Wednesday, October 06, 2010
Greed's Great Equalizer
By Jonathan Pacheco
Back in March, to commemorate Akira Kurosawa's centennial birthday, Criterion held a number of contests, one of which asked readers to succinctly "convince a friend who is unfamiliar with Kurosawa to watch one of his films." The winning entry (which may or may not have been plagiarized) simply stated, "He's your favorite director's favorite director." Nicely put, as most will not argue Kurosawa's influence, even if they don't necessarily revere the Japanese director's work, but this kind of recognition has caused countless reviews to devote paragraph after paragraph to the same once-interesting tidbits: from Seven Samurai we get The Magnificent Seven, from Yojimbo we get A Fistful of Dollars, from Rashomon we get One Night at McCools. (Lookie here, now I'm guilty of the same sort of word waste.)
This seems particularly prevalent when talking about Kurosawa's jidai-geki The Hidden Fortress, a film more appreciated for its influence on George Lucas than for what's actually within the frames. For many, this film, released in the U.S. 50 years ago today, doesn't even crack Kurosawa's loaded top 10, offering little beyond its appeal as a lightweight crowd favorite. A little unfair, I say. There's nothing wrong with a vibrant, adventurous, and more importantly in this case, compassionate tale.
Yet, Kurosawa's "basic" and "naive" moral stances in The Hidden Fortress are not without their own gray areas. The two lowly peasants we follow from the beginning, Tahei and Matashichi (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara), operate almost purely out of greed and selfishness; where there's gold, you'll find these two goofballs. The legendary General Rokurota Makabe (Kurosawa favorite Toshirô Mifune), while honorable in his own right, exploits the greed of the peasants — promising fortune he never intends to give — to further his own (albeit noble) mission of delivering his people's princess, Yuki (Misa Uehara), back to safety in their home country.
No, it's not as enigmatic or philosophically complex as some of Kurosawa's greater masterpieces, but there's something to be said for the film's compassion and grace, particularly towards the most selfish and angry. Similar to the way almost no villain is beyond mercy in a Miyazaki film, The Hidden Fortress presents opportunities for compassion at nearly every frame wipe. Tahei and Matashichi ditch and betray those in their traveling group (and even each other) if it means more money or simply saving their own butts, but the film never gives up on them, even until the very last shot, giving these tired, lowly, travel-weary peasants the benefit of the doubt in hopes that they'll eventually catch on to the theme of the film.
When General Makabe emerges as the victor of a fierce duel with the rival General Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita), he opts not to take his foe's life out of respect, honor, and yes, compassion. He couldn't bring himself to kill such a worthy opponent, a man fighting with all his ability for his own causes. Later in the film when the roles of the generals are reversed, Tadokoro finds himself with the opportunity to reciprocate Makabe's compassion — that is, should he choose to perceive that as compassion. Princess Yuki, as loud and abrasive as she is, shows nothing but compassion, first to Makabe's selfless sister, and then to an enslaved fellow countrywoman seen verbally and nearly sexually abused. She order's Makabe to purchase this slave to free her, and it's moving to see this woman turn into an aid and protector of her princess as the story progresses.
Compassion, mercy, grace — these are the film's antidotes and equalizers to the selfishness all around. As well done as these themes are in The Hidden Fortress, I don't see them as any more naive or simplistic than the lessons we come across in the best of Disney or Pixar. Kurosawa injects his adventure with encouragement to live a life that considers the situations of others, and I commend him for it.