When Star Wars fans start researching the movie’s origins, one of the first things they discover is that George Lucas was heavily influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 adventure The Hidden Fortress, which involves a princess whose kingdom has been destroyed, a dashing rogue who’s trying to protect her, and two bumbling idiots—one tall, one short. To some extent, the similarity between the films has been exaggerated, even by Lucas himself; he’s credited the two peasants as the model for C-3PO and R2-D2, for example, but the same basic dynamic can be found in Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, etc. There’s no Luke Skywalker equivalent in Hidden Fortress, and the dashing rogue’s motives are far more noble than Han Solo’s. Formally, all Lucas borrowed from Kurosawa were his frequent horizontal wipes. Nonetheless, the association is beneficial, because The Hidden Fortress is one of the best possible gateways into foreign films. It isn’t Kurosawa’s best picture, by any means, but it’s almost certainly his most fun.
One of its innovations was to tell its story primarily from the point of view of its least important characters—guys who are not only a long way from heroic, but often actively ignoble. After arriving too late to fight in the war between rival clans (the action takes place in the 16th century), Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) start trying to make their way home through hostile territory, but happen to find a thin bar of gold hidden inside what looks like an ordinary stick. Realizing that they’ve stumbled upon the defeated clan’s treasure, they search for the rest of it, eventually joining forces with a gruff warrior (the great Toshirô Mifune) who, unbeknownst to them, is the renowned General Rokurota Makabe, commander of the losing side. Makabe recognizes that these peasants have figured out a clever way of avoiding the checkpoints between territories, so he agrees to share the gold with them, taking them to a fortress hidden deep in a mountain range, where Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) is hiding. They can only rest there for so long, however, and the long journey to safety proves treacherous indeed.
Much of the treachery, however, comes courtesy of Tahei and Matashichi themselves, who are among the most hilariously clueless figures in Japanese cinema. On several occasions, they attempt to abscond with all of the gold, which the group starts out carrying as large bundles of sticks strapped to their backs, then transfers to an enormous cart. They’re also not above trying to sleep with the dreaming Princess Yuki when Makabe isn’t around, drawing straws to determine which of them will try first; only the fierce loyalty of a rescued slave (Toshiko Higuchi), who stands guard over the princess holding a large boulder, prevents them from turning irredeemable. That these two clowns eventually learn the value of humility and generosity is a bit contrived and sentimental, but it’s great fun watching the taciturn Makabe all but roll his eyes at their constant stupidity, even as he improvises solutions to the problems they create. The movie’s high point sees the group, initially minus Makabe, try to hide in plain sight by joining a crowd heading to a fire festival, not realizing that refusing to throw their wood into the fire will instantly reveal them as the “thieves” for which authorities are frantically looking. Makabe rescues them in the only way possible, which also allows Kurosawa to show off his customary genius at shooting huge masses of people.
The Hidden Fortress was the first movie Kurosawa shot in anamorphic widescreen (one tends to think of Seven Samurai, made four years earlier, as an epic canvas, but it’s actually as squarish as Citizen Kane), and Criterion’s new Blu-ray upgrade does more justice to his dynamic compositions. Much of the film’s first half takes place in or around the hidden fortress, which is surrounded on all sides by massive hills covered in loose rock; numerous shots depict human beings (especially the two peasants) as tiny figures dwarfed by an unforgiving and impassive landscape that represents the indifference of nature. That’s about as highfalutin as this movie gets, though—uniquely among Kurosawa’s oeuvre, it’s pure entertainment, pausing for breath only during a crucial scene in which Princess Yuki sings a Buddhist hymn at a moment of apparent utter defeat. Compared to the aggressive hyperactivity of, say, a Michael Bay flick, The Hidden Fortress is downright leisurely (and at well over two hours, it’s in no hurry), but a Star Wars fanatic who might not otherwise have given a Japanese movie a chance is better off starting here than with Ugetsu or Late Spring, or even with Rashômon or Yojimbo. Start ’em off easy, and let ’em work their way along.