The Hidden Fortress

The Hidden Fortress (Kakushi toride no san akunin) (1958 Japan 139 mins)

Source: ACMI/NLA Prod Co: Toho Prod: Masumi Fujimoto, Akira Kurosawa Dir, Ed: Kurosawa Scr: Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni Phot: Kazuo Yamasaki Ed: Akira Kurosawa Art Dir: Kôhei Ezaki and Yoshirô Muraki Mus: Musaru Satô

Cast: Minoru Chiaki, Susumu Fujita, Kamatari Fujiwara, Toshiko Higuchi, Toshirô Mifune, Eiko Miyoshi, Takashi Shimura, Kichijiro Ueda, Misa Uehara

While studying another country’s film history and culture, it’s interesting for me, as an American, to take note of the many striking similarities between the development of my country’s movie industry and another’s. For example, anti-Communist and anti-unionist sentiment led to widespread and crippling strikes in Japan’s industry around the same time that the House Un-American Activities Committee was persecuting several of Hollywood’s key actors, writers and directors. More positively, however, the development, implementation and resounding success of widescreen cinema in both countries can be seen as having a significant correlation to the sharp rise of television set ownership and TV-watching. In Hollywood, the studios found themselves losing an alarming percentage of their revenue (moviegoers) to easily accessible (and free) television. While selling their vaults and archives of old movies to television worked to bring an immediate profit on properties they’d once thought had outlived their usefulness, there remained the question of self-preservation and continued revenue. The answer, it was decided, was to give moviegoers special attractions that television couldn’t provide (and, arguably, still can’t): widescreen movies, along with matching stereophonic sound systems, and the increasingly prevalent use of color cinematography. Although the domestic television set was not quite as common a sight in Japan as in the United States (eight out of every 100 Japanese homes had one by 1958) (1), the news of the smashing success of American widescreen processes like Cinerama and CinemaScope registered strongly. Also, the Japanese studios had to contend with a handicap that was (and, sadly, still is) a veritable non-issue in America: the competition brought by popular foreign pictures. These factors, coupled with the massive success of Shintoho studio’s quite literally go-for-broke widescreen epic, Emperor Meiji and the Great Russo-Japanese War (Kunio Watanabe, 1957), led to an almost total embrace and integration of the format throughout the industry, from high-profile adventure films and melodramas to low-budget schlock movies and even newsreels.

The introduction of widescreen cinematography into Akira Kurosawa’s cinema – using a process known as Toho Scope – could not be more discreet. (2) After the opening titles of The Hidden Fortress (1958), accompanied by Masaru Satô’s rich, grand and pounding score, and proudly displaying the studio’s Toho Scope logo and a small emblem for 3-channel Perspect-a-Sound, the sight of two lowly peasants wandering across an arid, windswept field, punctuated by a gnarled tree and backed by a distant mountain, may strike one as singularly anticlimactic. This is but a ruse (and, to be fair, the patiently tracking camera has its own simple poetry), for within seconds the screen bursts open and we get the first set of dynamic widescreen compositions, as a wounded samurai warrior staggers in from the bottom of the frame, facing the audience, his face broken by terror and exhaustion (he looks a bit like Toshirô Mifune’s character at the end of Throne of Blood [1957]). Pursued by soldiers on horseback, he is killed by all of them in a manner that would not look a bit out of place in a ballet, and collapses with great tragic lyricism. We return to the bewildered comic duo, Matakishi and Tahei, whose first instinct after recovering from the realization that they haven’t also been cut up by the same horsemen is to liberate the fallen samurai’s armor. But they will lose the armor almost as quickly as they acquire it. They inhabit a world in which little is stable, and in the remaining one hundred thirty-odd minutes, they will encounter what will seem like no less than two dozen near-death experiences (some without their knowledge), and nothing at all will be certain – not even our sympathy for their plight.

It is worth noting, in this regard, that audience identification and sympathy is appropriated and re-appropriated a number of times during the course of the movie, without warning, and often within the space of a few seconds. In the DVD commentary track for The Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954), critic and Japanese cinema authority Michael Jeck talks about Kurosawa’s manipulation of audience identification, asking, “Who are we in this picture, the farmers or the samurai?” (3) A similar question might be asked of The Hidden Fortress: we are aligned with the comical peasants more than anyone else – they are alone together in the opening and closing shots – but a considerable amount of time is spent in the dramatic space of a wide range of characters both major and minor. For example, the princess Yukihime (Misa Uehara) occupies center stage almost as much as General Makabe and there is a sublime moment in which we are simultaneously in the screen space of both Yukihime and the bumbling wretches, privy to exclusive knowledge of both parties. General Makabe (4), whose overpowering sexuality is never divorced from his paternal authority over Princess Yukihime, the nameless slave girl they adopt along the way (Toshiko Higuchi), and the peasants, assumes the audience’s point-of-view in the most overt way – the back of his head fills the frame as he gazes at something in the distance. Our gaze is even handed over, if briefly, to the commander of an enemy checkpoint and a sleazy inn-keeper, as they unwittingly aid or alter the fate of the central characters.

