This is the cover of Criterion's new blu-ray release of Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (隠し砦の三悪人)--it's a cover I rather like because it reflects something extraordinary about the movie I've felt has long been overlooked. I've heard it said more than once that Kurosawa's films never featured interesting women. But in one of his best fantasy films, the most interesting character is by far Princess Yuki.
She's not alone, either--Machiko Kyo's character in Rashomon, Setsuko Hara in The Idiot, Lady Kaede in Ran. The Lower Depths, one of Kurosawa's best movies, which directly preceded The Hidden Fortress, featured several women crucial to its story.
The Lower Depths is perhaps one of Kurosawa's most bleak statements on the human condition rivalled in its bleakness by The Bad Sleep Well, the film which follows The Hidden Fortress. It's fascinating that The Hidden Fortress then is played more for straightforward adventure fantasy, for the thrills of a dangerous journey filled with bigger than life archetypes. One of the primary influences on Star Wars, discussions about The Hidden Fortress often revolve around the prototypes, if you will, of R2D2 and C3PO, the two peasants Tahei and Matashichi and the wonderful, very human portrayals of the characters by actors Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara. As with Lucas' droids, it's through the point of view of the peasants that we witness most of the events of the film and their more down to earth concerns about money and survival are in the foreground. Princess Yuki's desperate flight to an ally state as a first step in the arduous task of rebuilding her recently defeated Akizuki clan seem as big as the mountains and valleys portrayed in the background via the very wide Tohoscope.
Toshiro Mifune as the bigger than life General Makabe Rokurota is also part of this grand canvas but his quest is to serve Yuki. She aggressively orders him to purchase an abused sex slave, she argues against the hierarchical system which compels her servant to die for her as a decoy. "She is sixteen, I am sixteen," she says, arguing their lives have the same value. What an unlikely, humanist attitude for a princess in feudal Japan, but everything about Yuki is strange. She was raised as a boy, we're told, so her gestures and mannerisms are forceful and commanding. Actress Misa Uehara carries this off brilliantly.
With the peasants in the foreground and Yuki's philosophy overshadowing things, the film becomes about the intrinsic value of human life, something which is digested in a wild direction in one of the most memorable scenes of the film, the bonfire ritual.
They've been carrying Akizuki gold hidden in dry logs and, so as not to look suspicious, they're forced to throw this wood into the fire during the ritual while the villagers chant about how human life is a dream and therefore one should "throw it into the fire." One could say the gold hidden by identical pieces of gnarled wood reflects the concept of even common human lives having value, then the film tells us that life is a dream, meaningless, something that should be thrown into the fire. Life is valuable both because it is all meaningful and all meaningless--something is only valuable fuel for fire if there is not value conferred on it.
Blu-ray is a great format to watch this movie in. There's often so many tiny details on screen simultaneously, sometimes thousands of half naked, defeated men trampling each other as they charge armed soldiers down massive stairs or just Princess Yuki, tied to a post, shot at a distance with Kurosawa's trademark telephoto lens compositions, her small face clearly visible as she recites the chant she recently learned at the festival.