In Medieval Japan, an elderly warlord retires, handing over his empire to his three sons. However, he vastly underestimates how the new-found power will corrupt them and cause them to turn on each other...and him.
The story follows two greedy peasants in feudal Japan, Tahei and Matashichi, who are returning home from a failed attempt to profit from a war between neighboring clans. En Route they encounter the remnants of the defeated tribe that consists, most notably, of a famous General and a Princess who are hiding out in a fortress in the mountains. General Rokurota Makabe and Princess Yuki need to escape into allied territory with their large supply of gold so that they can rebuild their shattered clan. To do this the Peasants are tricked into helping them, with the promise that they will receive a large share of the gold when the destination is reached. Along the way, the General's prowess is put to the test as he must guide the 4, and later 5 with the inclusion of a freed slave, through close encounters with the pursuing enemy, and out of difficult situations the bumbling peasants manage to get them into. Written by
I'm not sure that it is helpful knowing that George Lucas found inspiration for his `Star Wars' films in Kurosawa's historical epic, `The Hidden Fortress' (1958). Oh, there are a number of matters of content that seem quite similar. Though Kurosawa's story takes place in sixteenth century Japan and Lucas sets his in space in the future, the basic struggles are the same-the restoration of power to a princess and her clan. Some would compare Toshiro Mifune's General Rokurota Makabe to Harrison Ford's Hans Solo in `Star Wars' (1977), though there may be more commonality shared with Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker. And the two peasant farmers, pawns in the turmoil of sixteenth century Japanese civil wars, are easily identified as precursors of the `Star Wars' droids, R2-D2 and C3PO.
However, when all is said and done, the comparisons are only superficial. It may be more constructive to note some aspects of humor and character that are utilized in general. Kurosawa has always been willing to develop exaggerated characters. The peasant farmers, with their quick shifts between cowardice, bickering , and thievery are good examples of this. Certainly the first two of these traits were incorporated in the character of C3PO (the mechanical humanoid), but R2-D2 shows none of these characteristics. There is, however, an overall sense of humor that permeates both `The Hidden Fortress' and the `Star Wars' films-as well as a strong sense of nobility in the central characters, Rokurota and Skywalker.
That said, `The Hidden Fortress' seems to me to have clearly been made by a superior filmmaker. Both are good at telling the story. The `Star Wars' films rely heavily on special effects, to the extent, I think, that these are the central features of the films. `The Hidden Fortress,' while a relatively light weight work for Kurosawa, involves much more subtle character development achieved by means of acting skill revealed through visual composition and unenhanced camera work.
This was Kurosawa's first use of Tohoscope, a Japanese widescreen process. And he uses the screen frequently to develop character. Over and over again he uses the wide screen to develop and reveal character. The peasant farmers are certainly more complex than the droids, though they are simplistically exaggerated. Kurosawa chose to explore the situation of these piteous beings, buffeted about in the feudal wars of sixteenth century Japan, in visually reinforced wide screen long shots in those final scenes on the plains.
The code of the samurai is central to an understanding of `The Seven Samurai' (1954), `Yojimbo' (1961), and `Sanjuro' (1962), and even `Rashomon' (1954). These are all great films centered around the samurai class in Japan's past. From the ninth century, samurai warriors followed a strict code of ethical behavior known as `bushido,' which remained orally transmitted for generations. Briefly it is a way of life in which the warrior's honor and purpose are tied closely to the needs of his master. In this respect, he was to be selfless. His was not to understand or concern himself with politics-only to defend with honor the family or clan he served. For such a man the ideal was to be without fear-to always move forward in his employer's interest-without fear of death-only fear of dishonor. Toshiro Mifune's character in `The Hidden Fortress' is a military general, but his devotion to the creed and to his princess can be explained relative to this code. His daring, too, extends from that. So, too, his reputation reflects that of an accomplished samurai. An especially strong scene in this regard is the duel scene in which Rokurota's skill and bravery are what are prized and respected by his opponent.
Above all, The Hidden Fortress remains a great adventure permeated with humor and nobility. While the force in the `Star Wars' sense is never mentioned, it remains a tacit part of Rokurota's nobility.
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