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The Hidden Fortress: How seriously should we take it as a critique of feudalism?

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    Ugetsu

    As we’ve seen in our discussions of other AK films, they are invariably strong critiques of traditional structures and hierarchies within Japan. While these are often set historically, the contemporary relevance of films such as Seven Samurai and Yojimbo and Red Beard must have been pretty clear to the audience at the time. While his films have often been criticised as didactic, I think our discussions here (and the more astute critics) have noted plenty of shades and subtleties in how Kurosawa addressed Japanese politics and society throughout his career.

    In one sense, The Hidden Fortress is unambiguously critical of the traditional structures of Japan, at least those which existed at the historic time (15th Century?) portrayed. If we look at the five key characters – the two ‘rogues’, the Princess, the General, and General Hyoe Tadokoro, they all to some extent rebel against the established order (and the film clearly approves of this stance). The two squabbling peasants don’t seem to care who is right or wrong, and have zero sense of loyalty to anyone, even to each other. The Princess explicitly sets out her horror at the notion that a young woman sacrificed her life for her, stating clearly that both their lives are equal. Hyoe Tadokoro completely overthrows the whole foundation of his samurai code by betraying his Lord in favour of the Princess, simply because she seemed a nicer, better person (in the end, he is clearly her vassal, despite the chumminess between the three of them). Only the General maintains the traditional role of self sacrificing warrior and servant of his Lord/Lady, even though it is made clear to us that he is no fanatic, and is smart enough to know that is is all something of a stupid, brutal game.

    But the ending to some extent undermines all this. We are presented at the end with the Princess back in her role as an aristocrat, with her two loyal retainers pledging to restore her family fortunes, even though its not clear as to how this can be done, as she seems to have lost all her relatives. I know the film should not be read as historically accurate in the way other AK films should be, but so far as I know there are no precedents for a woman to command a kingdom – presumably the audience is to conclude that she would marry someone (maybe the General?) and they would rule together under her family crescent. But whatever way you look at it, the Old Order has been restored. She may found a much more humane kingdom, but it would still be a feudal kingdom.

    In this respect, this film seems a crucial outlier in Kurosawa’s work – just as Ozu always seemed to set the old order back to rights in the end of his films, and while Mizoguchi made his hero/heroines travails seem fruitless, Kurosawa invariably sought to undermine the audiences assumptions in the endings of all his historical films, from Tigers Tale up to Ran. His characters may fail in their quest for self-determination or their struggle against injustice, or they may resign themselves sadly, but the resumption of the old ways is never shown as a happy ending as it is with Hidden Fortress.

    Should this be seen as simply an indication of a relaxed Kurosawa deciding that a more hard edged ending would simply be inappropriate for a film of this type, or is it an indication of his own changing views? After all, this film was made at a time (1958) when Japan seemed to be a real success – the economy was surging forward, the war damage was being repaired, war guilt was being quietly buried, and the sourness and corruption which later film makers (including Kurosawa) railed against was not so apparent. Should the film be seen as an outlier, or as a more optimistic and ‘establishment’ phase in Kurosawas work?

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    Fred

    Ugetsu

    She may found a much more humane kingdom, but it would still be a feudal kingdom.

    The fact that the princess and her retainers are in the process of reestablishing a feudal system did not strike me as strange, not even in the context of AK’s other works. In Ran, Hidetora finally realizes that his power was mostly based on murder and brutality. AK does not muse about the political stability Hidetora’s actions might have brought, he just shows us Hidetora’s emotional breakdown and his ultimate desire to lead a more peaceful life with his son. Neither do we learn much about the social/political upheaval that might have followed. In Ran, AK focuses on the human consequences of war, albeit from a somewhat removed perspective. (“Rhapsody in August” is another personal story where the political situation is secondary).

    The “much more humane kingdom” we envision in Hidden Fortress does indeed represent a somewhat more positive outlook. We have witnessed the spiritual growth the princess has gone through. I doubt that AK wants to support or criticize a specific political system: He concentrates on individuals instead, he is calling for personal morality. Maybe the princess gets his “seal of approval” because a “humane kingdom” is acceptable to him provided the leaders have a certain level of personal integrity? The princess does show her real power by bringing peace to the two sly peasants. Does this qualify her as a true leader? In AK’s eyes, it might.

    I cannot really comment on your thoughts about parallels between this film and Japan’s economic success in the late 50s.

