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Excerpt from Akira Kurosawa and Modern Japan

IMAG4117 Shiroishi castle.jpg
Excerpt: Welcome

Chapter 18: The Hidden Fortress

By the late 1950s ever more people wanted for little that could be manufactured or sold, so they began to desire things that had no price tag. The economic miracle meant that consumers could purchase comfortable lives in the present and still have plenty left over to save for the future, which they did at a rate that put American saving habits to shame. This left only the past to buy, but what Japan had lost during the first half of the 20th century could not simply be bought back.

The most obvious losses were physical structures. Whatever the Meiji and Taishō governments had not razed in the pursuit of progress, American bombs destroyed in the pursuit of peace. Among the hundreds of thousands of structures destroyed by wartime bombing were over 200 venerable buildings that had been specially designated as National Treasures. The beautiful wooden castles that dotted Japan for centuries were mostly gone, leaving behind only stone foundations or grassy fields. The same was true of many ancient Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, not to mention the wood-and-paper houses that most people lived in before switching to modernized, prefabricated homes.

Though few people would have chosen to go back to the rougher, hungrier lifestyle of the past, Japan’s recent changes contributed to a sense of cultural orphanhood. “By the mid–1950s there was a visible movement to preserve physical and cultural aspects of Japan that had survived the war, and a growing sense of alarm at the continued destruction of historic buildings through reconstruction and economic growth,” writes architecture historian Cherie Wendelken. District preservation movements, in which neighbors banded together to protect buildings of local historical interest, were a product of the 1950s and ’60s and possibly the first organizations of their kind in Asia.1

“New” was everywhere, but “old” was in demand. Dentō ronsō, meaning “traditional discourse,” was a buzzword for the wellspring of interest in all things uniquely Japanese. In 1955 the government enacted the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties, which redefined National Treasures to include not only ancient structures still standing but also newer buildings and replicas of ones that had been destroyed. Long-gone castles reappeared incongruously at the center of rebuilt cities, becoming symbols of local pride and beacons of tourism. Crumbling samurai residences and modest, formerly-overlooked farmhouses received official protection and refurbishment, as did the homes of recent and ancient Japanese artists. There was also a surge of interest in identifying and celebrating regional dialects, local festivals, traditional dances, and handmade craft techniques all across the Japanese archipelago. These “intangible cultural properties” could receive official protection as well, and prefectures and towns promoted their local traditions to attract visitors and encourage sales. In the era of high-speed economic growth as social relations and the physical landscape took on new forms, symbols of the past provided a welcome sense of continuity and identity.

In this nostalgic context Kurosawa released his eighteenth film, The Hidden Fortress (Kakushi toride no san akunin, “The Three Outlaws of the Hidden Fortress”). The script by Kurosawa, Hashimoto Shinobu (Rashōmon, Ikiru, Seven Samurai), and Kikushima Ryūzō (Scandal, Throne of Blood) is uncharacteristically lighthearted. A sense of danger pervades the film, but there is little attention to the kind of social problems that usually drive Kurosawa’s dramas. Instead The Hidden Fortress has strong comedic overtones and a romanticism about premodern life that borders on
the fantastical. Japanese audiences who craved positive portrayals of Japanese history and culture made this exciting, upbeat jidaigeki Kurosawa’s most financially-successful film to date.

To shoot the film Kurosawa returned to Mt. Fuji, where he had shot parts of Throne of Blood the year before. The iconic mountain itself was a protected national treasure, having been included in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park in 1936. Kurosawa’s decision to shoot on the isolated mountain, with its thin air and difficult-to-predict weather, was an extravagance that was only possible due to the Tōhō film company’s comparatively easy access to money during the economic boom. Even still, the studio balked when Kurosawa stretched a planned 10-day shoot at Fuji’s Myōjin Pass to around 100 days. The director was waiting for the weather to improve in order to get precisely the right shots, and in the meantime he passed the days in apparent idleness, for example by stacking smooth stones along a riverbank with members of his crew. Fuji’s erratic weather pattern was exacerbated in late September 1958 by the landfall of the Kanogawa typhoon, at the time the strongest typhoon on record. Flooding and landslides in Tokyo, less than 100 miles from the filming location, killed over 1200 people, wounded a nearly equal number, and left over ten times as many homeless. Even in a country accustomed to dozens of typhoons each year, this was a huge blow in terms of lives and property lost.2

Despite the natural disaster, Tōhō executives considered the production delay on The Hidden Fortress excessive, and they told Kurosawa that he needed to compromise his vision or else set up his own production company to finance his future movies. He established Kurosawa Productions in 1959. Tōhō continued to act as Kurosawa’s distributor, but for the foreseeable future the liability for any losses would fall primarily on Kurosawa himself. It was a risk worth taking for the director, who had long resented the oversight of money-minded studio executives.

