By William Benker
The Hidden Fortress – 1958 – dir. Akira Kurosawa
Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress stands apart from most of his feudal Japan films, primarily due to the near complete absence of war and swordplay. While the usual mix of steel, flames and water are still present within the film, Hidden Fortress carefully selects the elements Kurosawa wishes to focus on. The common element that reveals its importance in scene after scene, portrayed in various forms, is wood. On a quest to smuggle a princess outside enemy lines, samurai general Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) must drag along two greedy peasants to help carry the bounty meant to rebuild the remains of their fallen country.
Once again Kurosawa creates a decadent landscape for Hidden Fortress to unravel upon, but this time around he meticulously examines select items to admonish in 16th century simplicity. When two peasants stumble upon a piece of Akizuki gold hidden within a stick, their ambitions are consumed by the idea of more treasure. Mifune, protector of the princess and keeper of the massive mound of gold laden sticks, uses the peasants’ greed to aid their escape. From there the physical transformation of the gold gives way to a more intimate message regarding treasure and its wooden disguise. The wood camouflages the Akizuki treasure, yet simultaneously reveals itself as a precious commodity as is. While they haul the mountainous cargo of sticks on their back, they are able to assume the roles of everyman, allowing all other signs of power to be disguised simply as men in need of fire wood. When the peasants try to escape with the gold (one of many attempts,) to a nearby fire ceremony, they desperately cling to the wood as Mifune fearlessly drives the wagon into flames to avoid suspicion. Later on, Mifune carefully examines the integrity of a wooden spear to use in an upcoming battle. Kurosawa goes to many lengths to illustrate the symbolic nature of the wood and its integrated relationship with man.
The peasants rigorously sift through the ashes to retrieve the gold and Kurosawa continues his critique on the lower class. The two commoners are driven entirely by greed and the hope of an instant solution to all their problems with a simple fortune. Their roles provide a stark imagining of society then and now by the wearisome masses in the middle of a waging war. Constantly the two quickly turn against one another for a larger share of the gold. Then Mifune again assumes responsibility of revealing their empty greed as a means of surprise. Mifune falsely demands a reward for “finding” a piece of Akizuki gold, causing the guards to force them past the enemy borders. A then universal knowledge of commoner’s lust for fortune makes them an easy target to sweep under the rug. The guards have no interest in the undercover samurai general.
By Kurosawa’s swift eye for metaphor he allows the objective education to reveal itself through Princess Yuki. Pretending to be a deaf-mute, the sharp Princess witnesses the greed of the peasants and the petty disputes they create for themselves. Yuki watches a prostitution ring advance in the village, forcing Mifune to buy the poor impoverished girl. “Your kindness will harm you,” he says, delivering tactical advice for a more ambivalent political leader. Her duel nature reveals itself in her interest as a normal citizen rather than her daunting role of royalty and power. In the face of political persecution she admits she was able to see the problematic quarrels of the unknown masses in the incredible separation between one societal class and another.
Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress paints a scenic landscape that reveals all too poetically the nature of class, politics, greed, and even military chivalry. Throughout the film the audience is given an allegorical philosophy of society’s struggles that continue to echo into the present. It is through a silent political presence resting within the animalistic hunger for fortune amongst the lower class and a strategic display of unforeseen wars bridging the borders of the state that illustrate the message. While witness to the evils of slavery and the power of revolt, the audience is given one of the greatest horse chases in all of cinema. The film is a fun exploration into the nature of greed and its many incantations. Hidden Fortress is another Kurosawa masterpiece that educates his audience in the constant struggles of society by a symbolic philosophy to perceive the world outside the theater.