Well it has been 9 months since I last reviewed a Criterion Collection film. I suppose having a 7-month old will do that to you. I had a chance to sit down last night and watch The Hidden Fortress. I might be a bit rusty, but this film didn’t seem as high-quality as most of Kurosawa’s output. The only character who exhibits any development is Princess Yuki, and although she’s the focus of all of the action, as a character she’s pretty secondary. The two peasants, Tahei and Matakishi, are in the fore throughout the film, and their slapstick kept the film from delving into the deeper conundrums that bound around in the wings.
Everybody is trying to find or save Princess Yuki, the last surviving member of the Akizuki clan. Our two boors buffet about due to the tides of war and their own avarice, seeking either the Akizuki gold or Yuki Akizuki, as their whims dictate. Toshiro Mifune [playing Toshiro Mifune as Rotokura Makabe] ropes them into hauling the gold and the princess through, across, around [and various other prepositions] enemy lines. Every plan Tahei and Matakishi ‘devise’ fails immediately, and they try to run off with the gold almost as much as they fight each other. There is one 10 minute Toshiro spear-fight showcase showdown in which Mr. Mifune’s whittled forearms are the main scene, but the rest of the film pretty much consists of folks bitching up and down [and various other prepositions] myriad roads.
This is not to say that the film is without value. Kurosawa’s eye for the right framing and subtle phrasing is as on the mark as it ever is; stopping at an inn for the evening we find out that with 5 pieces of silver you can either buy a good horse or a prostitute [permanently]. The ham-fisted peasants live in sty-squalor and are herded about by porcine petty lords and their pig-headed vassals. The objective eye indicates that all parties are a bit absurd in their humanity. Everyone is happy with status quo except Princess Yuki, who gets her first taste of how the other 99.9% lives and gains the righteous indignation on the behalf of her inferiors that hard-time-fallen nobility always seem to exhibit in fiction. She does have nice legs, however.
I guess what sank the movie for me was the way the constant breaks for a bit of levity undercut the drama at the same time that Mifune’s furrowed disapproval killjoyed the clowning slapstick [which I'm not really a fan of anyway]. Toss in a plot that isn’t all that compelling or original and 2D characters with unchanging motivations and the result is that I might have enjoyed this movie if I had seen it before Star Wars [Lucas claims The Hidden Fortress as an inspiration for that universe, but there are only very basic and tangential relations between the two]. The story probably won’t keep you going, but the hope for the next exceptional shot will.