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The Hidden Fortress (Kakushi-toride no san-akunin)

Director – Akira Kurosawa – 1958 – Japan – Cert. PG – 138m

***

Currently streaming on BFI Player (extended free trial offer here) as part of the now extended Japan 2020 programme alongside 21 other Kurosawa films together with a much wider selection of Japanese movies

Captured by soldiers, two wandering bumpkin farmers (Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara) are put waist deep in a waterlogged pit with scores of other prisoners and ordered to dig for treasure. Before they can find it, however, they manage to escape. In the middle of nowhere, one of them slings away a useless, sodden branch from their attempted campfire. It goes chink. Inside the wood is concealed gold with a royal seal upon it.

So begins Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 foray into chambara (Japanese popular historical epic genre) which also features a beautiful princess in exile (Misa Uehara) and her heroic general (Toshiro Mifune) intent on restoring her with the clan’s gold. If the story sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because it’s George Lucas’ main source for his Star Wars (1977) (and one or two elements in its sequels), which today lend Kurosawa’s film an added interest. The Hidden Fortress puts hero, heroine and their two unlikely companions through a series of set piece adventures including lance duels, a spectacularly choreographed folk fire festival, horseback pursuits and, indeed, the discovery fairly early on in the proceedings of the eponymous hidden fortress.

The director’s first foray into scope composition, however, is not among his best films. True, its letterbox visuals paved the way for such later sixties masterpieces as Yojimbo (1961, which inspired A Fistful Of Dollars, Sergio Leone, 1964) and the underrated crime thriller High And Low (1963) (both in the current season). After fifties masterworks like Seven Samurai (1954) and Throne Of Blood (1957), however, The Hidden Fortress proves something of a disappointment.

Review first published in What’s On In London to coincide with the film’s re-issue at London’s National Film Theatre (NFT).

Currently streaming on BFI Player (extended free trial offer here) as part of the now extended Japan 2020 programme alongside 21 other Kurosawa films together with a much wider selection of Japanese movies.

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