Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 action adventure The Hidden Fortress belongs to a swashbuckling genre of heroic derring-do: jidaigeki. Its main innovation was to concentrate its interest on the plight of a pair of quarrelsome cowardly peasants, Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara), who, in the aftermath of a large battle, are forced to bury the dead. The largely comic figures owe their mismatched comedy not only to Laurel and Hardy, but, going further back, Pistol and Bardolph in Shakespeare’s Henriad. They quarrel over gold, they are lazy, greedy, disloyal and potential rapists, always looking to get the upper hand and only ever thinking of rectifying their ways when in danger of imminent death. ‘Let’s be kinder to each other,’ they cry, only to go back to arguing once the danger has passed.
Kurosawa’s film is a straightforward action film on one level. Tahei and Matashichi meet up with an important general (Toshiro Mifune) and a princess in disguise, Yuki Akizuki (Misa Uehara), in the hidden fortress of the title. They are lured to helping the pair by the promise of the hidden Akizuki gold, which everyone is searching for. The motley band make their way with the gold disguised as firewood through enemy territory, hunted by soldiers, and heading for the safety of their own land. Like Kurosawa’s later masterpiece Ran, The Hidden Fortress also has within it the imprecation ‘take physic pomp’, as the verities of feudal loyalty are interrogated and the princess sees through her own eyes the unfairness and cruelty of the system of which she is a leading representative and beneficiary. She is made aware of the sacrifices – including the ultimate – that others are willing to make on her behalf and sees the sufferings of those who are not as fortunate as her in the nature of their births, particularly the position of a poor peasant’s daughter who is about to be sold into slavery when she is rescued by the princess. Notions of honour break down quickly when it is obvious that what everyone is really searching for is the Akizuki gold, and therefore many of the nobles are no better than Tahei and Mataschichi, who if anything, retain at least their knockabout honesty.
For the first time Kurosawa films in the Tohoscope widescreen format, and he uses it to great effect, showing a precarious Japanese landscape full of perpendicular steepness. A slave revolt tumbles down a steep set of Odessa-like steps, and our comic duo are constantly clambering up and down the sides of the gravelly hills in their attempts to elude capture. The fortress itself is no more than a ring of steep hillocks, surrounding a small redoubt. The characters’ difficulties are occasionally liberated by scenes of wonderful actions such as Mifune’s duel with an old enemy and the fire festival, which turns from an obstacle to a moment of revelation. Apparently, a 1970s science fiction film was influenced by it as well, but there’s plenty to enjoy without recourse to that.