Cast & Crew
Photos & Videos
A general and a princess must face danger behind enemy lines. Two bumbling peasants promised a fortune in gold help and hinder the brave man and his resourceful charge in this epic tale of honor and perseverance.
The Hidden Fortress on Criterion Blu-ray
Some critics noted that Kurosawa's Seven Samurai had a distinctly American style and flavor, and indeed the great film balances drama with riotous comedy in way mostly unseen in previous Japanese tales with a historical setting. The Hidden Fortress takes many viewers by surprise -- its sense of humor is so pervasive that it often seems more of a comedy than a drama. The relatively lighthearted adventure has more in common with a folk tale than a Samurai saga. It's a rich and satisfying adventure experience that only superficially resembles the later space opera.
Civil war has left survivors scrambling for shelter in hostile territory. Sniveling failures at soldiery, peasants Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matakishi (Kamatari Fujiwara) stumble homeward. They whine like children, constantly blaming one another for their ill fortune. Captured by the victorious Yamana clan, they're forced to join hundreds of other slave laborers searching a pit for missing pieces of gold. The two misfits escape when the mine is attacked, only to later find some of the missing gold in a mountain spring, hidden in sticks. That's when they meet the formidable General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune), a resourceful warrior in a tight spot: stuck behind Yamana lines, Makabe must find a way to smuggle both the gold and his Princess Yukuhime (Misa Uehara) back to their own kingdom of Hayakawa. Much to their chagrin, the lowly Tahei and Matakishi find themselves aiding in a bold, heroic adventure.
One of Kurosawa's first feature films was Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, a charming adventure about a nobleman who disguises himself and his retainers as monks to sneak through enemy territory. The Hidden Fortress spins a similar idea into a robust adventure worthy of Rudyard Kipling. Even more than Seven Samurai, the escapist tale steers away from an emphasis on technical and historical accuracy. The civil war is a pretext for roaming patrols and border checkpoints. The easily understood story sees the intrepid general Rokurata using every trick he knows to spirit his princess, and a fortune in gold, past formidable enemies, some of whom were his comrades in battles of the past. Unlike Seven Samurai or the later giant productions Ran and Kagemusha, this episodic tale sketches a civil war in progress without actually showing giant armies clashing. The emphasis is on the individuals and not the bigger picture.
Kurosawa has a knowing wink for all of the characters. The bickering peasants are by turns pitiful and stupid, lovable and incorrigible, and provide excellent comic relief while grounding the story in an earthy credibility -- much the same way Shakespeare's clown characters provide a common man's reaction to the grand gestures of the leading players. Tahei and Matakishi's complaints are exactly what any sane person would share if dragged along on this sort of crazy, hazardous jaunt. Even their greed becomes endearing. Toshiro Mifune has the wiles of a fox, using deception and intimidation in equal measure to keep these two sad sacks on the team. For her part the previously sequestered Princess is fascinated by life in the lower classes. She begins as a petulant snob but acquires an appreciation for common people.
As with any good road picture, the story is a series of well-developed episodes. The slave mine with its giant steps is an impressive set piece, as is an extended scene in a fire festival. The story functions perfectly well without a romantic foil for the Princess. Toshiro is a dashing comrade and protector, but his role requires that he maintain a respectful position apart from Yukuhime. Tahei and Matakishi's interactions with the Princess are played almost like slapstick. At first assuming that she is a mute, they look like fools as they mime their intention to take the horses for a drink. The General's charge on horseback is an action highlight. He chases two soldiers down a road a gallop without holding hands, his sword aloft. We're told that Toshiro Mifune performed the stunt personally. John Milius recreated it on a beach with Sean Connery's in his The Wind and the Lion. Another fine episode concerns enemy general Hyoe Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita), who is so pleased to see General Rokurota again that he immediately challenges him to a duel. Hyoe later happily sings a song about tossing himself into the fire.
The Hidden Fortress is a costume picture but the emphasis is always on action. No passages are set aside for the display of somber pageantry. The escapist attitude doesn't exclude associations that might be construed as anachronistic. The fiery Princess Yukuhime has something of the new, liberated Japanese woman about her. She's directed to be almost masculine when she struts like a warrior, moving in sharp, focused bits of action.
Always progressive, Akira Kurosawa chose The Hidden Fortress to be his first film in Tohoscope, the widescreen format that almost overnight became the standard for Japanese filmmaking. His 'scope compositions are excellent, and he doesn't let the wide frame cramp his kinetic camera pans and fast cutting. Kurosawa continued making films in various styles and genres, but his subsequent samurai action sagas Yojimbo andSanjuro led the way for a new kind of violent, escapist action-oriented cinema, which had a huge influence at home and overseas. When Sergio Leone made his first Italian western, he reportedly copied Kurosawa's Yojimbo shot for shot. Sam Peckinpah was greatly influenced by the style of Kurosawa's spectacular adventure thrillers, especially his graphic bloodletting and use of both fast- and slow motion cameras in action montages.
