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The Hidden Fortress (1958).

November 6, 2009

The Scoop:
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before – a grizzled warrior must help a feisty princess escape from the clutches of an evil empire, with the help of a pair of bumbling accomplices who prove to be heroic in spite of themselves.

That’s the plot of Akira Kurosawa’s wonderful “The Hidden Fortress.” But throw in a naïve farm boy, an amoral smuggler and a Wookiee and you’ve got seed for Obi-Wan Kenobi’s rescue of Princess Leia from the Death Star in “Star Wars.” George Lucas has famously cited “The Hidden Fortress” as the inspiration for his first “Star Wars” story, from which the rest of his complicated universe sprang.

Besides the spine of the plot, several other details were borrowed by Lucas, especially the early scenes introducing bickering peasant buddies Tahei and Matakishi, which resurfaced in R2-D2 and C-3PO’s adventures on Tatooine.

But while it’s fun to play “spot the inspiration,” it’s a mistake to judge “The Hidden Fortress” solely in the light of “Star Wars.” It’s another rousing samurai adventure from Kurosawa that more than stands on its own.

Toshiro Mifune is incredible as always as Makabe, the wise, battle weary general who must protect tomboyish teenage Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) and her kingdom’s stash of gold, then smuggle them to safety in neighboring Hayawaka. Their native land of Azikuzi has been overrun by armies from Yamana, but once in Hayakawa, Yuki will be able to use the told to rebuild her army and take back her lands.

They find their ticket out with appearance of Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matakishi (Kamatari Fujiwara), who just want to escape from the war and return to their homes in Hayakawa. Thanks to their unwitting assistance, the foursome is able to stay one step ahead of the pursuing Yamana soldiers, but not without plenty of hardship and comic relief on the way.

This isn’t Kurosawa’s best samurai epic, nor is it one of the first that springs to mind when thinking about his classics – but don’t consider that an insult. “The Hidden Fortress” easily stands alongside the likes of “The Seven Samurai,” “Yojimbo” or “Rashomon.” But if it doesn’t quite reach their heights, it’s still better than most other action/adventure fare from lesser directors. Kurosawa was one of the masters of cinema; we’d expect nothing less from him.

Best Bit:
The escape on horseback.

Side Note:
It wouldn’t be a Kurosawa samurai classic without Mifune — the two made 16 films together in a 17 year stretch from 1948 to 1965.

Companion Viewing:
“Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope” (1977) and “The Seven Samurai” (1954).


Take a Look:
The Japanese trailer:

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