The Hidden Fortress is one of those handful of films of Kurosawa’s that occupies a fully-realized cinematic world. It’s grand in scope, filled with excellent locations (mostly on and around Mt. Fuji) and the primary characters will even chart its limits, defined by three interlocking mountainous regions, each with its own unique denizens. Every frame is filled with lush cinematography and given ample attention in the wide-screen format. This was Kurosawa’s final film for Toho, the company with which he began and the company which so nurtured him, even risking bankruptcy on the underbudgeted and overlong Seven Samurai. Kurosawa now had the clout and resources to form his own production company (Kurosawa Productions) which would cement his independence for much of the rest of his career.
The Hidden Fortress is his first experiment with the wide-screen process, used so well that he would never again return to the standard ratio. He immediately sets out to break all of the established rules of the format. This is apparent from the very first scene: the shot is handheld, which at the time was taboo due to its perceived jarring effects1, with the camera following just behind Matashichi and Tahei. The sky is oppressive, the plains the peasants walk are seemingly infinite; the two of them grumbling and bickering as they walk is all that we see for a long time and this neatly establishes the kind of oppressive atmosphere induced throughout. And suddenly with almost no shift in perspective a clansmen emerges from the bottom of the frame, running away from something, and in short order is fatally lanced by black and faceless horsemen. The emergence of this death squad tells us that a bloody war is coming to a close. It is also telling of these peasants, who from one end of the reel to the other are always wandering carelessly in search of the next cup of rice or treasure.
This is the first and only of Kurosawa’s jidai-geki to largely adopt the point-of-view of the lower ranks, the usual casualties of war, as its focus. Kurosawa smartly follows the fortunes of Matashichi and Tahei as they navigate through a war of neighboring clans, which attaches to the winning faction an awful sense of dread. In other period films we get no sense of this as we are limited to the purview of war chiefs and royal figures who have something to gain. Here, our bumbling bandits are forever in fear of their lives, having to scrape for scraps of food and follow their instincts for the next propitious opportunity at earning some dough. A switcharoo happens, of course, when we learn of the true natures of the third bandit and the girl—suddenly the film has characters with noble impulses under the mantle of greed. Kurosawa could have begun with the princess and her retainers fighting a losing war and facing the bleak prospect of transporting her royal blood to a foreign land, but then we lose sight of the real consequences of mass conflict and the momentum of struggle so early established through the experiences of Matashichi and Tahei. Kurosawa also establishes with this film that even ignoble impulses such as greed can ultimately be harnessed for the greater good, that covenants are made and kept through mutual self-interest. The flip-side of the coin is that the covenant between the royal party and the peasants is made possible only through subterfuge. The general has to exploit the fact that the peasants want as much gold as possible with the least risk to their well-being.
Its melodrama is basically comedic. The mechanisms that move the plot forward in sometimes unrealistic and picaresque ways are either there for their comedic value or to subvert genre conventions. The regard of the plot for the continuance of the throne of Akizuki after clan war has shattered it, and its accompanying emotions are there to give General Rokurota (Toshirô Mifune) and Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) their motivation, but not for any ideological emphasis on Kurosawa’s part. Indeed, the other half of their party has no such regard, they even went to Akizuki in the first place to profit from a war party against it. Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) and Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) are opportunists in a contingent universe; even their friendship flags with the whims of fortune. In this way the viewer never feels as if they are being told how to feel with a cast of characters so variegated in their beliefs.
This is probably one of Kurosawa’s most successful screenplays, due to its simplicity and natural strengths. We have characters with whom we can easily identify paired with ethereally majestic ones—the Princess and the General are right out of a fairy tale—who bridle them on a quest for riches through dangerous lands. And the piecemeal aspect of the script really works in Kurosawa’s favor as he gets to peel back the layers on the audience in unexpected, and cinematic, ways. And then once something has been revealed to us, such as the gold being sheathed in firewood, we get to guess at how our heroes are going to keep it a secret2. Kurosawa challenges us to think logistically, with the characters.
Speaking of logistics, The Hidden Fortress is no less than a filmmaker’s lesson in exterior dynamics. In a film with almost no interior space represented visually, Kurosawa has to get clever to come up with great wide-screen compositions in daunting locations. He does so here by using rock formations and natural inclines to section the frame and to hone our attention on the characters3. Later he will use the advantages offered by trees and foliage to conceal the characters with others. The hidden fortress itself is manipulated through editing to appear as a sort of negative stronghold, with secret channels connecting it to strategic places such as the freshwater pond where the gold is kept by Rokurota. As we travel with our band of knaves, Kurosawa uses twisting avenues and bridges to lengthen his locations; if instead it were open plains, his telephoto lens would effectively collapse all this imaginary space. Really we haven’t gone very far from one province to the next, but Kurosawa makes us believe we have, and we go with him.
Like many Kurosawa films, the use of Noh grammar is also prominent. Noh-style drums and flute are associated with the princess; her first appearance in the fortress is accompanied by the wailing notes of the fue. When she sings the music of the fire-festival in captivity, she gives it a Noh intonation, and General Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita) does the same before he releases the captive princess and general. As ever Kurosawa uses the stylistics of Noh to heighten, to express a sepulchral, ethereal sense of a moment as it’s lost to the universe; perhaps the only equivalent in the West might be the collective seriousness of a funeral. In this way the princess is connected to the form and shaped in the story like a demigod in a fairy-tale4. As for the non-Japanese sources, Kurosawa once again takes a page from the cinema of Sergei Eisenstein; the Odessa Steps sequence from The Battleship Potemkin is comedically reimagined at the beginning of the film, then revisited to bookend it, except that the careening baby carriage has been replaced by the fearful visages of Matashichi and Tahei.
1 Perceived of course by the prevailing authorities of film aesthetics at the time.
2 The secret gold and the princess’ turn as a mute recall the prince who plays a porter in The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail.
3 Later in Dersu Uzala he would struggle to find effective uses for exterior space. By Ran he would master it, fully integrating it into his visual language.
4 A paraphrase of Donald Richie’s thesis in “The Films of Akira Kurosawa”, Second Edition, 1970, pg.136.