Tag Archives: Akira Kurosawa

No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)

Sometimes getting beaten in a war can be good for a country’s soul. I am convinced that losing in Vietnam was one of the best things that ever happened to the United States of America. The sense of humility that came out of getting stomped by a third world country prevented us from going fascist until after 9/11. It was also good for American cinema. Until Hollywood returned to making jingoistic crap like Forrest Gump and Saving Private Ryan in the 1990s, it made a few sincere, if ultimately flawed attempts to come to terms with the Tet offensive, the Battle of Khe Sanh, and the cadaver connection.

It’s just too bad Hollywood in the 1970s and 1980s never had a genius on the level of Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa’s early masterpiece No Regrets for Our Youth is the film that Francis Ford Coppola and Oliver Stone probably wanted to make, but never quite had the audacity to pitch to United Artists. What makes Not Regrets for Our Youth such a magnificent act of artistic integrity is how Kurosawa defied, not only Japan’s fascists and militarists, but also the American occupation. While it’s true that the Cold War would not quite begin in earnest until 1948, it was also clear that the alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union was already at the breaking point. For a director still only in his mid-30s to make a film that transformed a Soviet spy, basically the Japanese Alger Hiss, into a romantic hero was to risk not only his career, but quite possibly his life.

First the historical background.

In 1931, the Japanese staged a “false flag” incident at a railway line owned by Japan’s South Manchuria Railway near Mukden. It was no 9/11, but it was an “inside job,” a small-scale bombing that caused no significant damage, but served as a pretext for an invasion of northern China. Much like 9/11 enabled George W. Bush to ram the Patriot Act through Congress, the “Manchurian Incident” also allowed the Japanese ruling class to mount a fascist crackdown at home. During the “Kyoto Incident” for example, a liberal law professor named Takigawa Yukitoki was suspended from his post for teaching that the judiciary had to consider the sociological roots of social deviancy before passing sentence. He was fired outright after a student and faculty strike called for him to be reinstated.

In the late 1930s, a communist journalist named Hotsumi Ozaki managed to work his way into the highest levels of the Japanese government. He began to pass classified information to the Soviet spy Richard Sorge, whom he had known since the left-wing American writer Agnes Smedley introduced the two men back in 1930. It’s really difficult to overestimate just how much the world owes to Hotsumi Ozaki, who most Americans have never heard of, but who quite possibly did more to defeat Hitler than an entire army group of American and British soldiers. Even though he, and Sorge, were executed by the Japanese government in 1944, they died knowing they had helped Stalin to beat Hitler at the Battle of Moscow.

Ozaki learned that Japan wanted to avoid a war with the Soviet Union, and let Sorge know of it. This information proved to be of uttermost importance for the whole history of the Second World War: after Sorge relayed it to Soviet command, Moscow transferred 18 divisions, 1,700 tanks, and over 1,500 aircraft from Siberia and the Far East to the Western Front against the Nazi Germany during the most dangerous months of the Battle for Moscow, one of the turning points of the whole war.


The screenplay for No Regrets for Our Youth seamlessly weaves the story of Hotsumi Ozaki into the earlier story of Professor Takigawa Yukitoki and the Kyoto Incident. It opens with Yukie Yagihara — the daughter of a university professor played by Setsuko Hara — on a picnic with a group young men. Anybody who knows Hara from Late Spring or Tokyo story will be surprised by her character, who’s a privileged flirt, closer to Olivia Dandridge in John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon than she is to Noriko Somiya or Noriko Hirayama. During the picnic, an idyllic outing which is harshly interrupted by the sound of gunfire in the distance, we also meet two of Yukie’s suitors, Itokawa, a get along by going along careerist played by Akitake Kôno, and Ryukichi Noge, a fiery young leftist played by Susumu Fujita. After Yukie’s father, a liberal academic and a fictionalized version of Professor Takigawa Yukitoki, is suspended from his post for speaking out against the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, Noge organizes a strike by the faculty and students. It not only fails — Yukie’s father is fired — Noge is arrested and sentenced to four years in prison.

