The Hidden Fortress (1958) and Red Beard (1965)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

By Roderick Heath

There’s always a slight aesthetic shock in watching a Kurosawa film. His films, even entertainments like The Hidden Fortress, are so sensually alive, so hard, so unpretty but beautiful, that you practically smell the blossoms, the rancid flesh, the fresh blood, the horse dung. They look, feel, sound so modern compared with Hollywood films of the time. The Hidden Fortress, a comedy-action epic made as a favor to Toho Studios for taking so many risks for him, is in some ways the ultimate Kurosawa film if you think of him as a director of hugely entertaining samurai epics. It treats playfully themes that Kurosawa could turn into the grimmest of anatomizations of human nature.

The world in The Hidden Fortress has fallen apart. Without preliminaries, we’re thrown in with Taihei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matakichi (Kanutari Fujiwara), a pair fit for Beckett, two peasants walking and bickering in a desolate plain. Having sold their farms to buy arms and make a fortune plundering as members of the army of the Akizuki clan, Taihei and Matakishi were captured following a great battle the Akizukis lost to the rival Yanama clan. They escape and reach the border to their own peaceful province of Hayakawa, only to find it guarded by Yanama troops. Taihei and Matakishi are swiftly recaptured and are put to work digging with thousands of filthy, starving prisoners, in the ruins of the Akizuki’s castle by Yanama troops to find a buried store of gold. There’s a revolt, a slaughter of rioters, and Taihei and Matakishi escape again. Wandering in the wilderness, they accidentally discover a piece of gold hidden in a dead tree branch. Frantically smashing every branch they find, Taihei and Matakishi encounter a mysterious, ferocious-looking man (Toshiro Mifune) who they take to be a bandit. The stranger claims to have the rest of the gold and offers them a share if they can find a way to get it to Hayakawa. Taihei and Matakishi already have a plan for that; they’ll go through Yanama province itself, thus skirting most of the enemy army. This idea tickles the stranger, who gives his name as Rokoruta Makabe. Taihei and Matakishi are incredulous, as Rokoruta is a great general.

Mifune, of course, really is the general, charged with transporting the clan’s fortune and its surviving heir, Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), from their hideaway in the mountains to the safety of Hayakawa. There’s a tragic tension between Rokurota and Yuki; Rokoruta’s sister surrendered herself, claiming to be Yuki, and was beheaded. The ferociously proud, tomboyish Yuki weeps angrily for this, as Rokoruta maintains calm for the dangerous mission ahead. Soon, Yuki and Rokoruta depart, accompanied by the peasant pair. On the road, they battle enemy soldiers, slip through checkpoints, and, at Yuki’s insistence, rescue a girl who has been taken from a former Akizuki farm and bought as a sex slave. The girl repays Yuki’s kindness by fending off Taihei’s and Matakishi’s attempts to ravish the sleeping princess, making these awesome losers cower as she threatens them with a log.

The Hidden Fortress was cited by George Lucas as the basis of Star Wars—chiefly in the way the story unfolds through the eyes of two comic characters. But the whole narrative, from its in medias res opening on, shows Kurosawa’s strong influence. Rokoruta recalls both Han Solo and Luke Skywalker in his protective, dutiful, love-hate relationship with Yuki. There’s also the germ of everyone’s favorite bad guy when, on the road, Rokoruta encounters and duels with an old friend, Hyoe Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita), who commands troops for Yanama. Tadokoro is defeated in the duel, but Rokoruta does not kill him. When Tadokoro turns up later, he’s been scarred across the face as punishment by the Yanama lord for losing. In the end, Yuki, claiming to have had the only good time and true life experience she’s ever had, calls the Yanama lord idiotic for treating any loyal subject, even a loser, in such a way. This act convinces Tadokoro of her essential greatness, and he saves them in the finale. Right there are many aspects of Darth Vader’s character arc. Of course, things end happily, and even Taihei and Matakishi get a reward and a measure of self-respect.

