Thursday, November 1, 2018

Akira Kurosawa | 隠し砦の三悪人 (Kakushi toride no san akunin) (The Hidden Fortress)

by Douglas Messerli

Ryūzō Kikushima, Hideo Oguni,  Shinobu Hashimoto, and Akira Kurosawa (screenplay), Akira Kurosawa (director) 隠し砦の三悪人 (Kakushi toride no san akunin) (The Hidden Fortress) / 1958

If, when first watching Akira Kurosawa’s remarkable epic travelogue-adventure-comedy, The Hidden Fortress, you might think you’ve seen this all before, well just think back to the premiere of George Lucas's Star Wars, since he even admits to having been highly influenced by Kurosawa’s film. So, let’s try to forget plot, a somewhat affable tale of two would-be-warrior fools who are caught up in a battle which they never had imagined between the warrior Japanese kingdoms of the Akizuki and Yamana clans, and the friendlier Hayakawa territories.
     This is truly a story of “borders,” both social and geographigal, how to get through one to the other and another, much like the migrant travelers from Central America to the US today. The story hardly matters.
     Yes, there is a highly impudent princess of the Akizuki clan (Misa Uehara) who, hidden away in that fortress, must be moved out of harm by her loyal general Rokurota Makabe (the also loyal Kurosawa actor, Toshiro Mifune)—and, yes, he certainly enchants us with his daring sword-duels, his sweeping horse-borne salvations, etc—but it is Kurosawa’s comedic actors, Tahei and Mataschici (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) who are at the center of this tale, and whose plan to escape through the various borders that prevail, are at the center of Kurosawa’s film.
     Even Rokurota recognizes that their rude plan of escape is worthy of attention, and he uses them, with bribes of gold to help in his attempt to lead his princess out of harm. In order to do that, of course, he has to convince the imperious princess to become a mute, literally muting her own “noblewoman” voice.
     That’s all you need to know. The rest is played out in a spectacular, often comic, series of adventures in which or comic heroes are asked to climb mountains of loose rock, join in extravagant escapes, face execution, and simply run for it again and again. Like another version of Laurel & Hardy (or the Beckettian substitutes throughout his writing), Tahei and Mataschici become mere robots—which Lucas brilliantly perceived them to be—who keep the story boiling, while rushing head-long into terrifying territory, all the while trying to grab on to any money or sex—quite unsuccessfully—that might show up in their purvey.
     If these two are completely incompetent, they are also, as Rokurota perceives, survivors, or, if nothing else, talismans who, despite themselves, represent the faith of the oppressed Akizukis. Just by traveling with them Rokurota and the princess Yuki are saved. They are clumsy, dangerous, greedy, impetuous cowards, but they are also heroes in their own voyage forward, leading the general and his princess out of danger. Carrying wood, like the peasants they truly are, they bear the wealth (the gold) of a kingdom upon their backs without even knowing it.
     If they cringe and run away at the very first sign of terror, they serve as signals for the others of what they too must flee. Their simple instincts make it clear to the more removed social superiors what they to need to resist. Their stupid plots represent brilliant perceptions on how to survive.
      The hidden fortress of this film is not, in fact, the beautiful country home wherein the princess lives among the birches, but the fortress of her fellow travelers, who rush into danger without even recognizing, at times, what that entails. They are there, constantly, despite their constant attempts to escape, to protect her and her general, men who know how to cross borders better than any expert on geological frontiers.
      I was amazed on the day that President Trump ordered 5000 more soldiers to protect our already over-protected border with Mexico against what he described as an army threatening the country, I had watched this film, where two peasants knew how to escape and move into what had become enemy territory, saving a princess and her protector in the process, to claim a new heritage in a new world.

Los Angeles, November 1, 2018
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2018).    

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