Skip to main content

Should I Watch..? 'The Hidden Fortress' (1958)

Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.

Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the Big Deal?

The Hidden Fortress (also known as Kakushi toride no san akunin) is a Japanese historical adventure film released in 1958, and it was directed and co-written by Akira Kurosawa. The film depicts a journey by two peasants who are lured by the promise of a vast sum of gold into unwittingly escorting a fugitive princess and her loyal protector through enemy territory. The film stars Toshiro Mifune, the debuting Misa Uehara, Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara. The film is perhaps most famous for being cited by George Lucas as a major inspiration for the first Star Wars film in 1977. The film was successful in Japan, becoming Toho Studio's biggest earner of the year, and Kurosawa's most successful film until Yojimbo in 1961. While the film is often overshadowed by some of Kurosawa's other work, the film is still highly regarded by critics and filmmakers alike.

Enjoyable

What's It About?

As the militant Yamana clan spread their influence over others, two peasants - Tahei and Matashichi - sell everything they have and decide to join up with them. Unfortunately, they are instead presumed to be members of the rival Akizuki clan and are enslaved by the Yamana as grave diggers. Eventually being granted their release, Tahei and Matashichi argue amongst themselves before being recaptured and taken to the ruined Akizuki castle. Alongside hundreds of other prisoners, they are forced into digging through the ruins looking for a reputed stash of gold which is nowhere to be found. After a violent prison outbreak, the two of them are once again on the run - this time as fugitives.

Deciding that their best option is to make their way to the more peaceful territory of Hayakawa, Tahei and Matashichi find the border blocked by Yamana forces. Realising that they will have to travel incognito through Yamana land before reaching safety, their plans hit a snag after discovered a piece of Akizuki gold hidden inside a log. Realising that the gold and the last remaining Akizuki princess are nearby, the two of them search for both without realising that they are being watched closely by inquisitive eyes...

Trailer (poor quality - apologies!)

What's to Like?

With a name as respected as Akira Kurosawa's is, you'd expect every one of his films to be a genuine masterpiece. But not so - just as Christopher Nolan isn't afraid to pursue box office success with the Dark Knight trilogy, Kurosawa is not above producing a film that marries high drama with some impressive action sequences and familiar comedy. The fact that The Hidden Fortress has its DNA in a film as popular as Star Wars means that comparisons are inevitable today but this is not a bad thing. From the film's focus on the perspective of two minor characters to the scarred samurai serving as chief antagonist to the feisty young princess fighting for her freedom, the parallels are obvious to almost every viewer.

Crucially, unlike Kurosawa's more respected efforts like Rashomon, the film is much more conventional in terms of storytelling and the story is easy enough for anyone to understand - you don't need to be an expert on feudal Japan for this one! And there really is something for everyone here - Mifune is typically heroic and displays some impressive physicality in the role of Rokurota including some amazing horse-riding skills. Uehara feels every bit the young woman with so much responsibility resting on her shoulders, supressing her emotions to remain as stoic and commanding as possible. And the banter and bickering between Chiaki and Fujiwara is genuinely amusing - in fact, they almost resemble a certain golden protocol droid and his short utility buddy. What the film lacks in technical innovation and meaning, it makes up for by being entertaining to watch and its ability to overcome any language barrier. This is breathless stuff, full of vigour and pace that doesn't disappoint.

The film's action sequence aren't just reserved for fighting - check out the impressive prison break scene or marvel at Mifune's incredible horse-riding skills.

The film's action sequence aren't just reserved for fighting - check out the impressive prison break scene or marvel at Mifune's incredible horse-riding skills.

Fun Facts

  • Kurosawa intentionally made the film as commercial as possible, partly to repay Toho Studios for their support in allowing him to make more artistic movies like Rashomon but also because Kurosawa had become disillusioned after his two previous films - Throne Of Blood and The Lower Depths - were quite dark and grim in tone. He wanted to make something energetic and light as a result.
  • The opening shot of the samurai getting killed by cavalry was achieved in just one take. However, look closely at the body when the horses double-back on themselves - one of the horses kicks the actor in the side of the head but after initially reacting to the pain, he stays in character throughout.
  • Both the Akizuki and Yamana clans existed in real life although they were never situated next to each other as depicted. The Yamana were based in what is Inaba Province today while the Akizuki (whose descendants still use that name) were further to the south-west, in what is now known as Fukuoka Prefecture. There has never been a Hayakawa clan.
Scroll to Continue

What's Not to Like?