The gritty, grotesque detail that enlivens The Hidden Fortress’s texture and makes it more than a fairy tale, its pungent physicality, the opposition and intertwining of nobility and depravity, the belief in humans even when they act wretchedly, and the powerful effect displays of kindness, heroism, and decency from individuals can have on others, are also found in Kurosawa’s Red Beard (1965). Red Beard was, unhappily, Kurosawa’s last film with Toshiro Mifune, who was succumbing around this time to the twin evils of alcohol and international movie-making. Mifune was the consummate star actor on whom Kurosawa could hang most any narrative because he was able to play such a wide variety of riveting variations even on the simplest heroic figure. Red Beard is one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces, but one of his least appreciated. As epic as The Seven Samurai, as humanistic as Ikiru, as troubling as Rashomon, it displays all of Kurosawa’s disparate qualities working in harmony. Like many a great artist of an older breed–Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoievsky—Kurosawa maintains uncanny balance between an unflinching, almost despairing view of humanity as well as a warmly lucid trust.

“Red Beard” is, properly, Dr. Kyujio Niide (Mifune); the nickname describes his face and excuses people from pronouncing his difficult name. He runs a state-funded clinic for the poor in late Tokugawa-era Japan, where small scraps of foreign knowledge, like Dutch medical texts, are prized. Dr. Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama) has studied these at medical school in Nagasaki. He wants to put this knowledge to lucrative use by becoming the Shogun’s personal physician. He’s young, arrogant, angry over being jilted by the daughter of his mentor, who has sent him along to work at Niide’s clinic. Noboru is convinced Niide has sent him away to bury him professionally and to filch his medical knowledge. The clinic is a humming hive of activity, crammed with the dying and desperate, staffed by dedicated but unsentimental (and unsentimentalized) people—doctors who aren’t good enough to work elsewhere, overtaxed nursesm the worker women who keep the place going. Niide himself treats rich men for big fees to put toward the clinic, and is not above using the knowledge he fishes for to blackmail officials when necessary.

Red Beard is, in structure, a series of vignettes displaying the human and spiritual growth of Yasumoto, who initially refuses to work or wear the clinic’s uniform. He is rudely introduced to the savage side of life by a mad woman (Kyoko Kagawa) who lives in a house separate to the clinic, cared for by a private nurse. The woman is a fascinating sexual mystery to the men in the clinic; young and beautiful, she has been placed there after seducing three of her merchant father’s clerks and then stabbing them to death with a hairpin. One night she escapes from her house and comes across Yasumoto lying indolently in his chamber. This discovery is accompanied by the sound of gusting wind that here, and in other Kurosawa films acts, as leitmotif evoking a plain of spiritual despair. She talks of how she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by her father’s clerks before she began turning the tables. Yasumoto is sympathetic, but suddenly she attempts to kill him in a scene horribly erotic and hypnotically violent. Niide rescues him, and when Yasumoto recovers, Niide asks him to watch over the slow, agonising death of , Rokosuke, a poverty-stricken man dying aloneof tuberculosis who was reputed to be an artisan. Yasumoto is called from this wretched scene to aid Niide in operating on an injured female agricultural worker. In a stunningly filmed and edited scene, Niide, Yasumotom and another assistant struggle to hold the woman’s sweating, bucking, bloody body still long enough to sew her gashed belly up.

This would be an intimidating day’s work for most professionals. Two vignettes outline for Yasumoto that behind every one of their poor, anonymous patients, there is a story, quite often tragic. For example, Rokosuke’s daughter turns up with three starving children in tow, and explains her sad, warped life. Niide performs a judicious act of blackmail to get her government assistance. Another vignette involves Sahachi (Tsutomo Yamazaki), beloved of other patients because he performs their chores and gives away his food. “He’s my idea of Buddha!” one declares when Sahachi falls deathly ill. On his deathbed, Sahachi tells Yasumoto he ought to wear the uniform so people can tell he’s from the clinic. When a landslide reveals buried bones under Sahachi’s hut, Sahachi explains they belonged to his wife; many years before, she had married him though she considered herself beholden to a rich man who had helped her poor family. She took an opportunity when an earthquake struck their town to disappear, but eventually Sahachi met her on the street; she had married the rich man. Returning to Sahachi in the middle of the night, she committed guilty seppuku by holding a blade secretly to her belly; when he came to embrace her, the blade slid home. Sahachi dies in peace, and Yasumoto begins wearing the clinic uniform.

