This October we continue our journey through Akira Kurosawa’s samurai works with the 1958 film The Hidden Fortress.
Although The Hidden Fortress is one of Kurosawa’s most popular works, not least because of its influence on George Lucas’s Star Wars, it is also one of his least dissected, at least among his major films. Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto‘s assessment of The Hidden Fortress as “technically superb yet trite” (273) is a fairly typical way to summarize it, as is Masumura Yasuzo’s encapsulation of the characters as cardboard figures inhabiting Disneyland (quoted in Yoshimoto). It is generally agreed that there is very little depth in The Hidden Fortress that would allow for much in-depth assessment.
Yet, the film was a huge box office success at the time of its release and continues to be one of Kurosawa’s most loved works. Donald Richie actually calls it “near to being the most lovable film Kurosawa has ever made” (135), and it is certainly a very well made film. It was also the first film that Kurosawa shot in widescreen, a fact that surprises me every time I see it, so assured is Kurosawa’s handling of the extended screen space.
Dolorez Martinez 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 character arc.
The Hidden Fortress was remade in 2008 as The Last Princess. I wasn’t hugely impressed back then, although I have recently been thinking about watching it again.
An altogether more interesting reworking was put together by our very own ssj a couple years back, when he released The Sukaiwaka Fortress, a fan-edit which trimmed Kurosawa’s film, replaced the music with John Williams’s Star Wars score, and resubtitled it with Star Wars style dialogue. You can read a bit more about it here, and while there, be sure to watch the making-of documentary “It’s Wonderful to Chronohop”, which makes me crack up every time I think about it.
What’s your own take on The Hidden Fortress? Do you agree with the usual somewhat dismissive approaches to it? Is pure entertainment and technical excellence enough to make a film great? Where do you place it in Kurosawa’s full oeuvre?