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    Vili Maunula

    Maybe my spidey sense is just not working here, but I can’t say that I really see much social commentary or criticism of feudalism in the film. Like Fred, I think that the film is more about individuals than it is about larger issues — apart from, perhaps, contrasting the foolish self-centredness displayed by the two peasants and the more wide reaching aims of the royalty.

    As for the princess’s future prospects, I think that she could in fact have stayed in power, at least for a while. While by no means common, there certainly were female clan leaders, samurai and empresses. Knowing her strong-headedness, I think that we can imagine Yuki staying as the ruler of the Akizuki clan.

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    Ugetsu

    Fred:

    The “much more humane kingdom” we envision in Hidden Fortress does indeed represent a somewhat more positive outlook. We have witnessed the spiritual growth the princess has gone through. I doubt that AK wants to support or criticize a specific political system: He concentrates on individuals instead, he is calling for personal morality. Maybe the princess gets his “seal of approval” because a “humane kingdom” is acceptable to him provided the leaders have a certain level of personal integrity? The princess does show her real power by bringing peace to the two sly peasants. Does this qualify her as a true leader? In AK’s eyes, it might.

    You make a good point. I think what I had in mind was the comparison with, as one example, Mizoguchi’s ‘Sansho the Bailiff‘ where in the end the lead characters reject any feudal position, although I always found the ending of that film to be somewhat unsatisfactory. So in this sense there is a precedent for historical films of the time giving the characters an alternative. Hidden Fortress could, for example, have ended with the three characters simply running off with the money to make a new life for themselves far away from the world they had lived in. My thinking is that for Kurosawa to have chosen the option of a ‘soft’ feudal system represents to an extent a softening of his own political views at that point in time.

    Vili

    As for the princess’s future prospects, I think that she could in fact have stayed in power, at least for a while. While by no means common, there certainly were female clan leaders, samurai and empresses.

    Interesting links, I hadn’t known about those examples.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: Hidden Fortress could, for example, have ended with the three characters simply running off with the money to make a new life for themselves far away from the world they had lived in.

    I actually wonder if they could have. In terms of what the story demands, I mean. Wouldn’t this have undermined the beginning and the middle? And what would it have said about individual responsibility?

    By running away they would have given up, something Kurosawa’s heroes rarely do. Instead, through their loyalty and dedication to the cause, they successfully bring the gold to Akizuki where, we are at least told, it will be used for rebuilding the war torn land (a possible post-war reference there).

    I’m now just thinking aloud here, and admittedly going a bit off topic, but I wonder if there is a thematic connection between The Hidden Fortress and Kurosawa’s next film The Bad Sleep Well. In a way, both films are about money and the barriers which prevent it from being used in a manner beneficial for the society. In The Hidden Fortress these barriers are literal and attempt to block the delivery of the funds into the land. In The Bad Sleep Well, the money is already in the system, but is being swindled by corruption.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    I actually wonder if they could have. In terms of what the story demands, I mean. Wouldn’t this have undermined the beginning and the middle? And what would it have said about individual responsibility?

    I realise that this type of ending would have tested the tolerance of an audience going for some popcorn fun, but I think that it could be consistent with the rest of the film if it was part of the ‘growth’ of the characters – starting out with their determined attempt to restore the House of Akizuki, and then they realise that all they are doing is perpetuating a cycle and the best way out is to seek individual freedom. Instead, the end firmly and unambiguously restated the traditional hierarchy. I think what slightly annoys me about the ending (even though I loved it while watching it), is that it is with the possible exception of Red Beard the only ‘conventional’ ending in Kurosawa – in that it restates the audiences belief that simple heroism and ‘playing the game’ can lead to a happy ending. I’m just curious as to why Kurosawa seemed content to have done it this way. As such, it would seem to be Kurosawas only true ‘genre’ movie in that it plays to audiences expectations rather than subverting them.

    I’m now just thinking aloud here, and admittedly going a bit off topic, but I wonder if there is a thematic connection between The Hidden Fortress and Kurosawa’s next film The Bad Sleep Well. In a way, both films are about money and the barriers which prevent it from being used in a manner beneficial for the society. In The Hidden Fortress these barriers are literal and attempt to block the delivery of the funds into the land. In The Bad Sleep Well, the money is already in the system, but is being swindled by corruption.

    I would have thought that you could apply this thematic analysis to almost all of mid-career Kurosawa films. In Yojimbo, the 30 silver pieces that are used to pay off the bodyguard, which he then uses to help the poor family – the ransom in High and Low, and the doctors use of blackmail to gain the money to run the hospital in Red Beard.

