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In no other Kurosawa movie would Mifune have chosen to fight with the spear instead

Posted by Ronak M Soni on March 14, 2010

Originally Published at PassionforCinema.

Kakushi-toride no san-anukin (The Hidden Fortress), 1958, 150 min

Written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Music by Masaru Sato

Cinematography by Ichio Yamazeki

Story (taken from IMDb): Lured by gold, two greedy peasants (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) escort a man and woman across enemy lines. However, they do not realize that their companions are actually a princess (Misa Uehara) and her general (Toshiro Mifune).


Spear-fights, unlike ones with swords, are fought at long distance, which makes them less adrenaline-inducing than swordfights. I think it is a testament to Kurosawa’s mastery as an editor and director that he makes the spear-fight from The Hidden Fortress I refer to in the title more intense, though possibly not as exciting, than any of the battles in his Shichinin no Samurai or Yojimbo. But this has nothing to do with the central question, which is: why did Kurosawa make Mifune’s character choose the spear?

People say that the first two parts of Sergio Leone’s ‘The Man with No Name’ were heavily influenced by Kurosaw’s Yojimbo and Sanjuro. The third part, however, was even more influenced by The Hidden Fortress. The first two merely borrowed plots, while the third borrowed an idea.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is popularly considered to be a ‘meta-western’, a western about the way a western worked. When the camera is jumping from hand to hand in the climax scene, what he is really doing is asking us how far he can go, before the tension levels off and leaves us bored. Similarly, in The Hidden Fortress, when people are dying when a sword touches their armour, when every scene changes with a swipe, when the whole story is seen from the point of view of two jokers, when the music is constantly telling us how to feel, when Mifune’s Rokurota Makabe starts fighting his greatest rival – and ‘truest friend’ – with a spear instead of a sword, and the Princess sings a song to bring about a change of heart in aforementioned greatest rival/truest friend, Kurosawa too is asking us how far he can go.

And the answer is… well, we don’t know the answer, but it certainly is at least as far as this.

So, how does he take it as far as he does? Certainly, there’s the virtuoso editing and camerawork. Then, there’s Ichio Yamazeki’s beautiful black-and-white cinematography, which converts anything and everything into a treat for the eyes.

But, most importantly, there’s Toshiro Mifune’s attitude. In all of Kurosawa’s other action movies, Mifune is a hyper-active – eh, you know the bandit in <I>Rashomon</I> who laughed when asked whether he killed the girl? Well, in this movie, he is not that. Rokurota Makabe is closer in spirit to Washizu from Throne of Blood than Yojimbo, lending – along with Misa Uehara’s tomboy princess – a much-needed air of seriousness otherwise absent from this magnificent experiment, an air of seriousness which is the major thing making this movie work.

But the funniest thing about this movie is not the ridiculous fighting or the in-your-face music or the comedy (which works); the funniest thing about this movie is that Hollywood action-movie-makers have chosen, out of all of Kurosawa’s action movies (called Jidai-geki in Japanese; read the first half of that word again, and if you still haven’t got it read it out aloud), Hollywood has chosen to borrow methodology – from the over-expressive form of the music to the melodramatic resolution and even ‘modern’ inventions like the shaky-cam – most heavily from this one; in other words, Hollywood considers serious what Kurosawa considers an experiment.

The essays of others:

James Berardinelli’s review

Armond White’s Criterion Collection essay

David Ehrenstein’s Criterion Collection essay

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