The Hidden Fortress (隠し砦の三悪人, Akira Kurosawa, 1958)

“Your kindness will harm you” a well-meaning retainer advises his charge, but in the end it is her kindness which saves her along with numerous others in Akira Kurosawa’s Sengoku-era epic, The Hidden Fortress (隠し砦の三悪人, Kakushi Toride no San Akunin). Largely told from the point of view of two bumbling peasants trying to get rich quick by exploiting the hierarchal fluidity of a time of war, the film nevertheless cuts against the grain of the democratic era in advocating not so much the destruction of the class-bound feudal order as benevolent authority. 

This can quite clearly be seen in the dynamic figure of displaced princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), the successor of her routed clan protected by a hidden fortress in the mountains which she must eventually leave. Her female servant laments that her father raised her as a boy which has given her a haughty and dominant manner at odds with the polite submissiveness usually expected of upperclass women. While often exerting her authority, she is otherwise uncomfortable with the uncritical servitude of her retainers, chief among them the talented general Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) who sacrificed the life of his own sister, allowing her to be executed in Yuki’s place buying them some time. “Kofuyu was 16. I am 16. What difference is there in our souls?” she asks, yet even if she believes their souls are equal she is not quite so egalitarian as to forget her position or the power and privilege that comes with it. 

Nevertheless, hers is an authority that is tempered by compassion and in the end chosen. Her salvation comes in speaking her mind to an enemy retainer, Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita), who has been savagely beaten by his own lord for losing a duel with Makabe who, to the mind of some, humiliated him with kindness in refusing to take his life leaving him to live in defeat. Yuki says she doesn’t know who is stupider, Tadokoro or his lord, for never would she punish a man in such a way simply for losing to an enemy. She tells him that there is another way, and that he need not serve a lord who does not serve him leading Tadokoro to defect and choose to follow her instead. 

She also inspires confidence in a young woman she insists on redeeming after discovering that she is a former member of the Akizuka clan sold into sexual slavery after being taken prisoner by the Yamane. Kurosawa presents the girl with a dilemma on realising that the mysterious woman who saved her is the fugitive princess, knowing that she could betray her and pocket the gold, but finds her resolving to serve Yuki all the more. In a moment of irony, we learn that the girl was bought for five silver coins, the same amount of money a wealthy traveller offers for Makabe’s horse, but displeases her master in refusing to speak or serve customers. For Yuki he offers gold, though withdraws on being told that she is mute. Knowing that she would be unable to disguise her speech or accent which would instantly give her away as a haughty princess, Makabe convinces her to stay silent though as she tells him he cannot make her heart mute too. 

Even the peasants, oblivious to her true identity, view Yuki as part of the spoils insisting that they should be entitled to a third of her too and at one point preparing to rape her only to be fought off by the rescued girl. “We can rely on their greed” Makabe had said, knowing that their material desires make them easy to manipulate and that their loyalties are otherwise fickle. Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) and his friend Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) sold their houses in their village to buy armour in the hope of achieving social mobility through distinguishing themselves in war, but have largely been humiliated, robbed of their armour, mistaken for captured members of the enemy, and forced to dig the graves of others. They pledge eternal friendship but their bond is continually disrupted by the promise of monetary gain. They fall out over a moral quandary, one willing to plunder the body of a fallen soldier and the other not, while even on reuniting squabbling about how to divide the money first deciding it should be equal and immediately disagreeing as soon as they get their hands on it. At the film’s conclusion it rests on Yuki to play mother, telling them that they must be good and share the boon she’s given them equally without complaint each then too only quick to be generous insisting that the other can keep it. 

The implication is still, however, that Matashichi and Tahei should return to their village to live as peasants while Yuki assumes her place in a castle no longer hidden as its ruler. Order has returned and the old system remains in place, all that changes is that this is now a compassionate autocracy ruled by a benevolent lord who views her subjects lives as equal to her own yet not perhaps their status. Where it might prompt Tadokoro to conclude that he need serve no lord at all for there should be no leaders only equals, the film concludes that a leader should be just and if they are not they should not be followed. Then again, the disagreement between firm friends Matashichi and Tahei is ended when they each have enough and no longer find themselves fighting for a bigger slice of the pie content in the validation of their equality. As Makabe puts it, heavy is the head that wears the crown. Yuki’s suffering is in the responsibility of rebuilding her clan though she does so with compassion and empathy ruling with respect rather than fear or austerity. Kurosawa utilises the novel scope format to hint at the wide open vistas that extend ahead of the peasants as they make their way towards the castle in search of gold only to leave with something that while more valuable may also shine so brightly as to blind them to the inherent inequalities of the feudal order. 


