Kakushi-toride no san-akunin (1958)
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The Hidden Fortress may just have jumped to #1 on my list of favorite Kurosawa films. I knew it was a major inspiration for Star Wars in how it told the story mostly through the POV of the clowns (and I swear you could put the SW soundtrack on the early scenes and it would work), but I wasn't expecting it to be so funny. Like, uproariously funny. I knew Kurosawa had it in him from Sanjuro, certainly, but in that film Toshiro Mifune's character was a clever kind of funny, a trickster character who spoofed the samurai code. In Hidden Fortress, you don't laugh with the protagonists, but at them. They're stupid, greedy, foolish, cowardly, and suffer constant reversals of fortune as a result. You want them to pay for their sins, but also to survive so they can get into trouble again. The slapstick is excellent too - I could watch two hours of these two guys trying to climb a slippery slope. Kurosawa somehow also makes this an epic story about getting a princess to safety across enemy lines, with some "cast of thousands" moments and a brilliant spear fight between the real hero of the story, again played by Mifune, and a respected enemy. The tomboy princess stradles the drama/comedy divide in the film, by not taking Mifune's crap AND allowing her experiences while disguised as a commoner turn her into an empathetic and wise leader. It's a very rich and satisfying film that smoothly changes tone to suit whatever characters are on screen.
Toshiro Mifune at his best.
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In 7 official lists
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This movie ranks #8 in Patrick Galloway's guide to samurai films
This movie ranks #48 in IMDb's 1950s Top 50
This movie ranks #101 in Asian Cinema: A Field Guide
This movie ranks #120 in The Criterion Collection
This movie ranks #125 in Kinema Junpo Top Japanese Films
This movie ranks #222 in The Story of Film: An Odyssey
This movie ranks #609 in Doubling the Canon