The Hidden Fortress

The Hidden Fortress ★★★

”Stupid! A mute can't speak because she's deaf.”

Film number three of my Secret Santa gifts from my friend Mr_Macaroon. Follow him! He's a great dude! So far I've watched The Killer and The Philadelphia Story and they were great. Next!

Kurosawa is of course one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in history, but I've seen an embarrassingly low amount of his movies. I just can't claim to have a great interest in Japanese cinema, but my friend is trying to pick really good ones I might like to ease me into a whole world of film I've been missing. I have, however, enjoyed the legendary set (or one complete film, depending on who you ask) of all three epic parts to the masterful trilogy The Human Condition, though that's not from Kurosawa of course.

Anyway, thus we have The Hidden Fortress, a film I had never heard of before receiving it, starring the impeccable Toshiro Mifune who I definitely do know from Seven Samurai. And now as I've seen it, it's a shame I haven't before, as this is a wild story that feels like it's unintentionally (or not) been remade hundreds of times in like every action-adventure film of the last 60 years.

In particular, as most reviews now point out, the clever technique of telling an epic story through the “lowliest” characters -- though still with heroes and villains in charge -- gives both a lighter and objective feel to the tale. While it's natural and appropriate to take sides in an adventure film, journeying with the peasants Tahei and Matashichi makes for a different tone that injects a little humour and irreverence. Also, as contemporary reviews now note, there are clear links to the later Star Wars films (as George Lucas has admitted), even a comparison of the two scheming bumbling but genial peasants to C-3PO and R2-D2. When you watch with that in mind, you'll see it immediately.

The film is a little long, almost two hours and twenty minutes, and this leads to its biggest strength and weakness: a whole goddamn lot happens. There's a huge story here! After a dichotomy of a wild prison uprising to two men sitting around a fire moping about their poverty, an adventure of epic scale hurdles through feudal Japan with reckless abandon, with gold and princesses and warriors. And you better love these two hapless peasants, cause you're stuck with em for a long while.

I found that they get a little annoying, and a little too silly, from time to time. After a while, I was itching for another branch of the story. In a way, it's great that the film doesn't take itself too seriously, however you can juxtapose that lighter tone with the serious ones about honor and filial piety and feudal clans, which audiences outside of Japan probably don't appreciate as much. Admittedly, I'm one of those people.

As usual, with the handful of Japanese films I've seen from around this era, one can contrast sensational performances with atrocious ones: epic battles and monologues pair with over-acting and lack of nuance. Maybe that's overly critical, but for what it's worth I'd say the same about many 50s and 60s American musicals that can be incredible then cringey moments later.

A worthwhile watch for sure, but I don't know if I hold it in such high acclaim as others. Something about the film just isn't my style. It's one of those movies that feels even longer than it is, and while there is a lot of discovery and self-reflection on the epic journey -- and some damn fine cinematography -- I just kept asking myself "when are they gonna get to the fireworks factory?"

Added to Akira Kurosawa ranked.
Part of I Don’t Like These Movies and Neither Should You (a.k.a. “My Hot Takes List”)

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