Meanwhile Itokawa — No Regrets for Our Youth unfolds over a timespan of 12 years — is working his way up through the judiciary of the Japanese government. Itokawa isn’t a bad guy, and certainly doesn’t come off like a fascist, but Yukie despises him. Once, after Noge “called her out” for being a shallow liberal, and Itokawa had taken her side, she turned to Itokawa and said “all he did was tell the truth, something you’re incapable of doing.” Yukie’s father, no longer able to teach law, finds a second career doing pro-bono work for the poor. Yukie, in turn, moves from Kyoto to Tokyo, where she takes a series of low-status jobs, secretary, flower arranger, clerk at a shipping company, all the while pining away for Noge. They meet again after Itokawa, now a “public prosecutor,” and convinced that Noge has mended his ways and disavowed his leftist politics, arranges for an early parole, his smug satisfaction after telling Yukie hinting that he’s more concerned with getting out of the “friend zone,” or at least with proving that Noge isn’t the hero everybody thought he was, than he is in keeping an eventual communist spy in prison.

Initially disappointed over the idea that Noge has now becoming a conformist and careerist bootlicker like Itokawa, Yukie soon learns that the truth is very different. Noge is in fact, running a research institute that serves as a cover for his work as a Soviet agent. Neither the Soviet Union nor communism are ever mentioned in No Regrets for Our Youth, but it’s not really necessary since Noge’s resemblance to Hotsumi Ozaki would have been perfectly clear to any Japanese viewer in 1946. Suddenly Yukie realizes that Noge had been right all along, that her father, well-intentioned liberal though he was, had never been willing to go far enough, to call for a revolution against the fascist government. After she and Noge are married, they begin an idyllic, and all too brief, romance. Even though he refuses to tell her anything about his work, it’s clear he’s involved not only in passing information about the Japanese occupation of Manchuria to the Soviet Union, but in organizing a communist resistance movement against the fascist government. When Yukie suggests going into hiding, he fatalistically tells her that the secret police know exactly who he is is and can arrest him anytime they want. Noge, like any good anti-fascist, resists, not because he thinks he can win, but because it’s the right thing to do.

“In tens years the truth will come out,” he tells her, “and the Japanese people will thank us for what we’ve done.”

Noge, true to his prediction, is arrested by the secret police, and murdered in prison, but he has already inspired one convert, Yukie’s father, no longer a wishy washy liberal, and determined to defend his radical son in law in court before he learns of his death. It’s at this point that Yukie comes into her own, becoming, as Dennis Grunes points out, Kurosawa’s first great Samurai. Even at 26, Setsuko Hara is already the great actress she would be for the next two decades. Anybody who thinks little Daisy Ridley from The Force Awakens is a strong female hero needs to see No Regrets for Our Youth. The the last 30 minutes make you wish the Star Wars franchise had ripped off this film instead of Kurosawa’s later The Hidden Fortress.

Yukie, determined to honor the memory of her husband, does so in the only appropriate way you can honor a communist hero. She joins the class struggle, disavowing her bourgeois privilege, and moving in with her dead husband’s mother and father, both working-class farmers who have been ostracized by their community as the parents of a spy. Suddenly Kurosawa changes the way he lights Hara to reflect her own personal transformation. In the first half of the film, while she was still Noge’s helpmate, she was portrayed as a wispy heroine from a romantic novel, the light and shadow reflecting the longing she felt inside. Abruptly, she becomes a militant communist heroine, the camera now filming her from below, the aesthetics suggesting Soviet socialist realism instead of bourgeois domestic drama. Together, with Noge’s mother, and in the face of the town’s hostility, she helps get the rice crop planted, almost dying of exhaustion in the process. After local fascist thugs destroy their rice paddies, littering the field with threats and right-wing propaganda, the two women start all over again, like Sisyphus pushing the rock back up the hill after it rolls down, and eventually bringing Noge’s father, who has been a hollow shell of a man ever since his son’s death, back to life.

“The war was lost but freedom was restored,” a placard says at the end of the film, probably reflecting a more optimistic view of the American occupation than history would justify, but clearly expressing Kurosawa’s relief that the fascist government had been taken down. No Regrets for Our Youth ends with Yukie’s father back in his teaching post, now thoroughly radicalized, giving a speech to a new generation of law students in memory of his son-in-law, whom he now realizes that, according to the Buddhist tradition, was the teacher who found him when he was ready. Academic freedom has been restored. The fight for socialism will go on.