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    Vili Maunula

    Indeed, it could have made an interesting ending, but it would definitely also have needed much more focus to be put on character development than what the film has.

    I think that in order for the ending that you propose to really work, we would also have needed to know more about Akizuki and the other clans — why are they fighting and what do they stand for. In the film, none of that is really clear. Because of story telling conventions, we assume that our protagonists are the good guys, but I don’t think that anything in the film actually insists on that — in fact, the Japanese title tells us the very opposite.

    But you are definitely right that the ending is very conventional, especially when compared to Kurosawa’s other films, and that the film is probably worse for it. Perhaps it would work better if the audience didn’t actually know who the princess is, until the very end. Or perhaps you are right, and Kurosawa was trying to make a point. I’m just not really sure what that point is.

    Ugetsu: I would have thought that you could apply this thematic analysis to almost all of mid-career Kurosawa films.

    I would say that although it’s true that money plays a part also in Kurosawa’s other films of the era, it is only in The Hidden Fortress and The Bad Sleep Well where the story seems to really centre around money or its handlers. Even in High and Low I wouldn’t say that the money is really directly the central issue.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    Or perhaps you are right, and Kurosawa was trying to make a point. I’m just not really sure what that point is.

    I’m not really sure Kurosawa was trying to make a point! I just find it curious that this film seems such an outlier in his work in a moral and political sense. I’m not sure the general view that he just wanted to make a popcorn movie makes sense in the context of a film maker who was brilliant at making films that were both ‘meaningful’ in an auteur sense, while still gripping, exciting and generally very commercially successful. Its not like he was a Stephen Soderburgh who felt he had to make money spinners to allow him to make obscure art films. Although I suppose its possible that he felt his previous three films were relatively non-commercial, so perhaps he was just compensating for this, aware that one big hit could serve him through 2 or 3 less successful films.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: I suppose its possible that he felt his previous three films were relatively non-commercial, so perhaps he was just compensating for this, aware that one big hit could serve him through 2 or 3 less successful films.

    That could be possible. After all, Toho was at the time increasingly pushing for Kurosawa to take on more financial responsibility. Hence also the creation of Kurosawa Productions in 1959, about half a year after the release of The Hidden Fortress.

    It was also Kurosawa’s first widescreen film, which may have had an influence on the script. And if I’m not mistaken, it was also his first to use the Perspecta sound system. Maybe he considered the film something of a technological experiment, and decided to go with a lighter script that would require less attention for the story and acting?

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    It was also Kurosawa’s first widescreen film, which may have had an influence on the script. And if I’m not mistaken, it was also his first to use the Perspecta sound system. Maybe he considered the film something of a technological experiment, and decided to go with a lighter script that would require less attention for the story and acting?

    This is one thing I find quite frustrating about so much Kurosawa scholarship. Most of the sources only study the films (very understandable of course), but so much of the films could be explained I think by a detailed study of what was happening ‘behind the scenes’. We lack a really rigorous Kurosawa biography I think, one which really delves into what influenced many of his decisions. Without that, we are left with guesswork. Unfortunately, as time goes by and all the people who were around at the time pass on, the chances of finding out seem less and less.

    My guess – and it is just an educated guess – is that he sensed a growing impatience with his big budgets (I would think that TV was starting to eat into cinema attendances at the time) and decided he needed a big hit to tide him over for the next few films. And perhaps it coincided with a more relaxed and confident mood in his personal and professional life so he simply didn’t feel the need to make any ‘big’ artistic or political statements.

    Of course, its typical of Kurosawa that his attempt at a popcorn movie was so good that its influence can still be seen in adventure films half a century later.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: We lack a really rigorous Kurosawa biography I think, one which really delves into what influenced many of his decisions.

    That is true. Stuart Galbraith’s biography is of course excellent, but as a Kurosawa biography it suffers a bit from having to share its pages with Toshiro Mifune. I wonder how much money we would need to send to Galbraith for him to carry out another round of research and then write an updated biography solely on Kurosawa.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    Stuart Galbraith’s biography is of course excellent, but as a Kurosawa biography it suffers a bit from having to share its pages with Toshiro Mifune.

    Yes, sorry, I didn’t mean to imply Galbraiths book isn’t a very good work – it is excellent (you remind me, I must make time to give it a careful read again). I just feel that the focus on the relationship between the two men may have been a bit misleading (drawing us away from the other important influences on Kurosawas life) and (I may be wrong on this), I think Galbraith was perhaps a little too reliant on secondary sources.

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