If you're not familiar with Kurosawa's work (and if not, rectify the situation immediately!) then you may be wondering why this film is considered inferior. It's true that the film isn't as game-changing as Rashomon was and it could also be argued that while Star Wars may be heavily inspired by this film, the finished product with all the lightsabres, TIE fighters and Wookiees bears little relation to anything in The Hidden Fortress. Perhaps the film's biggest legacy is in the pursuit of box office takings - the film is made with little artistic flair but is still amazing to watch and highly entertaining in its own way. And don't go thinking that Star Wars is all that artistic either - if I had a pound every time someone has a bad feeling about something, I'd never need to work again.

You can't even accuse this film of scaling back from Kurosawa's more epic works like Seven Samurai - the film is full of sweeping landscape shots dotted with riders on horseback, huge numbers of extras filling scenes with movement and life such as the festival of fire scene or the prison break, combining a massive cast with chaotic action and breathtaking set design. If I'm being ultra critical, the film suffers a bit for modern viewers who will probably be aware of the connection to Star Wars and struggle to separate the films in their mind. This could make the film easier to follow because you can reasonably predict what's coming. But personally, I feel that this is a rare thing - an artistically skilled production that you can enjoy with your brain switched off. There's no allegory here to worry about, no hidden meaning to decipher. It's just good, old fashioned fun and sometimes, we all need a bit of that in our lives.

Misa Uehara's performance as the wounded but feisty princess would ultimately influence Carrie Fisher's role as Princess Leia.

Misa Uehara's performance as the wounded but feisty princess would ultimately influence Carrie Fisher's role as Princess Leia.

Should I Watch It?

Unfairly overshadowed by Kurosawa's more respected pieces, The Hidden Fortress is an exciting and enjoyable adventure that still manages to amuse and amaze in equal measure. It lacks some of Kurosawa's finer touches but this is still highly recommended for anyone with a passion for Japanese cinema or anyone thinking of producing a sci-fi remake. Energetic, funny and occasionally moving, this is first-class filmmaking of a like we rarely see any more.

Great For: George Lucas, Japanese film fans, maintaining Kurosawa's bullet-proof reputation, proving you can still have impressive action scenes without CGI

Not So Great For: anyone who struggles with subtitles, black-and-white film snobs, anyone expecting bucket-loads of violence

What Else Should I Watch?

Bursting onto the international scene after the release of Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa began establishing himself as one of the all-time great film directors. His films like Yojimbo, Seven Samurai and Ikiru are frequently hailed by critics as some of the greatest films ever with the first two inspiring western remakes in the form of A Fistful Of Dollars and The Magnificent Seven. While his career would go into decline, his place in film history was already assured before his spectacular comeback in the Eighties with the epics Kagemusha and Ran, his adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear.

Period pieces like The Hidden Fortress are known as jidigeki or 'period dramas' in Japan and have long been a staple of their film industry. Perhaps the best known character in chanbara ("sword fighting movies") is Zatoichi, a blind swordsman who has featured in several films - most recently in 2003's Zatoichi starring and directed by cult Japanese star 'Beat' Takashi and 2010's Zatoichi: The Last which didn't exactly get many pulses racing. Toshiro Mifune's character Sanjuro, who debuted in Kurosawa's Yojimbo and later his own stand-alone film, has also become a cherished character in the genre and inspired Clint Eastwood's portrayal of The Man With No Name, the legendary gunslinger from A Fistful Of Dollars and others. Lastly, not every jidaigeki film has to result in bloody conflict - the critically acclaimed Silence tells the tale of two Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Japan looking for their missing mentor and was a twenty-year project for its director, Martin Scorsese. You might also consider Love And Honour which is a romantic drama directed by Yoji Yamada and concludes his Samurai trilogy in fine style.

Main Cast

ActorRole

Toshiro Mifune

General Rokurota Makabe

Misa Uehara

Princess Yuki

Minoru Chiaki

Tahei

Kamatari Fujiwara

Matashichi

Susumu Fujita

General Hyoe Tadokoro

Takashi Shimura

General Izumi Nagakura

Technical Info

DirectorAkira Kurosawa

Screenplay

Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto & Akira Kurosawa

Running Time

139 minutes

Release Date (US)

6th October, 1960

Rating

PG (1994 re-rating)

Genre

Action, Adventure, Drama

© 2022 Benjamin Cox

Related Articles