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The Hidden Fortress, Star Wars Connection
8 May 2001
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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Kagemusha (1980)
The Dimension of Self
5 May 2001
Akira Kurosawa's `Kagemusha' (1980) is one of my favorite films, and has great resonance for me. I empathize deeply with this thief who assumes the position of double for a very important warlord - a role that reaches epic dimensions as this `shadow warrior' eventually loses his own identity, becoming a sacrificial figure in the demise of one of Japan's great sixteenth century clans.

Kurosawa's `Rashomon' (1950) explored the nature of perspective, truth, and reality, and may have resonated with the Japanese people of the decade in which it had been made - a time of recovery from the devastating defeat in World War II, and the wrenching pain associated with the failure of traditional Japanese moral, ethical and social values. `Rashomon' raised the specter of individuality at its most basic level - within the human psyche. Thirty years later much has changed in Japan, and Kurosawa was reaching the end of his career. `Red Beard' (1965) marked the end of a most important part of the director's creative production. Though critically acclaimed, he had to fight harder and harder for funding for each new project. Discouraged with 20th Century Fox, with whom he had agreed to work as director of the Japanese sequences for `Tora! Tora! Tora!' (1965), he dropped out of the project. A production company he had formed with three other prominent Japanese directors (The Four Musketeers: Keisuke Kinoshita, Musaki Kobayashi, Kon Ichikawa, and Kurosawa) produced but one film, Kurosawa's `Dodeskaden' (1970), a box office failure. Kurosawa even failed with an attempted suicide.

At the invitation of Mosfilm following and during his recovery, he made his only non-Japanese film, `Dersu Uzala', which was released in 1974. There followed another long period of inactivity before American directors, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, long time admirers, helped secure funding for `Kagemusha' as a joint project of Toho Films and 20th Century Fox which was released in Kurosawa's 70th year. Once again he depicts the suppression of the individual to the social order. Once again he explores these old values being replaced-but this time the view is nostalgic.

He chose an historical subject - the great battle of Nagashino in May of 1575 in which the forces of Shingen Takeda were annihilated by the coalition armies of Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu. It was a period in Japanese history when all three warlords were vying for control of the old Japanese capital of Kyoto. Shingen had been legendary in battle, carrying banners with the legend, `Swift as the wind, quiet as the forest, fierce as fire, and immovable as a mountain.' (These four attributes are represented in the diamond shape of the Takeda banner, which is in turn composed of four diamonds). But the Nobunaga-Ieyasu forces used muskets on a large scale, and the result was a catastrophic loss for the Takeda clan.

`Kagemusha' opens with a long shot of Shingen flanked to his right by his brother, Nobukado Takeda, with the thief to his left in the foreground. We see that Nobukado has enough resemblance to Shingen that he has served from time to time as his `kagemusha' (double, or shadow). Recently he had discovered a common thief who was about to be executed (Curiously, the subtitle translation is `crucified', a Christian term that I doubt is in the original. Christian references of this nature are used in the subtitle translations later with a reference to a `cross he has to bear'.). Nobukado is struck by the uncanny resemblance between the thief and Shingen, and he has brought him, bound, to be interviewed. The entire sequence, which takes several minutes, is done entirely in a single take. Here is a place where the impact is lost in television, particularly in the commercial VHS copy which crops off part of the brother's image.

The thief is a proud man-demonstrating a strong sense of personal honor despite being a criminal. Shingen, who is duly impressed with the likeness, is disappointed to find it in one who is such a crooked reprobate as to deserve execution. The thief scoffs at this, pointing out that while he has stolen for a petty subsistence, Shingen has been responsible for the deaths of thousands in his military campaigns. Along side the crimes of the warlords, he proclaims, his petty thievery is meaningless. This act of defiance impresses Shingen, who nonetheless, excuses his own excesses as necessary to bring about a unified Japan. The thief is trained as a kagemusha, and the story unfolds.

Some have suggested that `Kagemusha' would have been a better film if Kurosawa had once again turned to Toshiro Mifune for the part of the thief. Instead he chose Tatsuya Nakadai, who had been for a time Mifune's chief rival as a samurai film star, and had even appeared in several films with him (notably `The Seven Samurai,' `Yojimbo,' and `Sanjuro.' Nakadai had been associated strongly with Musaki Kobayashi, and actually came to this role after Kurosawa's initial choice, Shitarô Katsu had to drop out.). But I do not find fault with the selection. Mifune, with his powerful screen presence, might have taken over the film. `Kagemusha' is about a man who loses himself to the power of another. Nakadai, for me, gives a very moving and sensitive performance. Those final scenes are unforgettable, not only for the devastating impact of fire arms on an army of medieval weapons, but for Nakadai's haunting transformation.
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Carmen (I) (1983)
Superb, but very much neglected film
2 April 1999
Carlos Saura's Carmen is one of the finest achievements in world, let alone Spanish, cinema. It manages to excite interest in flamenco in its wonderful staged adaptations from Bizet with powerful physical force. At the same time we see the impact of the creation and rehearsal of a new interpretation of Carmen on the choreographer/director and the principle dancers. The fine line between life and art is dazzling.
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