Throne of Blood (1957)

Rudyard Kipling famously wrote that “east is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet, till earth and sky stand presently at god’s great judgement seat.” He might have added “or until Akira Kurosawa adapts Macbeth for his 1957 masterpiece Throne of Blood.” Throne of Blood, also known as Kumonosu-jō or Spider Web Castle, strips Shakespeare’s tragedy down to its essentials, not only simplifying the plot, but translating Elizabethan blank verse into a cinematic version of traditional Japanese Noh drama. The result is to set Macbeth free and let it loose on film.

Throne of Blood opens at the ruin of Spider Web Castle, a forbidding edifice at the base of Mount Fuji. We hear a solemn chant over the volcanic landscape. We’re about to watch a Buddhist morality tale.

“Look upon the ruins of the castle of delusion, haunted only now by the spirits of those who perished, a scene of carnage, born of consuming desire, never changing, now and throughout eternity. Here stood Spider Web’s Castle.”

We go back in time to the court of Kuniharu Tsuzuki, the Great Lord of Spider Web Castle, Kurosawa’s Duncan. A messenger arrives, then another. The first messenger brings grim news. Lord Fujimaki’s rebellion in the north threatens to break through Tsuzuki’s defenses and put Spider Web Castle under siege. But the fortunes of war can turn on a dime. The second messenger informs the Great Lord that Taketoki Washizu, Macbeth, and Yoshiaki Miki, Banquo, have all but smashed Fujimaki’s army. Spider Web Castle is safe.

Throne of Blood then cuts to Wazhizu, played by Toshiro Mifune, and Miki, played by Minoru Chiaki. If you were wondering whether or not Kurosawa decided to keep the three witches, he’s about to answer your question. Wazhizu and Miki are lost in Spider Web Forest, traveling in circles through a landscape that should be perfectly familiar, but which has temporarily bewitched them. Just at the point where we start to wonder if we somehow wandered into Blair Witch Japan, the two generals meet the Forest Spirit. Washizu will be named master of the North Fortress, today, she tells them, and Miki will command Fort One. Later Washizu will become the Great Lord himself, but since his wife is barren and unable to produce an heir, the throne will pass to Miki’s son. Like Macbeth, Washizu will become king, but, like Macbeth, he will not start a dynasty.

We now get to meet Kurosawa’s Lady Macbeth. The park like serenity of the Northern Fortress, such a contrast to the grim, volcanic setting of Spider Web Castle, is a master stroke of story telling. Three soldiers lounge about the courtyard in the peaceful early morning air. What healthy soul would chose to reign at Spider Web Castle over the Northern Fortress? Washizu’s aggressive, nervous movements soon reveal that, unlike the three soldiers, he’s not a contented man. Asaji Washizu, Lady Macbeth, a terrifying Isuzu Yamada, a pale, spectral, almost puppet like figure, becomes the embodiment of her husband’s fears and ambitions. While Throne of Blood looks back to the feudal Japan of the 15th century, Lady Asaji’s exhortations to her husband are strikingly modern. The Great Lord Kuniharu Tsuzuki is no saintly King Duncan. He’s a man who took the crown for himself by murdering his predecessor. The world of Spider Web Castle is capitalist, Darwinian. If Washizu doesn’t continue to grow more powerful, his wife insists, if he doesn’t take Spider Web Castle for himself, the Great Lord will eventually see him as a rival and have him killed.

Washizu’s aggressive protests of loyalty to the Great Lord are shown to be hollow when Tsuzuki pays a visit to the Northern Fortress with 300 soldiers. Washizu is terrified. His wife’s predictions seem to be coming true. Has the Great Lord come to murder him? No, he has not. It’s a hunting expedition, but a hunting expedition in great force. Tsuzuki plans to use the Northern Fortress to complete his suppression of the rebellion that opened the film, a sign of his trust in Washizu, not his intention to murder him. But Washizu is helpless against his wife’s, really his own ambition’s, constant pressure to become the Great Lord of Spider Web Castle. As Macbeth murdered King Duncan, Washizu murders Kuniharu Tsuzuki, killing him in his sleep, then framing and murdering his guards, who Lady Asaji had earlier given Saki laced with a sleeping potion.

