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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 13.04%
Average: 4.35%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 4.35%

2 reviews, 11 user ratings

Hidden Fortress, The
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by Jay Seaver

"One of the greatest, and funniest, adventure movies ever made."
5 stars

Let's get right down to it: Akira Kurosawa's "The Hidden Fortress" is one of the greatest adventure movies of all time. It's got a chiseled hero, a strong-willed tomboy of a princess, and a pair of disreputable sidekicks; there are are swordfights and secret passages; thrills and laughs. It's not the first to do all these things, but it distilled the formula to perfection, and anyone who shies away from it because it's a fifty-year-old black-and-white Japanese period piece doesn't deserve the films it influenced.

It doesn't start with the hero, though, but a pair of peasants, tall Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and diminutive Matakishi (Kamatari Fujiwara); they left their homes to seek fortunes in war, but by the time they got there, the Yamana clan had already routed the Akisukis; only one princess is rumored to survive, although the royal treasury is still missing. Tahei and Matakishi stumble upon a piece of that, and are soon enlisted by General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) to help recover the rest, carrying it and the spirited Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) into exile. Of course, the entire Yamana army is after them, and the peasants are only as loyal as their greed.

There have been dozens of adventure movies along these lines; what makes The Hidden Fortress somewhat unique is not so much the flawless execution as the point of view. Most movies would start with the samurai, or the princess; this one spends the first twenty minutes or so following Tahei and Matakishi as they stumble from one misadventure to another, bickering and generally showing themselves to be no heroes, though charismatic underdogs in their own way. When they finally do stumble across Makabe, he comes across less as the hero of the piece but as a bigger, stronger version of them, and even as Kurosawa gives him more scenes with Yuki that establish him as a noble, righteous samurai, we can't help but see him as the guy who's kind of a jerk to Tahei and Matakishi.

That shifted perspective is why, perhaps even more than for its swashbuckling adventure, the biggest impression The Hidden Fortress makes is in how funny it is. Chiaki and Fujiwara with their bickering, insults, and each thinking (correctly) that the other is an idiot, are a classic Japanese comedy team. Mifune and Uehara don't play parodies of their archetypes, but there's a bit of a wink to the audience: Even though the situation is dire, there's a sense that Makabe is having a certain amount of fun at the peasants' expense.

That's a deceptively tricky note to hit, because Makabe is a classic hero, completely loyal but also cunning. It's the kind of role that takes a movie star with Mifune's charisma, who can go from fierce to funny in moments. Uehara is also a ton of fun, a bolt of coiled energy ready to strike at any moment, but also a perfect sort of activist princess (and not just because Kurosawa makes sure that dirt never seems to stick to her while Tahei and Matashiki never get fully clean no matter what sort of ponds or streams they get dropped in); sheltered and sure of her place but also compassionate, and capable of great displays of simple joy. Chiaki and Fujiwara play their part a bit broadly, but not quite as broad as comedy sidekicks often are; they do dial it down half a notch since they are the guys that the camera is focusing on most of the time. Susumu Fujita is just serious enough as the opposing general (an old friend of Makabe's) to keep tension up without forcing things to get too serious.

That's good, because The Hidden Fortress isn't just a comic inversion of an adventure movie, but an enjoyable swashbuckler in its own right. Yes, some of Kurosawa's epic battle scenes will turn funny as they rush past the cowering Tahei and Matashiki, leaving them unharmed and confused, but the Yamana army is big and competent enough to be a concern, and there are a couple of thoroughly great set pieces, two of them right back-to-back: A fight and chase that is fun for the kind of foregone conclusion it is (Toshiro Mifune gets hold of a sword and a horse and pursues his enemies with a berserker scream; opposing samurai stand no chance), and then a long duel between Makabe and General Hyoe that is just as much fun for how evenly-matched they are.

In recent conversations where I recommended people take in the local rep theater's Kurosawa series even if they aren't usually into foreign/period/monochrome, one thing I tried to stress is that it's almost unfortunate that Kurosawa has become known for his artistry and sophistication, because it often pre-empts discussion of what a lot of FUN his films can be. "The Hidden Fortress" is the work of a master, yes, but it's also a sheer delight to watch, a funny, fast-moving adventure.

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originally posted: 04/15/10 08:53:16
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User Comments

5/26/09 futurestar his venture into the big screen also introduced a new tactic - humor 5 stars
6/09/05 Agent Sands The inspiration for Star Wars, and still better than any of the 6 Star Wars movies. 5 stars
11/26/04 alien assassin this is absolutely divine...if you find this boring, get a brain transplant !!! 5 stars
4/07/04 ELO Bleh. Not Kurosawa's best. Kinda cornball and wears out it's welcome. 3 stars
12/18/03 Mark Saucier brilliant 4 stars
7/29/03 DM Really good, but Kurosawa's done better 5 stars
4/29/02 The Bomb 69 change my rating, comparing to his other films not fair, still better than 99% of all else 5 stars
4/29/02 The Bomb69 very solid, but not as good as Ran, Seven Samurai 4 stars
11/02/01 Yuri Eediott (just shut up and at least watch the movie) You're an idiot, critic, they weren't going home, they were going to friendlier territory. 4 stars
7/27/01 SJ Lumpenprole simply amazing plot construction - the first 30 minutes of SW is a decent imitation of this 5 stars
5/26/00 kelly boaring 1 stars
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  02-Feb-1962 (PG)

  02-Feb-1962 (PG)

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