Directed by Akira Kurosawa and released in 1958, The Hidden Fortress was produced during Kurosawa’s string of financial successes and artistic triumphs that began with Rashômon in 1950 and concluded with Red Beard in 1965. Throughout that 15-year, 13-movie run, Kurosawa released a series of monumental works, one right after the other, which not only developed and deepened the director’s style but also established a paradigm for future filmmakers to come.
And that connection becomes immediately clear in Hidden Fortress’ opening shot: Two bickering peasants, Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara), lost in a vast wasteland. Much in the same way George Lucas would rely on R2-D2 and C-3PO in Star Wars (a film heavily indebted to Kurosawa), Fortress uses these lowly characters for comic relief and the framing device of the story. Through these characters, viewers discover the world and meet the players.
From there, Hidden Fortress progresses in a deceptively fairy-tale manner with Tahei and Matashichi helping transport Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara)—a badass princess if there ever was one—and a fortune of gold across enemy lines and back to her castle. To accomplish this, they enlist the help of a powerful samurai, General Rokurota (Toshirô Mifune in all his glory).
Watching The Hidden Fortress is the immense pleasure of watching a director refine his aesthetic during a period of unmatched creativity. Much like a gambler on a hot streak, Kurosawa continued to experiment and develop without setback, and Fortress was his first adventure into widescreen photography—Tohoscope, to be precise. The result is astounding as each beautifully composed black-and-white image is kinetic, popping off the screen with giddy energy.
Like directors John Ford and D.W. Griffith before him, Kurosawa achieved this feat not simply through story but through cinematic technology as well. Kurosawa preferred to work with telephoto lenses and multiple cameras for each take, allowing him to cut seamlessly between performers without drawing attention to the cut. The result is a pictorial triumph, one that creates dynamic tension and explosive storytelling simply through staging and performance. Available now on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.
A version of the above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 23, No. 24, “Before a long time ago…“
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