Toho created Star Wars with … The Hidden Fortress (1958)
Toho, the studio that created Godzilla, was responsible for releasing The Hidden Fortress in 1958, which later influenced George Lucas into creating a great epic that uses the work of his friend, Akira Kurosawa, as a template. This movie has been called the greatest adventure ever made and I had to see for myself just what is so darn good about it. It seems to have one of the best structural formulas of all time, a fact George Lucas noticed and borrowed from heavily. He also used other elements from the film, which can be found in the original Star Wars. In this way, I think Star Wars replaces The Hidden Fortress as the greatest adventure ever made, although Lucas pretty much owes every single thing in his film and in his story, to Kurosawa.
The Story of The Hidden Fortress
The Hidden Fortress tells its story from the perspective of the lowliest of all the characters, just like Star Wars. Two peasants, Tahei and Matashichi, are too late to join up to fight alongside the Yahama clan, who have beaten their rivals in battle. Tahei and Matashichi argue about it and split up, but find that their individual luck doesn’t hold up very well. Tahei and Matashichi are captured and put to work digging for gold, but there are no Jawas around. They are clearly the archetypes for C3PO and R2-D2.
Tahei and Matasichi escape slavery and decide to find the Princess, the only remaining leader of the Akizuki clan, who were crushed by the Yamanas. As if by chance, the two of them find gold hidden in a piece of wood, but it has the insignia of the Akizuki etched into it. A strange man sneaks up on them and joins them unexpectedly in their plan to cross the border into Hayakama. The mystery man, Roturoka Makabe takes them to a secret fortress, revealing himself as a legendary samurai general, who is tasked with escorting The Princess to safety. The gold belongs to the Akizuki and they must smuggle it to safety to help restore the clan.
The Princess has to sacrifice a lot to stay hidden and she pretends to be a mute. Makabe makes Tahei and Matashichi carry the gold as they all sneak across Yamana land to get to Hayakama, a neutral location where they’ll be safe. They initially evade the Yamana troops, but eventually are intercepted. After they are discovered, Makabe jumps to action and he races his horse to catch them, cutting down these fleeing soldiers, preventing them from reporting their location.
As he rides away, Makabe accidentally stumbles upon a Yahama camp, as if he were Han Solo or something. There, he encounters Hyoe Tadokoro, a powerful General. Having encountered each other before, they both decide to face one another in single combat. Makabe wins the duel and leaves the shamed Tadokoro behind without killing him. The duel scene is perhaps the best part of the movie, but it is unresolved, and builds to later on in the movie.
At the Fire Festival, the group is caught and has to burn their wood to avoid detection. Unfortunately, all the gold is hidden inside the wood and they can only dance around to the song in a dumbfounded way. It is funny actually. After Makabe and The Princess are captured, Tadokoro arrives to confront them, revealing he was scarred for his shameful defeat earlier.
Surprisingly, Tadokoro honors his friendship with Makabe and helps them escape. With The Princess back in charge, she rescues Tahei and Matashichi from arrest, then takes Tadokoro and Makabe as her Generals. She gives Tahei and Matashichi a small reward, then sends them on their way.
The Characters of The Hidden Fortress
Toshiro Mifune as Makabe is probably the highlight of this film. He later appeared in other Kurosawa movies, and may have perfected the wandering warrior archetype in Japanese cinema, like that seen in The Hidden Fortress. In comparison, Clint Eastwood plays the archetypal warrior in English-language Western films. Mifune starred in Western films too, like Red Son (1971) and Midway (1976), but he really stands out in this one.
Out of all the characters in The Hidden Fortress, Makabe works the best, which is a tribute to Mifune. His character is so devoted, he tries to sacrifice himself on several occasions, but never succeeded like Obi-Wan. His character is inspirational and fun to watch, as he tries to pick everyone else up with his never-ending dedication. He doesn’t stop and never gives up.
Kamatari Fujiwara as Matashichi and Minoru Chiaki as Tahei are not well-known outside of Japan, however they were Kurosawa regulars. The comedic and complaining duo were the inspiration for C3PO and R2-D2. It is surprising how much humor is in The Hidden Fortress, but none of it seems overdone or hammy.
The Princess is a general film archetype that is used pretty well in The Hidden Fortress. Where she breaks the mold though, is in her characterization. She is a strong character and can pretty much take care of herself. She cares for her people and this gives her character a sympathetic vibe. When she sees one girl in trouble, she almost gives away her secret identity, but Makabe tells her to watch it.
Susumu Fujita plays Tadokoro with great emotion. In some ways, Tadokoro is all about honor, which is probably why he releases Makabe and The Princess at the end. That’s about all he can do though, because he is ultimately a failure in clan Yahama, beaten and scarred for being defeated in the duel against Makabe. He represents Darth Vader, and elements about Vader’s past friendship with Obi-Wan were taken from the dialogue between Makabe and Tadokoro in The Hidden Fortress.
The plot of this movie inspired Star Wars, in a few obvious parallels. The Yahama takeover represents the expansion of the Empire in Star Wars and the underdog Akizuki clan are the Rebels. Mifune as General Makabe is Obi-Wan and Tadokoro is his friend, Darth Vader. The duel between Tadokoro and Makabe directly inspires the duel between Obi-Wan and Vader on the Death Star, where Obi-Wan dies. Tadokoro doesn’t die in The Hidden Fortress though, although thinks he should have, to satisfy his honor. In some ways, the characters and plot are rudimentary versions of what is seen in Star Wars.
Just short of a true parallel
Although The Hidden Fortress clearly inspired Star Wars, there are some missing elements. For example, there is no Luke Skywalker or Han Solo character in The Hidden Fortress, as in Star Wars. It is probable that Han Solo and Luke Skywalker have more in common with Flash Gordon than The Hidden Fortress. However, I don’t think there’s any doubt that the basic structure for the themes and story can be found in The Hidden Fortress.
The Hidden Fortress really is a great film. It’s not hammy or over-the-top, but has a lot of Japanese traditions and cultural elements, which could be confusing. The pace is very fast, maybe even faster than Star Wars. It has no glory shots or star battles, unlike Star Wars, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It is leisurely and follows people as they simply walk around. The evil Empire aka the Yahama clan is not defeated in The Hidden Fortress, but The Princess is restored to the leadership of her clan, so there is a happy ending. I think this is important, to define the success of the heroes and leave the audience satisfied. I enjoyed watching this movie.