Known in English as The Hidden Fortress, though the literal translation is The Three Villains of the Hidden Fortress. One of Akira Kurosawa’s finest samurai films.
I’ve made it a blog tradition that, every year on my birthday, I review a film featuring someone who shares the same birthdate as me, January 8. So, over the years, I’ve reviewed films starring Nanda, Fearless Nadia, Elvis Presley and José Ferrer, among others. This year, I decided it was time for a change. Two changes, actually. For one, the film I’m reviewing is neither in English nor in Hindi: it’s Japanese. And, the person who shares my birthday in this case—Japanese actor Susumu Fujita—isn’t one of the leads. In fact, he doesn’t even appear in the film till the second half. But he is there in The Hidden Fortress, and he’s a good actor. Plus, even though his role here is fairly small, it’s a critical one. Enough reason.
The story begins in medieval war-torn Japan. The Yamana and Akizuki clans have been at war, and the Yamanas have won a resounding and bloody victory. The Akizuki clan has been decimated, and the countryside is awash in blood. Much of this we gather in the first scene, from snatches of sometimes desperate-to-the-point-of-hysterical dialogue between old friends and fellow peasants Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) and Tahei (Minoru Chiaki).
These two characters have had a hard time. They gave up farming to go into battle, but arrived too late to actually fight (and share in the spoils, which I suspect was their main aim in joining in the first place). When they arrived, instead, they were pressed into service burying the dead, until both of them stink of death. They’re racing now, trying to shake off that stench and those memories and get back home.
Only, a sudden reminder of the war comes their way. A passing samurai comes running, chased by a small band of Yamana warriors, who cut him down before the terrified eyes of the two peasants. The Yamanas gallop off as swiftly as they’d come, and Tahei is eager to go, too. He’s had enough of death. Matashichi would rather linger and strip the dead samurai of armour and weapons—something, at least, of value—so they part ways, with some name-calling on either side.
They part only briefly, though, and are both caught shortly after by separate contingents of Yamana warriors. In the while they’ve been apart, Matashichi has made an interesting discovery: walking through a village, he’s seen a proclamation nailed up by the Yamana authorities. The sole surviving member of the Akizuki clan, Princess Yuki, has escaped, and the Yamana are offering a reward of ten pieces of gold for anybody who turns her in. Or three pieces of gold for anyone who can provide information about her whereabouts.
Matashichi—and Tahei, when the two finally meet again (in the aftermath of a rather dramatic stampede, reminiscent of the Odessa Steps scene)—don’t, of course, know anything of where the princess is. They’ve had enough of war, anyway, and are anxious to go home. So, having stolen a sack of rice and a cooking pot along the way, they flee…
…and, when they stop for a rest and to cook the rice, they make a momentous and exciting discovery: one of the sticks they’ve been using for firewood has a long strip of solid gold embedded in it. Matashichi has a closer look and realizes the gold’s not just any gold: it bears an insignia, a crescent—which, as they both know, is the emblem of the Akizuki clan.
There’s some maddened scrambling, as Matashichi and Tahei race off in different directions, looking through all the driftwood they can find to see if there isn’t any more gold floating about. They do strike gold after a while, but only one piece. A shameful brawl breaks out about how to divide up the spoils, and they’ve only just managed to agree that a piece of gold each seems fair, when they notice they’re not alone. Watching them from not too far is a rather forbidding-looking man (an old favourite of mine: Toshirô Mifune).
The two peasants can’t figure out who this is; a bandit? But no; a bandit would bear a sword, and this one obviously carries no sword. But whoever he is, he looks menacing, so Matashichi and Tahei hurry on, trying to shake the man off. He follows them, though he keeps his distance.
Until later that day, when the two men sit down (having finally decided that they’ve shaken off their pursuer). Just as they’ve got a fire going, the man turns up again, and calmly makes himself at home, poking the fire and meeting the two peasants’ startled gazes with a curt indifference. They try bluster, and he glares them down. They try civility, and he nods in response. It’s apparent, even to Matashichi and Tahei, that this man is no peasant; he’s definitely someone more used to command, but what he is, they aren’t quite sure.
