The lighter side of Kurosawa

The Japanese film “The Hidden Fortress” (1958) follows two greedy peasant stooges, Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara), through their adventures in war-torn feudal Japan

The Japanese film “The Hidden Fortress” (1958) follows two greedy peasant stooges, Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara), through their adventures in war-torn feudal Japan. The two frenemies find themselves, miraculously, escapees of a prisoner-of-war camp. But the journey has just begun for the pair, as they realize that a heavily guarded border of enemies impedes their way home. Crossing the border will result in either their death or enslavement. The duo instead opt for their only alternative: to hang out in director Akira Kurosawa’s peculiarly vivid rocky and arid setting and wait until it is safer to cross. Along the way, the pair finds a few gold pieces and General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) overhears the two bickering greedily over the method by which they will split the gold. Taking advantage of the peasants’ greed, Makabe bribes them to help him transport a woman, secretly Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), through enemy territory. Unbeknownst to the peasants, the general and princess wish to use the gold not to pay the duo, but to rebuild the princess’ fallen empire.

The film’s wide frames, party of unsuspecting characters and landscape might look familiar. George Lucas explained that “The Hidden Fortress” was an inspiration for the celebrated “Star Wars” films.

All things considered, “The Hidden Fortress” is a fairytale. There is an enemy, a handsome hero, a captive, a beautiful princess and two jesters. Kurosawa takes particular advantage of the jovial genre of the fairytale, giving the serious plot of “The Hidden Fortress” an overall comical and histrionic style. Yet despite the humor, Kamatari’s slapstick story does not show disregard for the serious. The melodramatic scenes of slavery, lust and the occasional bloody samurai through a comical lens only reiterate the misery of desperate times of war. Notwithstanding the comical mannerisms of the characters, the violent message of the film continues to disturb. Alas, when comedy cannot vindicate war from misery, nothing can.

The film is also interesting in its ability to stray from original character depictions, putting a strain on stereotypes. As the story is told from the perspective of the lowly, ravenous peasants, “The Hidden Fortress” gives heroic connotations to the most unlikely, but definitely not least deserving, of characters. The princess too is a surprising character. Although she seldom speaks in the story, Yuki shows great honor, bravery and resilience in her pursuit of freedom. This portrayal hardly depicts the American damsel tied to train tracks. Yuki meets, and sometimes even exceeds, the bravery of the men throughout the plot, giving a strong voice to women. Not only do the characters of Kurosawa’s film elude usual expectations, but the setting is a surprising one as well. The dry and rocky landscapes, met with the occasional shrub, are more moonlike than anything else.

Kurosawa’s is a beautifully executed film. To the shallow eye, “The Hidden Fortress” might seem like a simple show. Upon further inspection, a closer look at the archetypes of the characters and the juxtaposition between humor and violence illuminates the richness of “The Hidden Fortress” and its prowess in portraying various interpretations of the human psyche, the power of violence and the value of the underrepresented. ?