Noriyasu Odagura, Macduff, and Kunimaru, Malcolm, correctly surmising that they’re about to be killed next, flee the Northern Fortress and attempt to take shelter under Miki’s wing at Spider Web Castle. Washizu takes off in pursuit. The chase is terrifying, far more realistic than Shakespeare’s play, where Malcolm and Macduff slip away quietly in the commotion of the murder’s aftermath. Even though Miki denies Noriyasu and Kunimaru entrance, his soldiers raining a hail of arrows down onto the desperate pair of men off the Spider Web Castle’s battlements, Washizu is not only half-mad with ambition, he’s fully mad with jealousy of a position he does not yet even occupy. He has no children. Miki’s son will take his place, and, in a master stroke of psychological manipulation, Lady Asaji announces that she’s pregnant. We never find out whether or not she’s lying, but it doesn’t matter. Washizu hires a murderer to kill Miki and his son Yoshiteru, Throne of Blood’s Fleance. Like Shakespeare’s best o’ the cut-throats, the hired killer manages to get the father, but not the son. Like Banquo, the ghost of Miki haunts Washizu until he’s driven half mad with fear, revealing his guilt to anybody not trying to deny what they see with their own eyes.

The final act of Throne of Blood dispenses with all the sound and fury of Shakespeare’s poetry, but we barely miss it. Kurosawa’s spare narrative elegance and cool dramatic irony more than compensate until the shocking, violent, over the top denouement. We are spared all the details of the deaths of Macduff’s children, a part of the play that Roman Polanski, for obvious reasons of his own, makes the very center of his film. Washizu will die not at the hands of a grieving father and husband. He will be killed by his own soldiers, and it’s here where cinema allows Kurosawa to do things that Shakespeare couldn’t.

“Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?” Shakespeare asked in the prologue to Henry V. The answer would probably be no. When the witches told Macbeth that he need not fear death “till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane,” and when Macduff’s and Malcolm’s troops camouflage themselves with boughs and leaves, it’s an entirely different thing to imagine it than it is to actually see. Kurosawa’s images of Noriyasu’s and Kunimaru’s troops marching on Spider Web Castle as though they were nature itself rebelling against the tyrant Washizu took more than technical skill. The clumsy final act of Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers, where the Ents march on Isengard, demonstrates that you can have all the technical mastery in the world, and still end up with cartoon silliness. It takes the skill of a poet, something Kurosawa has, maybe even on the same level as Shakespeare. You probably won’t forget the images of Spider Web Forest marching on Spider Web Castle. You certainly won’t forget the moment when Washizu’s troops turn on their general. Washizu, who had told his troops of the wood spirit’s prophecy, has doomed himself with his own arrogance. His troops, observing the trees creeping closer and closer to the fortress, let fly a hail of arrows, impaling Washizu again, then again, then again. Kurosawa has decided to set aside the lucid restraint he’s used up until now and indulge himself in a moment of Shakespearean blood and thunder.

East is still east and west is still west but they meet here as Washizu stands presently at God’s judgement seat, and is damned to hell.

The Bad Sleep Well (1960)

Two years after he made the comic adventure story The Hidden Fortress, Akira Kurosawa came out, a much darker film. The first movie that was released by the Kurosawa Production Company, The Bad Sleep Well is such a brutal attack on the Japanese corporate elite that it makes Oliver Stone’s Wall Street look like CNN’s Money Matters. Not surprisingly, it’s had less influence on American cinema than Kurosawa’s samurai films. While the Japanese corporate elite was still vulnerable to criticism 15 years after losing the war, a remake in the United States with the same anti-capitalist bite would get shut down in a week.

Like The Godfather, The Bad Sleep Well opens with a wedding, but where Francis Ford Coppola romanticizes his gangster capitalists, Kurosawa goes right for the jugular. Vice President Iwabuchi is no courtly Vito Corleone. The family is not outside of the corporation. Quite the contrary, little does the bride Yoshiko Iwabuchi know, but the sins of her father have already been visited upon her in the form of Kōichi Nishi, her father’s secretary and husband to be played by Toshiro Mifune.

We also notice a difference between Japanese crony capitalism circa 1960 and American crony capitalism circa 2015. Where American newspapermen are part of the Ivy League upper-middle-class and, therefore, tend to protect and identity with corporate America, the journalists covering the wedding at the beginning of The Bad Sleep Well are blue collar cynics. They have no illusions that the people they’re writing about are evil, that vast amounts of taxpayer money are being funneled through the “Public Corporation” (think Halliburton) into the pockets of its senior executives. The journalists and paparazzi act as a sort of Greek chorus, filling us in on the characters and the plot. Five years earlier, the corporation’s three senior executives, Vice President Iwabuchi, Administrative Officer Moriyama, and Contract Officer Shirai had left another construction company after a bribery scandal. For awhile it looked bad, but, at the crucial moment, a mid-level executive, Assistant Chief Furuya, had jumped out of a 7th floor window, burying most of the evidence with his own death.

