You’re wrong . . . I have enjoyed the journey. The happiness of these days I would have never known living in the castle. I’ve seen people as they are, without pretense. I’ve seen their beauty and their ugliness with my own eyes . . . I thank you.
So, prior to finally catching up with this film, I’d seen seven Kurosawa films (Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Lower Depths, Yojimbo, High & Low and Kagemusha) and I had rated them all four stars, which has got to be the best average of any film director I’ve seen more than a couple by. Hitchcock, Scorsese, Spielberg, Hawks . . . well, they’ve all had films rated below four stars, sometimes substantially. But my track record on Kurosawa was flawless, really; the director hadn’t put a foot wrong. There will, of course, be great weeping and wailing when I eventually get to a Kurosawa film that breaks the streak, even if it’s just a half-star downgrade. But that time has not come yet; spoilers: The Hidden Fortress is a masterpiece.
It’s a straight-forward action-adventure tale; a samurai must transport a fugitive princess through enemy territory. But it’s the flourishes Kurosawa puts on the story that make it really sing. For one thing, the main characters are actually a couple of luckless beggars that get sucked into this adventure by pure greed. Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara are brilliant in these roles. Every time the story starts to get too thick, one or the other of them will take the piss right out of it, by mugging hilariously at the camera. Also really excellent is Toshiro Mifune, doing a fairly shallow but still incredibly entertaining and compelling riff on his usual character in these films, as the stalwart general. Misa Uehara is equally good as the headstrong princess; again, a stock character, but she makes it her own and the film ultimately becomes about her journey to maturity as much as it’s about anything, her encounters with real life and the way she’s able to ultimately come to peace with both life and death, whichever may come her way. It’s a layered performance and Uehara is flawless.
The film is brilliant, no question. The exploration of the characters, the drive of the story, the comparatively subtle social commentary . . . all of these things blend together to create a great action adventure. Kurosawa knows how to knock you out with his visuals too; this was his first film in widescreen, but he has the assurance of a master. There’s a knock-out sequence when Mifune’s samurai general encounters another general, an old friend who just happens to be working for the other side. Their duel with lances is a real cinematic masterpiece, going for several minutes, shot very creatively and never losing the edge of your seat tension and the pure joy of watching three masters wield their weapons; the samurais wield their lances – Kurosawa wields the camera. The climax of the film is an exhilarating action sequence. And a scene at a wild fire ceremony is pure joy and exuberance, our adventurers being forced to join in a Bacchanalian scene of wild, abandoned dancing. I guess enough is enough. Kurosawa continues to unfold wondrously; luckily, I have many films left I need to see (Sanshiro Sugata Parts 1 & 2, Ikiru, Stray Dog, Ran, Red Beard, Dersu Uzala . . . at the VERY LEAST, I need to see those). For now, the streak continues. 4 stars.
tl;dr – bracing action adventure features sharp writing, great characters/performances and, of course, a propulsive, thrilling energy with several brilliant adventure sequences. 4 stars.