Anyway, they settle down beside him at the fire. When he asks them about themselves, they tell him they’re headed home, to Hayakawa. The man is taken aback, even suspicious. Hayakawa? But they’re en route to Akizuki’s border to Yamana, which is absolutely the other direction.
Tahei then draws a rough diagram to explain the smart tactic these two peasants have thought up. Here, south of Akizuki, is Hayakawa; and here, east of both Hayakawa and Akizuki, and sharing borders with both those territories, is Yamana.
Now, because of Yamana’s recent defeat of Akizuki, Yamana soldiers swarm all across the Akizuki-Hayakawa border; trying to pass through there is inviting trouble. On the other hand, the Akizuki-Yamana border is far less closely guarded, Yamana’s logic being that people fleeing Akizuki will hardly want to venture into enemy territory. So Matashichi and Tahei’s plan is to cross into Yamana, make their way through Yamana till they reach the Yamana-Hayakawa border, and then cross that border.
The man looks thoughtful at that. He ends up walking on with the two peasants, and they go on wondering who he is. Finally, they ask him.
The man’s answer—“Rokurota Makabe”—makes Matashichi and Tahei guffaw. Rokurota Makabe! Everybody knows that Makabe is the great samurai general of the Akizuki clan; he’s no derelict vagabond like this one is. ‘Rokurota Makabe’ joins in the laughter, too, and laughs louder than his two companions.
But he leads them on, into a tiny hidden canyon where there stands a small, deserted house. “The hidden fortress,” the two peasants decide. Yes, they’ve heard about this. It’s legendary. But why has the boss (they’ve already dubbed ‘Rokurota Makabe’ that, evidence enough of the half-fear, half-awe they feel for the man) brought them here?
After he leads them through a tunnel and to a spring nearby, the truth emerges: the ‘boss’ tells Matashichi and Tahei that there are 200 pieces of gold hidden in the vicinity. Will they help him find the gold and carry it across to Hayakawa, using the route they’d suggested?
Matashichi and Tahei are, of course, more than ready. They’ll split the gold three ways, right? They don’t even wait for the boss to agree; they jump to the task of digging up the ground in front of the hidden fortress immediately. It’s hot, dusty, tiring work, but the thought of all that gold which will be theirs keeps Matashichi and Tahei going. The boss leaves them to the work and disappears, but his two minions, besides cribbing a bit, don’t bother. They’re too busy digging.
They leer at her and try to follow, but the girl’s more than a match for these two bedraggled would-be Lotharios: she draws a switch and manages to evade them—just as the ‘boss’ steps out of nowhere and stops Matashichi and Tahei.
The upshot of this is that the two peasants are given to understand that the boss has his eye on this girl, so they’re to keep their distance. The girl herself says nothing, and Matashichi and Tahei don’t have the guts to challenge the boss. They go back…
…and the point of view, for the first time in the film, changes from that of the two peasants to another.
The ‘boss’ follows the course of the spring, beyond a waterfall, and into a large cave. He kneels at the entrance, we hear a voice say, “It’s Rokurota Makabe,”—followed by “Enter.”
So the boss actually is—as he had said—the samurai general of the Akizuki clan. He now enters the cave, to greet the people there: an old Akizuki general (another Kurosawa favourite, and a favourite of mine: Takashi Shimura); an old lady-in-waiting, and Princess Yuki, who is the girl Matashichi and Tahei had seen at the spring.
A brief conversation ensues, in which Rokurota informs the others—in a stern but otherwise emotionless voice—that Kofuyu has done her duty. (Earlier, Matashichi and Tahei had learned that Princess Yuki had been caught and beheaded; they had told the ‘boss’ this, and that’s the news he’s now passing on. Only, unlike the peasants, he knows that it wasn’t Yuki who was executed).
