The Hidden Fortress

The Hidden Fortress ★★★★½

Included In Lists:
Criterion Collection - #116

One of the most glorified filmmakers in the history of cinema, Akira Kurosawa is one where a negative opinion towards his work would be hissed upon by those who know of his legend. They understand the substantial footprints that he has left upon the medium’s history, influencing those who have become our most favourite filmmakers today and shaping the fundamental forms of contemporary filmmaking. Granted, despite such a status, that alone cannot justify the strength of his films, and each individual who chooses to explore his work would not necessarily guarantee that each of his masterpieces would be regarded as such.

This was certainly the case for myself in my last viewings of Throne of Blood and Rashomon, features that are generally adored and leeched for inspiration, but unfortunately has left me a rather underwhelming and hollow experience, despite my awareness of the contributions that it has left on cinema’s future. As films themselves, I found myself unable to be wrapped in the atmosphere and its narrative seemed to lack that depth that should carry in exploring its themes and unfolding its characters, thus leaving me emotionally detached throughout.

Things looked hopeful with the director’s most celebrated film, Seven Samurai, where I found myself engaged in its fabricated sense of adventure, balancing interesting themes with eclectic tones, pursuing avenues of action, comedy, drama, and romance, shifting back and forth with seamless precision. Though great, still minor flaws persisted, and thus unable to allow myself to shower it with generous affection. With these last three films, it seemed hopeless that I would find a samurai Kurosawa film that would surely be in my wheelhouse, but the decision to revisit The Hidden Fortress has changed all of that.

That spirit of adventure that was found in Seven Samurai was carried over four years later in The Hidden Fortress, and primarily because of this, I found myself earning that sense of joy and intrigue that I more or less expected from a top-tier Kurosawa film. This is a film that relieves itself more of Kurosawa’s thematic weight, and mind you its still present but in a less concentrated dosage, and amplifies the film’s physical journey, carrying that trademark array of seamless tonal shifts, refining its characters with accessible and identifiable personalities, and now formatted in glorious widescreen, and crafted with a pleasantly rhythmic pacing that justifies almost every moment of it's running time.

If there was of deeper substance to be taken from The Hidden Fortress, it would be the corrupting and antagonising impact of one’s greed, alienating those who should be our closest companions as the temptation within begins to seed and grow. The film utilises this in the comical and pitiful construction and arc of Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara), as their lucky strike in gold, along with their deep-seeded obsession of returning to their homes, has placed these two best friends on edge with one another, and along with it, carrying an antagonising tension to Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) and Princess Yuki (Misa Uehera), whom they think is a mute, as they greedily desire the entire gold stash for their own, showcasing them at their most scheming and funnily enough, at their most cowardice. It is a theme that seemed to perfectly reflect the growing tension of feudal Japan, as regions and families strike war with one another for territorial domination rather than work in collaboration in the hopes uniting and strengthening the foundations of their fair country.

Princess Yuki would act as the film’s sense of innocence, one who was born into the world of privilege and power, but personally feels isolated from the essential truth of the world and humanity itself, realising this only through her need to escape from her defeated land. She is preserved by Makabe as an opportunity to rebuild her reign, and with her new accumulated experiences and epiphanies, the success of their journey would act as the catalyst that would finally change the political and social form of the country. It is remarkable that Kurosawa was able to convey this in his characters without ever seemingly intruding on the film’s physical momentum, themes for contemplation are structured simplistically and thus he is able to visually and subtly push these ideas into the narrative without having to manipulate too much of its tonal execution and pacing, therefore The Hidden Fortress is one of the rare films that could be enjoyed both superficially and thoughtfully.

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