When I heard about the Blind Spot Series blogathon over at The Matinee I knew I would participate this year. I loved the idea of concentrating on 12 foreign and classic movies that every movie lover must see. My list for 2014 is here and I’ve included some modern misses and Asian films from my watchlist as well. It’s hard to be blindsided by Akira Kurosawa but I was by the journey in the The Hidden Fortress…
Akira Kurosawa is not a new director to me. He has a soft spot in my heart because he introduced me to my favorite actor of all time, Toshiro Mifune (whom he used in 16 films as leading actor –yes!–, second only to 21 films with Takashi Shimura). Seven Samurai introduced me to his masterful technical skills, love of storytelling and ability to draw out powerful characters.
That’s what I really love about Akira Kurosawa, his “control freak” concern for each step of the movie making process. That he co-wrote many of his scripts does not surprise me, nor that he was hands on in overseeing all aspects of design and even rehearsing the actors. We get all this and more in The Hidden Fortress.
His technical skills drew you into the story from its opening frames with the peasants and the murdered soldier. One of the highlights of the film, the general’s horse chase, showcases his editing ability. My favorite element of his movies though are the way he frames his shots and The Hidden Fortress, his first movie in widescreen format, plays with using the breadth of the frame as well as the depth. It’s no wonder he’s influenced many filmmakers with his volume of work.
My one criticism of The Hidden Fortress lies in his propensity to lingeron these extreme long shots that are too distant from the characters. In general these kind of shots add to a film greatly and the same is true here in particular parts of the plot. There are several times, though, I would have loved more intercut close-ups of the character faces. Perhaps others felt a great tension in these moments, as they were mostly to pass tense time waiting. Since I didn’t know what the character was feeling these extreme long shots didn’t always add anything to the story for me.
The Hidden Fortress has intrigued me since I heard that George Lucas was influenced by the two peasants in this film when creating R2-D2 and C-3P0 from Star Wars. I could see right away how he could be with this pair and the movie’s crazy soundtrack (which I grew to love).
While we don’t have such a straightforward class system as Asian countries we all are a derivative of our environment, relationships and experiences and this can create groups of like people. He doesn’t muddy down the character dynamics with a lot of similar personalities and viewpoints so each one has a specific place in the story. I particularly loved getting to know the princess through the characters around her.
The peasants had this “out of their league” view of her even while they tried to get a piece of what they could never have. We learn of a character off-screen who died in her place and the acceptance her servants felt at her sacrifice. He juxtaposes this to an Akizuki farm girl sold into slavery who views her as a savior. Even General Rokurōta’s view of her was unique, he saw her as a problem to overcome so he could fulfill his duty. His friend and rival General Tadokoro had his own, rosier perspective, he viewed the princess through, having been scarred by his master for losing honor.
This exploration of character is why I’m never disappointed with a Kurosawa story. I love that about him as a director. He keeps his hand in the story but remains true to the story at the same time. He uses his technical prowess to show that story to an advantage. It’s about being a visual storyteller.
The best example of this in The Hidden Fortress was the prison escape of the peasants on the stone staircase. It told us a lot about the war between the two clans and what the general and the princess had experienced — all through visuals. This is one of his greatest strengths as a filmmaker.
You can’t help but enjoy seeing a story, and being able to register a depth in character and environment that connects you so strongly to the real world. Even a historical on-the-road epic like The Hidden Fortress.
I can’t say I was really struck by the mastery of technique in this film, certainly its to be expected from Akira Kurosawa. I was totally and utterly blindsided by each step of the journey in this on-the-road epic. In this kind of story a set of characters are traveling from point A to point B. It’s a basic and simple method of showcasing characters and plot. Recently I’ve seen a pair of films which could learn a thing or seven from The Hidden Fortress and its blindsiding story.