The Hidden Fortress screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 20th & 27th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

The Lower Depths (どん底, Akira Kurosawa, 1957)

“How can you go to hell if you’re already there?” quips a stoical gangster, perhaps the only denizen of a rundown tenement block no longer looking for escape in Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of the Gorky play The Lower Depths (どん底, Donzoko). In general, much of Kurosawa’s post-war work decries deliberate falsehood but paradoxically suggests that some degree of self-delusion is essential for surviving an otherwise hopeless world. The wandering pilgrim who arrives like some kind of emissary from the land above says as much as he offers what may turn out to be false promises of a better world to come, but as one of his charges points out he does so “out of pity for those beyond hope.”

Then again, perhaps spirituality won’t save you either. As the film opens, it’s two monks who are seen throwing leaves over a cliff describing the settlement below as “just an old rubbish dump”, which in a sense it is if that were not such a cruel thing to say. In any case, the people who live here are all those who have already fallen into desperation, exiled from mainstream society and caught between a fierce desire to claw their way back up and the despair of knowing that in all likelihood they never will. A man who claims to be a former samurai waxes on his illustrious past, while a melancholy sex worker meditates on the lost love that reduced her to current position, and a stage actor laments his failing memory his mind now fogged by years of alcohol abuse that he says have already poisoned his “bitol organs”. A tinker secretly thinks he’s better than those around him. He’s only been here six months and insists that he’s a skilled craftsman who can continue working, but blames his desperate circumstances on the sickly wife whose death he quietly awaits assuming it will free him of this burden and thereafter this place.

It doesn’t, of course. He sells his tools to pay for her funeral, and otherwise appears lost no longer a husband to a dying wife. In essence the film revolves around a confrontation between the pilgrim who offers what may well be an illusion of salvation and the thief Sutekichi (Toshiro Mifune) who challenges him but begins to believe that it really may be possible for him to leave this place and take the woman he loves, Okayo (Kyoko Kagawa), with him or else fall further and remain trapped in this mortal hellscape. The problem there is that Sutekichi had previously been having an affair with the landlord’s wife Osugi (Isuzu Yamada) who is Okayo’s sister. Though Osugi, whose hope of escape through romance is dashed, first takes against her sister, she later offers to surrender her to Sutekichi if only he will assist her by killing her greedy husband Rokubei (Ganjiro Nakamura). 

In this cold and austere place which is in effect a living hell, there is a sense that many of the residents are already dead. Rokubei’s face is the palest of them all, suggesting that he is already too far gone ever to be saved and most likely doesn’t want to be anyway for in this terrible place he is in effect the king. Osugi is the queen, but often framed behind bars now a prisoner already too corrupt to leave the tenement behind. Her uncle, Deputy Shimazo (Kichijiro Ueda), has a largely illusionary sense of power in his position in a policeman which he prosecutes selectively and mostly at the service of the landlord. In the climactic closing scenes, his policeman’s baton is stolen by the drunkard Unokichi (Yu Fujiki) who dances through the streets with it demonstrating just how little authority he actually wields finally losing his position when the landlord is deposed and his familial connections become irrelevant. He inherits the landlord’s residence, but is reduced to the husband of the sweet seller Otaki (Nijiko Kiyokawa) whose status as a working woman is perhaps higher than his. 

Yet the pilgrim seems to think there is still time to save Sutekichi who at heart wants to go straight but is also resentful admitting that in a world where swindlers prosper perhaps it is foolish not to be a swindler. The pilgrim promises all of them a “better place”. “As long as you believe you’ll find it, you surely will”, he explains telling the actor about a temple that can help him cure his alcoholism while simultaneously urging the tinker’s suffering wife to give in to her fate and go to Buddha’s embrace as soon as possible. Perhaps he sincerely believes these things to be true, but also seems to have a sense that even if they weren’t these hopeless people could not go on if they knew there was no way out. They all say they’ll leave, but discover there are only two means of escape, to die or fall still further in banishment from this already banished place. Only Okayo whose final whereabouts remain unknown may finally have been able to free herself. Staying almost exclusively with the claustrophobic confines of the drafty tenement as wind the whistles through it, Kurosawa frames the space of one of existential purgatory but perhaps suggests that in the absence of salvation a comforting falsehood is the only means of survival.


The Lower Depths screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 19th & 30th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.