The Hidden Fortress
A thrilling western-like take on the samurai film as seen through the eyes of one of the masters of Japanese cinema, Hidden Fortress centers around two greedy peasants named Matakishi and Tahei (Kamatari Fujiwara and Minoru Chiaki) who escape a prison camp and think they have hit paydirt when they locate a handful of sticks that contain hidden gold bars. The sticks have fallen out of a cache belonging to a deposed princess named Yukihime (Misa Uehara) and her loyal general Rokurota Makabe (legendary Japanese actor Toshirô Mifune), who are holed up in a fortress deep in the mountains and are desperately trying to reach their own territory. Sensing that he can use the peasants' greed to aid in their goals, Makabe dangles more riches in front of their faces and uses them to find a way to sneak back into more friendly territory. Along the way, though, an ex-compatriot of Makabe's named Hyoe Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita), who is now a general of the army they are trying to avoid, threatens to thwart Makabe's plans to get his princess home.
Long known mainly as an inspiration for Star Wars, Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress is a prime example of the brilliance of the late director's body of work. Always a fan of US westerns, Kurosawa took the central storylines and themes of that particular genre of film and gave them an interesting twist by relating the same tales during the feudal era instead of setting them in the Old West. This brilliant re-envisioning of the samurai as a sort of old-school gunslinger was a staple of Kurosawa's entire body of work and, ironically, even inspired a legion of US Western remakes itself. I can only imagine the honor the director felt when he started influencing the very genre that he loved so much.
Hidden Fortress' specific effect on modern cinema is a real testament to Kurosawa and his deft crew's craft and can be felt almost from the first frame of film. Firstly, the Star Wars connection resonates deeply in the two bickering peasants who form the focus of the story (the film's R2-D2 and C-3P0, if you will), as well as in the lovable Han Solo-esque rogue that Mifune portrays. The film also contains George Lucas' favorite worn-out transition device, the wipe, to take the audience from scene to scene. As far as the Western influences go, Mifune's character can almost be seen as a prototype for Clint Eastwood's steely-eyed gunslinger in the Man with No Name Trilogy, while the "shaky alliances formed in the interest of a hidden cache of gold" plotline bears some slight resemblance to the third film in that trilogy (which is even more ironic, when one considers that the first film in the series, A Fistful of Dollars, was a remake of Kurosawa's equally classic Yojimbo).
Beyond just looking for the film's influences, though, casual movie fans can watch and enjoy it without the fear of the "foreign film" stigma that seems to be attached to any such film. Yes, it is subtitled, but one does not have to be afraid of deep symbolism (though it is certainly there) or the usual bizarre art house chicanery that seems to follow the label. Kurosawa's films are, above all, all about adventure and the themes he uses can be understood by just about anyone. You don't have to be a film scholar to enjoy watching Toshirô Mifune chase down goons on horseback that are threatening to reveal him and his charge to the enemy and you certainly don't have to be one to watch the two bumbling peasants fight over the gold they have "discovered". The beauty of Kurosawa's films are that they work on both a mental AND a physical level that can be enjoyed by folks of every station.
What is most amazing about Hidden Fortress, besides it resonance in the film world and its ability to entertain all audiences, is how visually remarkable it is. Kurosawa, along with cinematographer Ichio Yamazeki (a.k.a. Kazuo Yamasaki), has made a film that has wall-to-wall beautiful images, whether it be fog-filled Japanese hills or the high steps of a prison camp. All of these locations are made even more impressive with the addition of the characters within these set-ups. Dramatic tension can be felt while watching the characters try to hide from a border patrol in the dense fog and the horrors of war overwhelms the senses when one sees a legion of soldiers fire en masse on a rampaging horde of escaping prisoners from the bottom of the aforementioned prison camp steps. Its a shame that Kurosawa and Yamazeki only worked together twice during their respective careers, because the images they put on screen were intensely exquisite.