In other words, if Japanese crony capitalism doesn’t need an American style lapdog press, then it’s at least partly because Japanese corporate executives will commit suicide to cover up for their superiors. The Code of Bushido has been enlisted into the service of crony capitalism, graft, and the theft of public money. What’s more, as we learn later on in the movie, Kōichi Nishi is the illegitimate son of Assistant Chief Furuya. He’s married the physically handicapped Yoshiko Iwabuchi to get close to her father. Not only is Japanese capitalism deeply corrupt, the man who would bring it all down has begun his career as a revolutionary by seducing, and lying to, an emotionally vulnerable and innocent young woman. Not only is something rotten in the state of Japan. Everything’s rotten.

But Kōichi Nishi quickly gets to work. At the wedding, the police had actually gone in and arrested two men, Miura, an accountant, and Wada, a public corporation Vice President. Miura jumps in front of a truck before the police can get any real information, but Nishi rescues Wada, who had intended to kill himself by jumping into a live volcano. The corporate class of Japan in 1960s, not being samurai, but timid little men who do as they’re told, Iwabuchi, Moriyama, and Shirai all think that Wada had obeyed their orders and jumped to his death. This is exactly what Nishi needs. After the papers publish stories on Wada’s suicide, Nishi takes Wada to his own funeral. The sight of the elaborate ritual, along with a recording of Iwabuchi, Moriyama, and Shirai laughing about his death convinces Wada — who knows where all the bodies are buried —to go along with his Nishi’s plans to bring the company down.

At first it all goes according to plan. Wada, like the ghost in Hamlet, appears at strategic moments to drive Contract Officer Shirai out of his mind. Nishi, and his childhood friend, Yoshiko Nishi, from who he’s borrowed the name “Nishi” as cover, take Shirai to a bombed-out munitions factory where the two men had worked as teenagers during the war. They start to gather evidence. Then they kidnap Administrative Officer Moriyama and take him to the same bombed out factory. They lock him in a cell and refuse to feed him until he tells them where he’s hidden all the money he’s stolen from the taxpayers.

But then a terrible thing happens. Kōichi Nishi remembers he has a conscience. Kidnapping, torture, attempted murder, lying to an innocent woman, he begins to realize that he’s no better than the men he’s trying to bring down. What’s more, Vice President Iwabuchi is evil in every way but one. He loves his daughter. Nishi is not ruthless enough to bring down the Public Corporation. He makes a fatal mistake. He forgets to kill Wada, or at least guard him closely, after he’s gotten the information he needs. Wada, who has also been having attacks of conscience, can’t bear to see Yoshiko Iwabuchi lied to. So he tells her the whereabouts of her husband, and it’s the innocent young woman who betrays her husband’s whereabouts to her father. It’s as dark, and realistic, and ending as you can imagine. Corrupt, crony capitalism has proven invincible. The vast herd of innocent sheep, as embodied in Yoshiko Iwabuchi, have propped it up in the end. We don’t even get the satisfaction of seeing Vice President Iwabuchi, like King Claudius from Hamlet, a clear influence on The Bad Sleep Well, drink his own poison. The film ends with Yoshiko Nishi, the film’s Horatio, giving the angriest “goodnight sweet prince” speech ever made.

A final note: The Bad Sleep Well is a very long film with many characters and an intricate, convoluted plot. You will probably have to watch it twice. Watch it twice. Like a good novel, it takes work to get into, but, once you do, the rewards are substantial. What’s more, it’s also a master-class in black and white photography, framing, composition, and lighting. Almost every shot from The Bad Sleeps Well could be enlarged and hung up in a museum. I can’t even imagine critiquing the film’s cinematography. It’s fully the equal of anything John Ford’s ever done. And it’s not only about how the film looks. The clean, elegant, black and white setting expresses the seductive appeal of a stable, disciplined, authoritarian social order. If the plot blows the lid off corrupt, crony capitalism, then the film’s aesthetics show us exactly why the sheeple, both in Japan and the USA, will defend it so tenaciously.

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.