In feudal Japan, the Akizuki clan has suffered a catastrophic defeat to their rivals, the Yamana clan. Two peasants who fought for the clan are trying to get back home when they get roped in by a general who is trying to get the Akizuki princess through enemy territory to safety.
Broad statement about this movie: it is frigging awesome. Second broad statement: Toshiro Mifune is a badass.
This is the first time I have ever seen it, and it is a delight. It's 139 minutes long, but you never feel it. Terrifically paced, with a great sense of tension and comedy, The Hidden Fortress is one of the best action movies I have ever seen. I'm using a lot of hyperbole, but The Hidden Fortress is that good.
Misa Uehara plays the princess he has to protect, although she does not really get a lot to do. She has to play mute for a large portion of the runtime, although she does rescue a captured Akizuki girl who has been sold into slavery.
Aside from Mifune, the standout members of the cast are Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara as (respectively) the two peasants Tahei and Matashichi.
The Hidden Fortress is often highlighted as one of the key influences on the original Star Wars (1977), and you can definitely see echoes in the premise, and a few of the characters, but the similarities are fairly broad. The two peasants bear almost no resemblance to the droids -- they are both terrified of getting into scraps, and are always on the look out for get-rich-quick schemes, which inevitably blow up in their faces.
Having characters like these two as the focal point grounds the drama more than if it had just been about the general and the princess. Their characters are cooler and smarter, but they are not as immediately relatable, and Tahei and Matashichi's plight is the source of the movie's best scenes.
The tone of this movie is very hard to pin down, swinging between slapstick humour and brutal action. Kurosawa's direction is perfectly attuned to keep both of these tones in balance. He manages to juggle broad comedy while never undermining the tenor of the threat the group is under. Even as our peasant heroes stumble into trouble, the humour is always uneasy. The Yamana clan are always at their backs, and Kurosawa puts our ragtag heroes through their paces with a series of unexpected obstacles.
If you've seen it before, watch it again. If you haven't seen it yet, watch it. With its mix of comedy and drama, it is the grandfather of every buddy action movie you can think of.
Previous AFS reviews
Purple Noon (2015)
Eyes Without A Face
Night of the Demon (2016)
Tales of Hoffman
A New Leaf (2017)