The others take this piece of news in their stride; it’s obviously something they were expecting. Princess Yuki, however, gets to her feet and storms at Makabe: his own sister, and he is so dispassionate about her death? Kofuyu was only sixteen, the same age as Yuki, and she has been sacrificed to save Yuki’s life (Yuki, it appears, had not known of this plan), and Makabe feels no pain, no remorse? She is furious, but you can also see, in the way she paces about—like a caged predator—in the cave, that she knows she is powerless. She’s only a girl, after all, and yet the weight of resurrecting the Akizuki power rests on her shoulders. She still hasn’t become a politician; she’s still raw, an emotional teenager who can’t stop her feelings from bursting forth.
And, despite Rokurota Makabe’s poker face, you can see a glimmer of anguish in his eyes. It’s not as if he does not mourn his dead sister; he does, deep down, but he dare not show it, because that would be a betrayal of his loyalty for Akizuki and for the princess.
But they move on; the situation is too urgent, too much a matter of life and death, to allow feelings to get in the way. Makabe quickly outlines the plan for the benefit of the others. They’ll have to take Matashichi and Tahei along, of course; it’s impossible for just Makabe and Princess Yuki to carry all that gold by themselves.
So begins the adventure: Matashichi and Tahei are roped into carrying 200 pieces of gold, along with the ‘boss’ (whose real identity they still haven’t even guessed at) and the girl they think is his mute girlfriend. There are lots of adventures along the way, what with the Yamana’s menacing presence always looming, and with the fear that the gold will be lost—or, worse, Princess Yuki and Rokurota Makabe will be recognized.
And where does Susumu Fujita—the man who has his birth anniversary today—figure in all of this? He plays a small but critical role as a Yamana general, Hyoe Tadokoro. The general, though an adversary of Makabe’s, has a good deal of respect for the Akizuki general (and vice-versa), and this mutual respect forms a pivotal aspect of the story.
What I liked about this film:
The overall tale. You can read all sorts of messages into the story of The Hidden Fortress. There is the theme of greed, for instance: Matashichi and Tahei, so eager for gold that they’re willing to do anything—even nearly get killed—for it.
And kindness. Princess Yuki’s kindness, revealed in her distress when she hears of Kofuyu being executed in her stead. Revealed, too, in Yuki’s later insistence on rescuing someone she sees in dire straits. And kindness, though subtler, more gruff—in Makabe’s treatment of a fallen enemy.
There is more. Gratitude, for instance, and what it can lead to. Respect. Loyalty. A ruler’s obligations towards his or her subjects (loyalty works both ways?)
Ultimately, though, The Hidden Fortress is a good old-fashioned adventure. Once you know Makabe’s mission, it’s a fine, suspenseful ride: will he be able to make it, princess and gold and all, safely into Hayakawa? Or will the Yamana stop him? Will the two peasants’ bumbling and greed take them all down?
What I didn’t like:
Nothing, really. It did seem to me as if Misa Uehara’s dialogue delivery was a little too over-the-top when it came to her acting annoyed (which, I thought, was echoed in her movements, too: an exaggerated swagger). But then, I don’t understand Japanese, so maybe it’s just a case of the language barrier.
Little bit of trivia:
Or, actually, big bit of trivia. The Hidden Fortress was a major inspiration for George Lucas’s Star Wars. There is, of course, the motif of the war going on, and the princess trying to keep afloat with the help of her well-wishers; more importantly, there’s the whole matter of perspective: The Hidden Fortress is largely from the point of view of the two peasants who get caught up in something they are certainly not prepared for. And in Star Wars, it’s C3PO and R2D2, the two droids who play a major part in the proceedings but who really don’t control anything—not even their own fates (if droids can be said to have fates).
Interestingly, a lot of the landscape of The Hidden Fortress—stark, dusty, forbidding—is also very reminiscent of that of Star Wars.
This is a good, solid entertainer. Fun, thrilling, swashbuckling (including a good duel with spears), even with a suspenseful song-and-dance (no, nothing like Bollywood, but still). And it has Kurosawa’s deftness, his sense of humour, his brilliance as a storyteller. All boxes ticked.