[March 23 1910, legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa was born. To celebrate the centennial of his life, his prolific contributions to the world of cinema, and immense impact on the hearts and minds of those quietly mourning his absence, staffers at Row Three are (rather enthusiastically) taking this opportunity to share their own experiences of the Kurosawa catalogue]
The Hidden Fortress is reported (and over-reported) as “the film that inspired Star Wars,” a descriptor which has a technical truth to it only in the most basic plot terms (elder general and two bumbling idiots spirit a fugitive princess across enemy lines). The Star Wars connection likely leads to Fortress being many viewers’ access point to Kurosawa’s canon, however, and a splendid introduction it proves to be.
The Hidden Fortress is Kurosawa at his most warmly populist. Here, he builds a grand adventure movie around two of his consistently repeating obsessions: the chanbara genre, and Toshiro Mifune. The result is an unabashed crowd-pleaser, but, as one would expect, one built with exceptional craft and narrative verve.
If General Rokurota is not the zenith of Mifune’s samurai roles, how could it be, given the competition? It is worth noting that the great actor is, nonetheless, creating a viably unique spin on the character type, bearing little resemblance to any Mifune samurai before or since. Grave, powerful, and unassumingly heroic, Rokurota’s charge into the enemy camp is one of my favourite sequences in Kurosawa’s canon.
If Fortress has significantly less emotional resonance and textual depth than, say, Seven Samurai (or Yojimbo, the even more successful crowd-pleaser which would follow a few years later), so be it. Kurosawa attacks the material from a unique angle: ground-up, as it were, focusing on the two bumbling peasants who inadvertently find their way into events and machinations far larger than their limited imaginations. The Hidden Fortress is largely a pleasing ride from start to finish.
The Hidden Fortress is available in the Criterion Collection as a single-disk edition, and is, in this writer’s view, long overdue for a double-dip.