawless: Also, am I the only one to have the greedy peasants here remind them of the greedy brothers at the center of Ugetsu Monogotari?

I actually thought of them too, but assumed, like Ugetsu, that the characters have their origins in Japanese theatre, perhaps via the porter character in The Tiger’s Tail.

Ugetsu: But following your Spielberg reference it does seem to me that the scene is very influential for him, that type of scenario comes up a lot in his Indiana Jones films.

Kurosawa may well have been an influence, but I would think that similar scenes of celebration/sacrifice in earlier adventure films like King Kong probably had a larger role to play, both for Spielberg and Kurosawa.

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Ugetsu

Vili

Kurosawa may well have been an influence, but I would think that similar scenes of celebration/sacrifice in earlier adventure films like King Kong probably had a larger role to play, both for Spielberg and Kurosawa.

Ah yes, I was trying to think of what earlier films that scene reminded me of – King Kong of course, but also lots of the Tarzan films from the 1930’s. They always involved a scene like that, usually involving someone getting cooked in a pot. Actually, this reminds me – there is one old Tarzan film where the African ‘natives’ are chanting in a group scene – but the language they are chanting in is discernibly Irish Gaelic! I assume some Irish assistant directors idea of a joke. I remember laughing at it as a child with my brothers watching it on a Sunday matinee, but I’ve no idea which Tarzan film it was.

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lawless

I have yet to see King Kong in any version, so the comparison didn’t occur to me.

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Ugetsu

Lawless

I have yet to see King Kong in any version, so the comparison didn’t occur to me.

Dancing scene at two minutes in – and in full colour too!

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Coco Skyavitch

Hey Pals,

Whassup? King Kong dancing scene….am both horrified and delighted by it simultaneously, and think that has not changed since I was a kid. I think the screen painting of the island lovely, the birds not so much, so the mixed bag of effects still used (I am thinking of The Hobbit, for example) have advanced in some ways, not in others.

The best thing about the Fire Dance scene in Hidden Fortress is that Kurosawa has removed the translator from the scene…no great white hunters necessary….in fact we participate as much as, say Mifune, because he is also an “outsider”. But, drawing us in to the dance and into its excitement through the plot points has, as a side benefit, a wonderful commentary on culture, on faking it ’til you are making it, to “us” and “them”. I never found the scene the least bit cheesy, though it did make me think about pretending to be inside when you are not. I wondered how widespread the actual ritual was across Japan-if it is invented or historically accurate.

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Vili Maunula

Cocooooooo!!! I was wondering where you had disappeared.

That’s a very good point about the fire festival. It not only unites the princess with the common folk, but indeed also draws us as the audience into the film.

I don’t know how historical this particular fire festival is, but Japan definitely has many fire festivals. I don’t really know the particulars of them though. But I can actually still somewhat relate to the fire festival in The Hidden Fortress, as it’s in many ways pretty similar to Midsummer celebrations in Northern Europe. In Finland, for instance, it’s customary to burn large bonfires and dance, do rituals and folk magic. And drink, of course. But that goes without saying, I suppose.

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Fred

Coco
Could not agree more with you about the fire festival. I simply do not see any resemblance to the dancing scene (see Ugetsu’s link) in King Kong — exactly for the reasons you mentioned: The fire festival in Hidden Fortress draws the protagonists and us into the plot, while the observers in King Kong do not appear to have any emotional interest in the festival; they are just bumbling and naive intruders.

The fire festival song is quite interesting. In case someone wants to read the original, here are the Japanese lyrics: http://okwave.jp/qa/q4020865.html .

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Ugetsu

Coco, Fred. Great observations about the dance – I hadn’t thought about it in that way before – it is wonderful how the characters forget themselves and just become part of the dancing throng – a great scene I think.

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