Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress is moving, on so many levels. In the very first scene, we see two peasants, backs to us, walking away. They’re highly animated, squabbling and quarreling, bickering about plans for a future they have absolutely no control over. And then a wounded samurai careens into the frame from a crazed angle, followed by men on horseback who stab him, repeatedly, in an oddly beautifully choreographed dance. The peasants are caught between warring clans, and they’re captured and forced to bury the dead and dig for gold. During an uprising they escape, and they find a bar of gold hidden in a log of wood. And then they meet Toshiro Mifune, and they spend the rest of the film walking; following him, running from him, racing back to him.
Toshiro Mifune, a general trying to smuggle gold to a place of safety, is amused and dismissive of the two peasants–killing them would be nothing to him, and he only spares them because they can be useful to him in hiding his own identity, the existence of the gold, and a princess, who he disguises as a mute peasant. They walk through ghostly bamboo forests, slanting rain, stands of bare trees in the fog, soldier’s spears and flags, they thread their way through one beautiful vertical arrangement after another. They enter the frame unexpectedly, from any side at any time, in stark contrast to the standard left to right movement we’ve come to expect from a Hollywood film. They creep, muttering, in one direction and dash, screaming, back again in the other. And they walk in and out of stories.
Each time they stop a small tale unfolds, a small perfect interaction between them or the people they encounter. They start the film as fools, comic and ridiculous, but the thought of gold makes them nearly imbecilic; they can’t control themselves and they stumble and flail, and say things they aren’t supposed to say, and fall all over themselves trying to escape from their poor tangled fate. We laugh at them, but we empathize with them as well. They’re poorer than poor, and they’re caught in a violent struggle that holds no meaning for them, but could destroy their lives.
The princess (Misa Uehara) is also caught in this struggle. She, too, is bound by the history of her family to behave in a certain way. She’s pretending to be mute, but her expressions as she sees a world she’s never seen before–outside of the castle, with people who behave unpredictably because they don’t know who she is–her face as it lights up at the sight of ordinary people doing ordinary things, is wonderful to behold. She rescues a prostitute from the cruel and degrading life of a sex worker, and the two form an unlikely connection.
In the midst of all the death and violence, all the scheming and subterfuge, all the struggle to keep power and wealth, the travelers happen upon a fire ceremony. Everybody sings and dances as one, as they throw logs into a huge bonfire. Our friends are forced to throw all of their gold into the fire. The peasants are beside themselves with grief and worry, but the princess looks freed, transcendent, as she joins in the dance and sings the odd, dark, existential song. She recalls it later after they’ve been captured, and she sings it in a beautiful scene that places all of the beautiful and ridiculous drama of the movie, and of our lives, too, into a strange, somber, hopeful sort of perspective.
The life of a man
Burn it with the fire
The life of an insect
Throw it into the fire
Ponder and you’ll see
The world is dark
And this floating world is a dream.
Hidden Fortress was an inspiration for George Lucas in the making of Star Wars, and it is every bit as thrilling and swashbuckling, full of adventure and romance. But whereas Star Wars seems to operate on an almost mythological idea of good and evil, Hidden Fortress is more nuanced. The comedy and action are given weight by existential and political philosophical musings. There’s a feeling that the system that holds each of the characters in their place, and defines how they act and what they can expect from life, is falling apart around them. It’s human connection, with their fellow travelers and with the people they meet on their journey, as well as the exposure to people who different from them, that brings about the change in them that allows them to accept and further this disintegration. It’s a transcendent sort of redemption. In a later scene, the princess sits in a wild tangled bower of bushes, smiling with a sort of happy wisdom, as at something she’d never seen or noticed before. Why is she smiling? It’s the birds, as though she’s seeing them for the first time.