Focus Up #2 - Exploring "The Hidden Fortress"

Well, if Russian sci-fi was a little to niche last time around, let’s switch it up: how about ‘50’s Japanese Samurai flicks? Let’s take a look at Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress.

The Hidden Fortress opens with Matashichi and Tahei walking in a barren desert, after fleeing from a battle. Matashichi is shorter than his companion Tahei, and the two poke fun at each other while hunting for safety. Fed up with each other, they go their separate ways. However, in a twist of fate, the Yamana army captures both Matashichi and Tahei, forcing them into slavery, where they find each other once again.

That’s a pretty cool story, huh? Full of a lot of drama and action, right? But it’s kind of familiar. So let's Mad-Libs that last paragraph to make it super clear.

Star Wars opens with R2-D2 and C-3PO walking in a barren desert, after fleeing from a battle. R2-D2 is shorter than his companion C-3PO, and the two poke fun at each other while hunting for safety. Fed up with each other, they go their separate ways. However, in a twist of fate, the Jawas capture both R2-D2 and C-3PO, forcing them into slavery, where they find each other once again.

Could such a thing even be possible? Could George Lucas have been inspired by Akira Kurosawa?

Alright George! The Hidden Fortress may not be the favorite of a young Lucas (Seven Samurai is an amazing movie, highly recommend watching that), but it features a lot of the elements that Star Wars is made of, and is arguably one of the biggest influences. 

Matashichi and Tahei wander through the countryside, attempting to get to Hayakawa, away from the Yamana forces that have defeated the Akizuki army. The Hidden Fortress’s device for getting Matashichi and Tahei into the film’s plot is gold (literally): they discover gold hidden within sticks and hearing of more and being promised a cut, they embark on their mission with the star of the film, Rokurota Makabe. Rokurota’s mission is to smuggle Princess Yuki, last of the Akizuki royal family, to the safety of Kayakawa (Smuggling? A Princess? Sounding familiar). Matashichi and Tahei come up with a plan to get to Hayakawa: since the Akizuki/Hayakawa border will be patrolled by Yamana troops, they'll sneak through the unprotected Akizuki/Yamana border, and travel through enemy territory to get to Hayakawa.

 We here at Pop Volture only deliver the highest quality, in-house made graphics

We here at Pop Volture only deliver the highest quality, in-house made graphics

When Matashichi and Tahei meets Rokurota, they laugh off his identity as a famous Akizuki general, but realize he's worth following. The trio heads to the titular hidden fortress, where Princess Yuki is holding up, hiding from the Yamana troops. The Akizuki council decides the fools could be useful to their mission.

The group set out on their journey about halfway through the film (The Hidden Fortress' first act can drag at times, however spending time with Matashichi and Tahei really makes it worth it). Matashichi and Tahei are oblivious to the Princess' true identity (she pretends to be a mute) and are simply in it for the gold. Not nearly as honorable as the droid pair in Star Wars, Matashichi and Tahei are still endearing in their bumbling idiocy, especially once they connect with Rokurota Makabe.

Rokurota really brings The Hidden Fortress to another level of awesome. He absolutely kills it. Played by Toshiro Mifune, who also stars in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Rashoman, Mifune is to Kurosawa as Depp is to Burton. Crazy! The plot of The Hidden Fortress  is a lot smaller in comparison to Star Wars; planets aren't destroyed and an evil empire isn't driven back; it's much more about getting Princess Yuki to safety, which is definitely pulled into Star Wars as a goal of the characters; however, where Star Wars uses their princess to launch their characters into a battle for the galaxy, The Hidden Fortress leaves Matashichi and Tahei in a similar (but not identical) situation at the end.

The Hidden Fortress doesn't feature a ton of action setpieces, but the few it has are very well done. Matashichi and Tahei regroup with each other during a riot at a Yamana slave camp, and the hundreds of extras featured do an excellent job of showing the scale of the war. A spear-fight in the second act between Rokurota and rival Hyoe Todakoro is a drawn-out fight, where most of the set is destroyed while a hundred soldiers watch. If Matashichi and Tahei walking through the desert is a clue that Star Wars is inspired by The Hidden Fortress, this scene is the proof (also, check those booty shorts Rokurota is wearing; daaaaaaamn):

Huh! Isn't that something? While a single frame might not be the definitive argument, both fights are very similar. Lucas was held back by technological restraints in the first Star Wars, but as a lot of great directors have proven, restraints aren't always the worst thing to happen during production (Spielberg's struggles with the animatronic shark in Jaws are credited to making the movie a lot more frightening). So, as opposed to having the flashy, CGI, over-choreographed saber fights of the prequels (don't get me started), Lucas looked to his idol in Kurosawa. A slow fight, where the combatants wait to attack, taking in their opponent before lashing out with powerful strikes.

You'll love this movie if you:

  • Not just enjoy Star Wars,  but appreciate it as a great retelling of the Hero's Journey (pretty much Homer's The Odyssey)
  • Enjoy the silent comedians, including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and The Marx Brothers, since Matashichi and Tahei are abolutely inspired by early American cinema
  • Dig booty shorts on dudes
  • Love maniacal laughter
  • Think spears are an underrated weapon

You'll hate this movie if you:

  • Like Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
  • Like Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
  • Like Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

The Hidden Fortress stands on its own virtues as an excellent samurai flick, but knowing it's an inspiration to one of the most successful franchises in history gives it a few more brownie points. The movie can drag at times (the version featured on Hulu is the 139-minute original, while there was a 90-minute American release,so the pacing issues might have been fixed in that cut), but The Hidden Fortress easily wins over its audience with great characters, an interesting plot, and a surprising amount of humor. It's worth checking out.