Criterion's Dual-format Blu-ray + DVD of The Hidden Fortress improves greatly on their first DVD release from 2001. Kurosawa's natural exteriors and landscapes benefit greatly from Blu-ray's enhanced sharpness and contrast range. Masaru Sato's exciting music score sounds great in the original monaural track; Criterion has also provided a simulated Perspecta Stereo track as an option that will be appreciated by audiophiles.
The earlier release was somewhat extras-challenged. Its 2001 interview with George Lucas is repeated here. New to the title is a full commentary by Japanese film expert Stephen Prince, along with a fascinating Japanese TV show focusing on the making of this particular movie. In an archived video interview Kurosawa talks about his crew and his American idol, director John Ford. Several of the film's actors give testimony about the shoot as well. Actress Misa Uehara is heard describing the way her undergarments were padded to make her look more muscular.
A trailer is included, and the insert booklet essay is by scholar Catherine Russell. We're told that the English subtitles are newly translated.
By Glenn Erickson
The Hidden Fortress on Criterion Blu-ray
The Hidden Fortress
Set in the 16th-century, a time of civil war among Japanese clans, The Hidden Fortress chronicles the journey of a princess and her motley crew of protectors as they flee across hostile territory with her clan's gold treasure toward a friendly province where she will be safe. Princess Yuki, who is disguised as a mute girl, is protected by General Rokurota Makabe. The pair is joined by two bickering, bumbling farmers who are motivated by their greed for the gold, and a servant girl whom they rescue from the clutches of her cruel employer. Danger lurks down every path as enemy clans offer a reward for the Princess's capture, track the group relentlessly across harsh terrain, and plot to kill the princess in order to destroy her chance to reign. Fiery Princess Yuki, who is played by 20-year-old Misa Uehara, dresses like a man, brandishes a rod that she is not afraid to use on anyone, and shows no weakness. As played by Japan's legendary star Toshiro Mifune, Makabe seems a bastion of strength, courage, and loyalty. The two perpetually quarreling farmers are depicted with great charm and wit by Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara. The group's journey is marked by exciting adventures and remarkable feats of great courage punctuated by scenes of humor.
When considering the mythic nature of the heroic journey, with the fate of the princess's people hanging in the balance, the story's similarities to Star Wars become obvious. Likewise, the bumbling farmers and their incessant bickering recall the robots R2D2 and C-3PO, while a feisty, weapon-brandishing princess who is desperate to save her kingdom is the very description of Princess Leia. The dry, barren landscape of the enemy's territory brings to mind the harshness of the desert planet in Star Wars. Even Lucas's extensive use of unusual wipes, including a clock wipe, seems inspired by Kurosawa's measured horizontal wipes to signify major shifts in time and locale. Much has been made of the influence of western literature and films on Kurosawa's work and, in turn, the ways in which the Japanese filmmaker inspired the work of Hollywood directors. Gorky and Shakespeare inspired Kurosawa's The Lower Depths (1957) and Throne of Blood (1957); Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) influenced Martin Ritt's The Outrage (1964) while his The Seven Samurai (1954) begot The Magnificent Seven (1960). The Hidden Fortress's impact on Star Wars is arguably every movie buff's favorite example of Kurosawa's appeal to western filmmakers, which added to his name recognition in America. Yet, to define The Hidden Fortress by its connection to a legendary Hollywood blockbuster is to simplify its complex use of various storytelling conventions and its important place in Kurosawa's career; it also reduces its stature.
The Hidden Fortress marked Kurosawa's first use of the widescreen format, and it would be the last film that he made for the Toho Company with whom he started his career. Widescreen had exploded in popularity in Japan the previous year when the anamorphic war epic The Emperor Meiji and the Great Russo-Japanese War (1957) from rival studio Shintoho became Japan's highest-grossing film. Other studios quickly embraced widescreen, and by the second half of 1958, 84% of Toho's films were slated to be shot in scope. Many Japanese directors who specialized in the historical dramas called jidai-geki and the fantasy adventures known as chambara took advantage of the widescreen format to showcase action sequences and to open up the choreography of sword-fighting scenes. The decision to shoot The Hidden Fortress in widescreen was prompted by the sudden vogue for this format, and the film became part of the parade of scope films that poured out of Japan in 1958. Though it was Toho that pushed for widescreen, the format certainly suited Kurosawa's style, with his preference for long takes and precise compositions, his use of deep-focus photography with multiple planes of action, and his tendency to block actors along diagonal lines. Most of all, widescreen exploited Kurosawa's use of movement in the frame, amplifying the sense of visual energy that had always marked his style.