Indeed, the invisibility of these perspectival shifts has everything to do with Kurosawa’s seemingly instantaneous mastery of the ‘Scope frame. (5) Kurosawa’s camera, here operated by Kazuo Yamasaki (also the cameraman for Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths [1957]), seems a restless wanderer eager for newer and more ‘epic’ vantage points but totally in control of its own wandering. Kurosawa can be likened to Makabe in the comical prelude to his duel with friend-opponent Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita): Mifune’s veteran warrior flexes and dances with each ‘test’ spear as the camera operates as the dance partner for Kurosawa’s intricate and stylized ‘Scope compositions, obedient but passionate, never without imagination, and never like the rubber-stamp samurai pictures or American car chase melodramas with their cameras sitting idly by like passive sexual partners. While Kurosawa’s pre-‘Scope work rivals that of Howard Hawks and Orson Welles in its sheer dynamism, his long, rectangular arrangements in the ‘Scope frame drop open like trap-doors leading to skies and pastures. Busby Berkeley seems like a mere journeyman in comparison in terms of his action choreography (that is to say, ‘action’ in the sense of ‘stuff moving around’ – not restricted to fight scenes and battle sequences) and the way he moves objects around the frame, or vice-versa.

A sustained, but unnerving, sense of instability runs parallel to the film’s story as well as to its aesthetic; just as the loyalties of Matakishi and Tahei are always at risk (for example, towards the end, we come to the shocking realization that they’d made an attempt to turn over their saviors to the enemy, in a last-ditch effort to save their hides and line their pockets), so too is their ultimate survival invariably and ironically fixed to worst-case-scenario bad luck, and their own cowardice and greed. Also, their friendship is always shown at its peak just when it’s ready to break. (Their inexplicable love-hate relationship mirrors that of George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman in Voyage in Italy [Roberto Rossellini, 1953], while their reconciliation after their first break-up is a dead ringer for that film’s climactic scene.) If the movie has any shortcomings, it is simply that its method of achieving a shifting-center, character-driven narrative is eclipsed by Kurosawa’s own watermark-setting The Seven Samurai. Also, given that its politics and political resonance begins and ends in the jidai-geki and chambara genres, the film has less to say about Humanity with a capital ‘H’ than nearly every other Kurosawa picture. It is, truly, this director’s lightest work, but on the other hand I don’t think it’s too left-handed a compliment to say that it’s among his “lesser masterpieces,” for that places it on a very high plane indeed.

Works consulted

Galbraith, Stuart IV, The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune (New York and London: Faber and Faber, 2001)

Endnotes

  1. This is, of course, five years after the first American CinemaScope production, The Robe (Henry Koster, 1953), and six years after the introduction of Cinerama (with the lucrative technology-spectacle film, This is Cinerama [Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, and Michael Todd, Jr., 1952]). The change from ‘standard’ to wide format did not surprise Japanese moviegoers when Japanese studios began producing their own widescreen films, as there was already a handful of theaters converted to show ‘Scope productions from overseas, and these were very popular attractions.
  2. Developed by and thus named after his home studio, Toho. This format, like the ones developed by rival studios Toei and Shochiku, is virtually identical to America’s CinemaScope, and shares with it an aspect ratio of 2.35:1.
  3. Michael Jeck, Seven Samurai – The Criterion Collection, prod. Janus Films, DVD (Illinois: Home Vision Entertainment, 1998)
  4. Played by Mifune, in his only role for Kurosawa in which he would play a character of nobility, implacable dignity, and a little humor: the sort of qualities which we would associate with Takashi Shimura’s Kambei character in The Seven Samurai.
  5. He would only shoot five more movies in Toho Scope: The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962), High and Low (aka Heaven and Hell, 1963), and Red Beard (1965). His remaining features would either be shot full-frame, then presented in matted widescreen, or would use a different kind of anamorphic process altogether. He would not shoot a movie in color until Dodes’ka-den (1970).

About The Author

Jaime N. Christley is a New York-based critic and cinephile.