Yasumoto and Niide go for a check-up visit to the local brothel, they find a girl, Otoyo (Terumi Niki), who was raised there by the vicious Madam and now finds the Madam is trying to sell her virginity. She’s so traumatised, all she can do is feverishly scrub the floor. When Niide announces his intention to take the girl to the clinic, the Madam calls the bouncers to stop him. Niide, in a cheer-along scene, uses his surgeon’s skill and knowledge of anatomy and judo expertise to snap wrists, arms, legs and knees, leaving a dozen tough guys in painfully hilarious contortions. Yasumoto takes on the job of rehabilitating Otoyo from a near-catatonic wreck, putting up with the provocations she provides is her expectation that his nice treatment will be supplanted by violent punishment. Yasumoto collapses exhausted and ill after many days of this rough treatment. The clinic’s serving women try to take Otoyo in hand, but find her so ungrateful and frustrating that they want nothing to do with her. However, Yasumoto finds when he recovers sufficiently to follow her around that Otoyo begs all day to get money to replace a vase she smashed, and later she tries to aid and adopt a boy, Chobo (Yoshitaka Zuki), whose own family is poverty-stricken.

It’s hard to do justice to the richness of plot and character in Red Beard. Suffice to say Yasumoto is converted to the creed of Niide. This was a powerful theme of Kurosawa’s, the master-pupil relationship between the young and worldly and the elder, the wise, the hero, the visionary. This underpins The Seven Samurai and is inverted in Sanjuro (1962), where Mifune’s title character angrily disdains his young cronies’ hero worship after he had committed an act of bloody slaughter. Sanjuro, though a funny entertainment, comments intriguingly on the problems of hero worship. “Red Beard” Niide also warns Yasumoto about following in his footsteps. Look, he says, I blackmail, I do favours for despicable men, I fight every day. But Niide is, in the end, a true hero, and Yasumoto knows it.

The brothel Madam is one of the few outright villains to ever appear in Kurosawa. Usually his villains are either massed, undifferentiated—the bandits in The Seven Samurai—or comic, like the corrupt officials in Sanjuro, or shaded opposites of the hero, like The Hidden Fortress’s Tadokoro or Sanjuro’s Hanbei Muroto (Tatsuyo Nakadai). The forces of entropy in Red Beard are undeniable. There are always illnesses that cannot be cured, deaths that cannot be avoided, tragedies that can’t be helped, people who are beyond redemption. Dedicating yourself to fighting against them means constantly communing with these ugly facts. Beneath the humanism of Red Beard is a conviction that humanity is doomed to darkness and savagery unless people like Niide lead and Yasumoto follow. l

  • Mark spoke:
    4th/04/2006 to 7:59 am

    I own Hidden Fortress, Sanjuro, Yojimbo, and Seven Samurai on Criterion DVD. It’s amazing how influential these films are. You mentioned Hidden Fortress as Lucas’s inspiration for Star Wars but my favorite Yojimbo, was later remade as Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars. I have yet to see Red Beard but based on your review I’ll purchase it for my collection.-Markwww.moviemasterworks.com

  • Rod spoke:
    4th/04/2006 to 8:51 am

    I was having an amusing conversation with a friend of my father’s, a mechanic who’s a Western fan, just a couple of days ago when I was writing that piece, watching his eyes glaze over in confusion when I mentioned such an exotic name as Akira Kurosawa, and then his jaw slowly dropping when I started going, “Seen The Magnificent Seven? A Fistful of Dollars…?

  • Mark spoke:
    24th/06/2006 to 1:40 am

    I watched “Red Beard” because of your review. Oh my, what a great movie. Thank you so much for reviewing it. It reminded me that to have a worthwhile life, one needs to make a difference in the lives of others. I also loved the shot of the drop of water falling to the bottom of the well. How inspiring.

  • rod spoke:
    5th/07/2006 to 12:32 am

    Thanks. Nice to get a comment that isn’t just…”Yeah, I saw a movie once too.”

  • Neville in Australia spoke:
    3rd/12/2012 to 7:35 am

    My path to Red Beard and Kurosawa more generally has been a little like Yasumoto’s in the film to becoming a partner in the enterprise. I’m also grateful that it led me to your review and more. Indeed the Japanese Dickens or Tolstoy. Thank you.

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