In the opening scene of The Hidden Fortress, two farmers emerge from the bottom of the screen walking toward the horizon as the camera (and the viewer), tracks behind them. The position of the camera forces the viewer to become a part of their journey, which will likely be a long and difficult one, judging by the vast rocky terrain that lies ahead of us. From this opening shot, Kurosawa has established that moving forward, or traveling onward, will be a dominant idea in the film. As the farmers stumble along bickering, the frame is suddenly filled with movement when a desperate samurai steps in front of them pursued by a group of soldiers on horseback. The soldiers ride up and slaughter him, then leave as quickly as they came. In another example of exquisite onscreen movement, General Makabe races on horseback along a long, narrow road to catch up with three enemy soldiers who have recognized the Princess and her companions. The camera pans with the soldiers as they rush past and away, a shot that is repeated three times with the camera farther down the road each time. Edited together, the four shots are exhilarating. In the last shot, after the General has dispatched the last soldier, the camera races along with the General as he rushes through a gate and into the enemy's fort, unable to pull his horse up in time. Like General Makabe, the audience is shocked to have raced right into the enemy's hands.
Lighter in tone than Throne of Blood and The Lower Depths, Kurosawa's two previous films, The Hidden Fortress represented the director's deliberate efforts to focus on fun and entertainment. The film's rousing adventure, fairy-tale characters, and comic set pieces epitomize the formula for the chambara yet Kurosawa's control of filmmaking techniques and his sophisticated use of western and Japanese influences in the narrative elevate it to something more.
The basis for the storyline came from screenwriter Ryuzo Kikushima, who grew up in the Yamanishi Prefecture. Kikushima claimed that the area was home to a real hidden fortress, and his personal tale from his homeland provided the start of the story. Kikushima claimed the story was shaped by the American western. The plot also shares elements with previous Kurosawa projects, including his film The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (1945) and his script for Kazuo Mori's Advance Patrol (1957). More importantly, the structure of the narrative recalls that of a Noh play, a form of classical musical drama that is part of Japan's cultural tradition. The conventions of Noh dramas are highly codified with an emphasis on maintaining traditions rather than introducing new twists or innovations, and characters in Noh dramas are masked. In The Hidden Fortress, Princess Yuki is in disguise for most of the story, just like gods and demons are in disguise in Noh plays. At the conclusion, the princess is revealed to be her true royal self, which is similar to the endings of Noh dramas. Both the princess and General Mokabe maintain an expression of bold determination that rarely changes throughout the film-much like a mask. The princess's look in particular was based on a picture of a Noh mask that Kurosawa found in a book. The music in key scenes, including the scene in which Princess Yuki first appears and the conclusion when the princess and two generals are presented as heroes, recalls the specific sounds and notes of Noh music.
v The Noh dramas are very much like myths, which are akin to the fairy-tale nature of Kurosawa's narrative. And, yet, the romance of the adventure, and the focus on loyalty, courage, and self-sacrifice are the stuff of legends and myths from all over the world, giving The Hidden Fortress a universal appeal.
Despite the help of some of Kurosawa's long-time cast and crew members, including actors Chiaki, Fujiwara, and Mifune, composer Masaru Sato, and art director Yoshiro Muraki, The Hidden Fortress was difficult to make. Weather conditions extended the shooting schedule, typhoons destroyed sets, and delays caused the budget to skyrocket. Fortunately, The Hidden Fortress proved to be a major box office success, earning just over $1 million. It won the Tokyo Blue Ribbon Prize as Best Picture, and the following year, Kurosawa was awarded a Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival.
In 1959, the director finally felt successful enough to establish his own production company, Kurosawa Productions, though his offices were on the Toho lot and the studio owned 55% of the company's shares. However, the new arrangement allowed Kurosawa total creative control and freedom from studio interference.
Producers: Masumi Fujimoto, Akira Kurosawa
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni
Cinematography: Ichio Yamazeki
Music: Masaru Sato
Film Editing: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshiro Mifune (General Rokurota Makabe), Misa Uehara (Princess Yuki), Minoru Chiaki (Tahei), Kamatari Fujiwara (Matakishi), Takashi Shimura (The Old General Izumi Nagakura), Susumu Fujita (General Hyoe Tadokoro), Eiko Miyoshi (Old Lady-in-Waiting), Toshiko Higuchi (Farmer's Daughter bought from slave trader), Koji Mitsui (Guard), Shiten Ohashi (Samurai), Kichijiro Ueda (Slave Trader), Ikio Sawamura (Gambler).
by Susan Doll
The Hidden Fortress
Akira Kurosawa made this commercial and accessible film as a way to repay Toho Studios for allowing him to make riskier, more artistic fair such as Rashomon (1950). It was later one of the greatest inspirations for George Lucas' first Star Wars (1977) film.
In an interview for the Criterion collection DVD, George Lucas states that while this film is a story a story about a princess and her protectors that this is not the element inspired Star Wars. Lucas states the inspiration comes from the telling of the story through the eyes of two smaller roles. In Hidden Fortress it is the two thieves, in Star Wars it is C3PO and R2D2.
Winner of the Best Director Prize at the 1959 Berlin Film Festival.
Released in United States 1959
Released in United States on Video April 28, 1993
Shown at the 1959 Berlin International Film Festival.
Re-released in United Kingdom February 1, 2002.
Released in United States 1959 (Shown at the 1959 Berlin International Film Festival.)
Released in United States on Video April 28, 1993