Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Hidden Fortress

The Hidden Fortress (5/5)

Of all the directing masters Akira Kurosawa is arguably the greatest. No matter how much praise and hyperbole is shoveled onto his films they always surprise me by how good they are. Not good in a, "this was phenomenal for the 1950's," but good as in, "this is better than just about anything we're seeing today." While watching this movie I was trying to think of an American director who even comes close, but no one quite matches Kurosawa. If Akira Kurosawa and Stanley Kubrick had a street fight in Heaven I gurantee you Kurosawa would kick Kubrick in the nuts and decapitate him inside of a minute.

This film is often described as the impetus for Star Wars. After seeing the prequel trilogy I half expected The Hidden Fortress to be an exact blueprint for Episode IV, but they're really not that similar. It turns out that George Lucas was talented back in the day. If you're looking for simularities you'll find them, but if Lucas himself hadn't mentioned how much this film influenced him I doubt anyone would be drawing parallels. For example, the two peasant characters, Tahei and Matakishi, are supposed to be the inpirations for R2-D2 and C-3PO, but they're not similar in the least. Tahei and Matakishi are slow, bumbling, greedy, and selfish. They're a far cry from Lucas' creations. R2-D2 is the butch in the relationship while C-3PO is his more feminine partner. (I have to give Lucas credit for having the guts to put a gay robot couple in a film way back in the 70's, and it's even more amazing because no one has had the guts to do it a second time. Perhaps one day gay robots will get the screen time they deserve.)

The story involves a princess and her general who are trapped behind enemy lines and must make it back to their own land. Of all the Kurosawa films I've seen this is the most commercial, and should satisfy fans of old action and adventure. Of particular interest is Toshiro Mifune who is a Kurosawa regular. He plays General Rokurota - an all around badass. When his party gets stopped by soldiers trying to hunt them down he quickly kills a couple of them, and then grabs a horse to go hunt down two trying to escape, all the while letting out a warrior's cry. This action sequence ends in a duel between Rokurota and an opposing general he has a competitive but friendly relationship with. The duel is one of the greatest fight scenes in cinema, and not just because of the fine choreography (although that too), but because of how interesting these two characters are. They respect each other, but if they met on a battlefield then duty would prevail.

This is much more of an action adventure film than something like Roshomon, but Kurosawa still manages to throw in a lot of themes. The princess has a slight epiphony while walking amont the peasants, and decides to save a girl before she becomes a sex slave; Tahei and Matakishi are both morally bankrupt but they still seem to serve a purpose in society; and General Rokurota and his rival both seem to say something about the merits and limits of honor. These themes are great and add some depth, but are subservient to sheer adventure of the film, which is how it should be.

The last film I saw that really understood how much fun a swashbuckling action film can be was Serenity, and before that was probably Pirates of the Carribean. Both are great films but can't quite live up to The Hidden Fortress. But if either of them want to challenge Kurosawa I'm sure he's got some fight left in him after he put Kubrick in his place.

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