The Hidden Fortress (1958)

A general without an army, a princess without a kingdom, a hidden fortress in the mountains, a defeated people, The Hidden Fortress is probably best known in the United States as the template for the original Star Wars. Akira Kurosawa’s influence on George Lucas is undeniable. Yet the differences between the two films are as illuminating as their similarities. Star Wars becomes clumsier, more infantile, and yet more intriguing. The Hidden Fortress, which looks back to John Ford, and even to Mark Twain, is revealed to be not only a work of a cinematic genius, but a cool-headed, satiric take on Japan’s effort to rebuild after World War II.

The Hidden Fortress opens with Tahei and Matashichi, the original R2-D2 and C-3PO, returning from a war between the defeated Akizuki clan and the victorious Yamana clan. Unlike R2-D2 and C-3PO, however, the two ragged peasants are not selfless, noble innocents. Quite the contrary, they had originally tried to enlist on the side of the Yamana clan as mercenaries, but got to the war so late that they wound up working as grave diggers. We never quite learn whether they belong to the Akizukis or the Yamanas but it doesn’t really matter. Tahei is loyal to Tahei and Matashichi is loyal to Matashichi. They would sell each other out for a bowl of rice. It is only when they’re driven mad with fear, which is, admittedly, quite often, that they remember how they’re suppose to be friends.

The plot, which is often disjointed and episodic, begins to come together after Tahei and Matashichi escape being press ganged by the Yamana into forced labor. They’re cooking a pot of stolen rice. The rice won’t cook. The wood won’t burn. Then they discover why. The branches they’ve been gathering have all been hollowed out and packed with gold. They’re rich men, or so they think, but not so fast. That gold won’t be so easy just to cart off. They’re being watched.

General Rokurota Makabe is Obi Wan Kenobi, Han Solo, and Luke Skywalker all rolled up into one. But he’s even more. Played by the great Toshiro Mifune, he’s a Japanese John Wayne, a swaggering hero, a legendary samurai, a famous military leader. But like Admiral Yamamoto, who Mifune will later go onto play in the American film Midway, he fought on the losing side. Had Yamamoto not been shot down by the US navy halfway through the Second World War, he might have ended up a bit like Rokurota Makabe, a conquered conqueror, a commander with nothing to command, a general with no army.

The gold belongs to Rokurota Makabe, or, to be more accurate, it belongs to the Akizuki clan. Tahei and Matashichi don’t know how lucky they are. Makabe had intended to kill them. But then he decided, after listening to the two men plotting how to get over the border back to Akizuki, that they might turn out to be useful. The great, defeated commander now has an army of two greedy, cowardly, treacherous peasants, but like any great general, he knows how to wage war with the troops he has, not with the troops he wants. In spite of their bad qualities, or, perhaps, because of them, Tahei and Matashichi might not only be the army Makabe wants. They might be the army he needs.

The gold, as it turns out, is a misdirection. Rokurota Makabe is guarding Princess Yuki, something more precious than gold. Princess Yuki is not only the Princess Leia of The Hidden Fortress. She’s the ruler and the very embodiment of the Akizuki clan. If Princess Yuki doesn’t make it out of the Yamana territories alive, the Akizuki clan, much like the Japanese without their royal family, would cease to exist as a people. Rokurota Makabe is in fact so determined to save Princess Yuki that he allowed his own sister to be executed in her place as a double.

Makabe brings his new army to the “hidden fortress,” the shelter in the mountains where the princess is hiding. This, Kurosawa suggests, is the kind of base the Japanese might have established had they fought a guerrilla war against the Americans instead of surrendering after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Then they all set out for Akizuki.

The parallels with Star Wars are intriguing. If the Akizuki are the Japanese, and the Yamana the Americans, doesn’t that mean the defeated Jedi Knights are both the Akizuki and the Japanese, and Darth Vader and the Death Star are the Americans? For Makabe, losing Princess Yuki would be something like Princess Leia seeing Calderon blown to bits by the Death Star. Star Wars, as silly, racist, and reactionary as it may be, is also offering a critique of the American decision to use the atomic bomb. Saving the princess, and the gold, for Kurosawa, becomes like the Japanese saving their royal family. If everything is to stay the same, then everything has to change. Japan, once a great military power, has to disarm. By disarming, however, it can become a great economic power. Tahei and Matashichi are greedy, treacherous cowards, but they’re industrious, greedy, treacherous cowards. The code of Bushido must be pushed aside for Sony.

But it doesn’t mean that the values of the Samurai are dead. Quite the contrary. Along the way to Akizuki, Makabe, meets General Hyoe Tadokoro, an old rival. Rokurota Makabe is surrounded by dozens of Yamana soldiers. They’re terrified of the great warrior as surely as a few dozen mere stormtroopers would be terrified of a Jedi. But surely they can still overpower him the force of their numbers. Makabe is doomed, but no. He challenges Hyoe Tadokoro to single combat. Tadokoro orders his men to stand down. He’s “got this.” If he can’t kill Makabe by himself, he’s not going to be a coward. He’s not going to let a noble samurai meet his end at the hands of a gang of mercenaries.

Makabe defeats Tadokoro in single combat and Tadokoro lets him go.

Later we learn that Tadokoro had expected Makabe to kill him. Showing him mercy was a form of cruelty. Tadokoro has “lost face,” quite literally, since his punishment is to have his brow disfigured. But General Hyoe Tadokoro is now in Makabe’s debt. At a crucial moment, Tadokoro not only helps Princess Yuki and General Rokurota Makabe cross the border into Akizuki, he obeys the princess when she tells him “not to die in vain.” He joins the Akizuki clan, the representatives of the defeated Japan, and helps them rebuild their shattered nation. Even Tahei and Matashichi turn out OK. Princess Yuki gives them both a single single ryō of gold. But they don’t fight over it. Tahei gives it to Matashichi to protect, but Matashichi allows Tahei to keep it. The nation, now united, has been saved.

I think most Americans would probably choose the original Star Wars over The Hidden Fortress. Star Wars is more accessible. Its technological wizardry, the way it overlays a simplistic, Christian, good vs. evil narrative over Kurosawa’s sophisticated tale of Japanese feudalism, are all more appealing to the popular imagination. And yet, with its glorious black and white photography — Kurosawa learned a lot from John Ford’s My Darling Clementine — and the masterful acting, not only of Toshiro Mifune, but of Misa Uehara and Susumu Fujita, the hidden fortress can be a “new hope” for Star Wars fans who have triple digit IQs and who are old enough to vote. There is nothing in any of the light saber duals George Lucas stages quite like the dual between Makabe and Tadokoro. Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader talk at each other. Toshiro Mifune and Susumu Fujita look like two men who are trying, not only to kill each other, but to do it with honor and style.

Star Wars is an intriguing children’s film. The Hidden Fortress is like watching a feudal society evolve into a capitalist society in a little over 2 hours, at 24 frames per second. John Ford was the cinematic poet of Manifest Destiny. Kurosawa is the John Ford of the Japanese phoenix.

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