Our second dose of Shame! As usual, if anyone would like to know what a Shamedown is, the deets can be found on CinemaShame’s website. All righty, then, here we go…
The 1958 film, The Hidden Fortress is rather notorious because of its pedigree as a Kurosawa film and being one of George Lucas’s inspirations for Star Wars, but does it live up to the hype? How strong are the connections to George Lucas, anyway?
Yes. Yes, it does, and the connections are very strong.
Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) can’t catch a break. These peasants sell their houses to join the Yamana clan and make their fortunes, but are forced to dig graves, stripped of their weapons, and finally kicked out. When the movie opens they’re trudging across an empty field griping at each other about how bad they smell.
Inevitably both are captured again, and while they’re overjoyed to see each other the fun is short-lived when they find out they’re supposed to dig for buried gold in a ruined castle. Fortunately, these bounty hunters have short tempers and our heroes give them the slip, after which they steal a whole lot of rice and, conveniently enough, a pot to cook it in.
When Matashichi throws a stick away because it won’t burn, they hear it hit something metallic, they find a gold bar and realize it’s the gold the bounty hunters were looking for. While they’re frantically searching for the rest and arguing over who gets what, a mysterious man starts following them.
After a few rather fruitless attempts at avoiding the guy Tahai and Matashichi are cornered, and the mysterious stranger turns out to be a great warrior named General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune). He already knows about the gold, and when he finds out Tahei and Matashichi want out of Yamana, he convinces them to help him carry the gold across the border into Hayakawa. All they have to do is hide in it wood, pile the wood on some pack horses, keep a low profile, and they’re in business.
Unbeknownst to Matashichi and Tahei, however, Rokurota also has a plan to escort the fugitive Akizuki princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) to Hayakawa as well, as there’s a pretty hefty price on her head and she’ll be safe in Hayakawa. Fortunately the Yamanas have stopped looking for her as diligently as they were before, because a woman was caught and executed, but unfortunately it was Rokurota’s sister, Kofuyu. Rokurota is visibly shaken but relays the message to Yuki, who secretly mourns the death of her friend.
Yuki’s got even more gold with her, which the group hides in those wooden sticks and then piles onto three horses and starts heading to Hayakawa, but to keep Princess Yuki’s identity secret she has to act like a mute because her royal class way of speaking will give them away. One word out of her and the authorities will be onto them. Naturally, Tahai and Matashichi do more stupid stuff and get into trouble, Rokurota will have to kick some butts, the party might gain a member and lose a horse or two, but the plan must move forward no matter what. There will be surprises because there always are.
Visually, this movie is a stunner. Every shot looks like a painting, there’s deep focus, and the actors are framed in such a way that there’s time for their characters to read on their faces. It’s really remarkable to watch.
As for the story, the writing is as taunt as Tony Palacio’s guitar strings, and there’s a lot of humor going on there. Tahai and Matashichi are such goofballs, going at each other all the time like brothers and somehow coming out on top while bumbling around, sliding down hills, and trying to follow crowds when they should lay low. There’s one part, for instance, when they decide to join the local Firewood Festival because it’ll be easier to go incognito. Never mind that they’re already hidden and no one knows what they carry. It’s just a laughably dumb decision that only causes more trouble.
The film almost has an absurdist structure to it in that the two main characters are thrust into various story points and there’s nothing they can do about it. Tahai and Matashichi don’t find Rokurota; he appears before them and they can’t get away from him. They’re suddenly involved in the smuggling of the gold and escorting Princess Yuki to Hayakawa. They’re caught in the middle of the Yamanas brawling with the Akizukis. They try to have agency but they really can’t, so they just have to roll with everything as much as possible.
That brings us to the film’s George Lucas connection, as in Tahai and Matashichi were the inspirations for C-3PO and R2-D2. Lucas’s characters are certainly smarter than Tahai and Matashichi; for one thing, neither of Kurosawa’s characters can speak as many languages as Threepio or match his knowledge of ettiquette and protocol, but all four of these guys are considered stuck as far as their station. Threepio and R2 will always be droids and Tahai and Matashichi will always be peasants, so they’re low-ranking with little to no authority. When the story moves, they have to move with it.
And of course, like Tahai and Matashichi, R2 and Threepio go at each other; well, at least Threepio gets snarky, while R2 is mostly cute and winsome. They also get fed up with each other and temporarily part ways only to rapturously meet up later and declare undying friendship, or at least start sniping at each other again. It’s always hard to say what these characters will do next and that’s what makes it fun. I think Lucas’s droids are similar enough to Kurosawa’s peasants that if they ever met they’d probably hate each other, but I digress.
Honestly, I don’t know why I waited so long to watch The Hidden Fortress, but I’m really glad I did. It seems to have lots of layers to be discovered and learned from, which is one of the things that makes a great film.
Coming up in March (yeah, tomorrow) As usual, click on the images for more information:
All right, a new “Stage To Screen” is up next. Thanks for reading, all…
The Hidden Fortress is available to own on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.
~Purchases made via Amazon Affiliate links found on this site help support Taking Up Room at no extra cost to you.~
If you’re enjoying what you see on Taking Up Room, please look for additional content on Substack, where you’ll find both free and subscriber-only articles. I publish every Wednesday and Saturday.