Akira Kurosawa is regularly referred to as “the most accessible” of Japanese filmmakers to Western audiences, but this seems to be little more than synonymous with saying his films are “the most readily available” of Japanese films in the West. Honestly, go into any decent non-chain video rental place and Kurosawa will be the non-English language director with the most films on the shelf, with the possible exception of Bergman.
Working through his titles as slowly as I work through anything I pretend to set my mind to, I watched The Hidden Fortress (1958), one of his more middlingly-known works. Its downfall is of course that it is possibly best known for being the film from which George Lucas declared he drew inspiration for Star Wars (no I will not insert an episode number, colon and subtitle).
A claim such as that instantly damages a film for any viewer who is aware of it (who given Lucas has a filmed intro to the film on the DVD, is largely everyone). Fight it all you like, you will spend the entire film watching out for Star Wars-like sequences. And of course there are, for the most part, none. Certainly there is a princess in peril, but there is nothing distinctly Leia-like about her bar that she too occasionally deserves a slap. Toshiro Mifune’s character, the borderline invincible Rokurota, could be said to embody the wisdom of Obi Wan, the heroism of Luke and the no-bullshit attitude of Han Solo, or he could be said to be the hero in a totally un-related story.
Indeed, what the films seem to have most in common is the occasional side-wipe edit. Lucas’s main claim is that the two peasant characters, terrified and in way over their heads, are the inspiration for R2-D2 and C-3PO. One can certainly see it, especially early in the film when they get sick of one another and storm off in separate directions only to be reunited when captured by the same people. Their nasty, bitter and amusing swapping of insults may even offer some insight into what it is that R2-D2 is actually saying when C-3PO takes such offence to his comments.
But other than that the similarities end. Both of them has the same sense of self-preservation that is the core of 3PO. Neither has R2’s sense of duty. Certainly, one could never imagine Lucas scripting a scene in which R2-D2 and C-3PO draw straws in order to determine which one of them gets to rape Princess Leia in her sleep.
The main plot of smuggling the gold and the two peasant characters’ determination to get the gold for themselves is in fact more reminiscent of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which only opens up greater questions when we look at how Kurosawa was inspired by John Ford.
When one finally does take a look at The Hidden Fortress and ignore any slight similarities to a generation-defining movie, it is a perfectly charming adventure with some longueurs and repetition. The sequence in which Mifune challenges an old opponent to a duel with spears results in a fight scene as thrilling as many produced today.
The conclusion is certainly the most positive of all of Kurosawa’s period pieces that I have come across; they usually end with the heroes’ deaths or at least moral defeat.
Indeed, the two peasants only barely win, earning a small sum of money, although learning to trust one another, which is perhaps the greatest gift of all.
It’s a hell of a lot more that C-3PO and R2-D2 got by the end of Star Wars, robbed as they were of a medal in that film’s final scene. Nobody cares for the droids any more…