In The Hidden Fortress’s long opening shot, the first widescreen shot of Kurosawa’s career, two commoners stagger through a valley arguing about their past and future. Tahei (Chiaki Minoru) wants to go back home after their brief stint in a warlord’s military ended in humiliation. Matashichi (Fujiwara Kamatari), on the other hand, refuses to return to their village until he strikes it rich. The two part ways at the corpse of a samurai; despite the dead samurai in the center of the shot, the tone of the scene is comical thanks to Tahei and Matashichi’s exaggerated bickering. Their rapid-fire dialogue and slapstick physicality have roots in a two-man comedy genre called manzai, which was popular on stage before jumping to television in the postwar era.

The prospect of treasure looms before each of the protagonists in turn. A gang of samurai forces Tahei to join a work crew that is digging out a stash of gold under a recently-captured castle. Meanwhile, Matashichi learns about a large cash reward for a missing princess, but soon an army presses him into grunt work as well. The two friends meet again as their respective work groups clash with musket-wielding samurai overseers on a broad, outdoor stair, and in the confusion they escape together. There is a revealing juxtaposition between the grim, slave-driving, death-dealing samurai and the comical yet practical behavior of Tahei and Matashichi. The commoners’ contorted facial expressions, crass language, and wild emotional swings mark them as figures of fun, but what they want—safety and prosperity—is far more sensible than whatever the samurai hope to achieve with their back-and-forth battle over a few square meters of a ruined castle town. In the comparatively comfortable, egalitarian, peace-loving Japan of 1958, the characters of Tahei and Matashichi made relatable heroes precisely because of their profit-minded, risk-averse nature, which the movie exaggerates for comic effect.

The two friends literally stumble into wealth while camping in a rocky valley alongside a small stream. They notice that some of the wood Tahei gathered for their fire does not burn, and upon inspection they find that they are trying to burn gold—the “sticks” are actually gold bars in disguise. Unfortunately for them, the valley’s gold has a guardian: an imposing, bearded man (Mifune Toshirō) who watches them from higher up the valley. For a small nation, Japan has many gold mines, and until the 20th century the metal made an attractive basis for currency. Between the world wars, however, the global economy suffered a wave of economic crises that made direct conversions between money and gold increasingly risky. When a nation lost gold due to a trade imbalance or too many people redeeming paper money for gold, it had to choose between unattractive alternatives. It could issue increasingly worthless paper money, which might cause inflation, or it could make less money available to its businesses and citizens, which might trigger recessions and depressions. In 1931 Japan’s leaders, after much debate and a couple of reversals and counter-reversals, cut the nation’s ties with the international economy by refusing to send gold abroad. Government officials who wanted to maintain the international “gold standard” sometimes suffered violent reprisals, as when banker and Finance Minister Junnosuke Inoue was assassinated in 1932. After World War II Japan did not return to the gold standard, but rather linked the value of the yen to the U.S. dollar, the currency of its protector and ally.3

Gold remained culturally significant even when it was no longer directly linked to monetary wealth. The first National Treasure designated under the 1951 Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties was Konjikidō, a small, 12th-
century building covered entirely in gold leaf in the ancient town of Hiraizumi in northeastern Japan. The famous Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, Kinkakuji, was rebuilt and covered in gold leaf in 1955 (see Chapter 15). Later in the century some bathhouses and hotels created solid gold or gold-plated bathtubs to attract guests looking to immerse themselves in aureate gleam; one of these baths is reportedly the largest golden object in the world. Fancy confections and drinks using gold flakes as garnish became a common sight as the boutique food industry matured into one of Japan’s most innovative sectors. Twenty-first-century Japan is one of the world’s leading consumers and producers of gold, and gold is a component in many of the electronic devices that Japan exports to the world.4

While Tahei and Matashichi celebrate their discovery of the gold stash, the bearded man approaches and informs them that the gold belongs to the princess of the Akizuki domain—the missing princess whom Matashichi learned about earlier in the film. Princess Yuki is the last survivor of the Akizuki ruling family, which the rival Yamana domain recently wiped out. If the princess can avoid the Yamana forces and recover her family’s hidden gold, she can mount a counteroffensive. If not, her dynasty will come to an end. The bearded man intends to help her, and he makes Tahei and Matashichi assist him by carrying the gold out of the valley to a rendezvous with the princess.

The Akizuki princess bears a royal title because she is the daughter of a medieval warlord, but modern Japan had princesses, too. At the end of the 1950s there were over half a dozen of them. The American occupation government abolished most nobility titles in the mid–1940s, but terms like “prince” and “princess” still applied to members of the imperial family, and their doings attracted popular interest. Emperor Hirohito’s aunt and two nieces used the title princess, as did Hirohito’s four daughters who survived to adulthood. The eldest of the daughters married into a cadet branch of the royal family, but the other three gave up their titles when they married commoners; two married descendants of nobility in the early 1950s, and the third married a financial analyst in 1960. When Hidden Fortress came to theaters, the most important princess-to-be in the land was Shōda Michiko, the daughter of a flour miller who met Hirohito’s son Akihito on a tennis court in 1957 and became his fiancée in 1958. Sporty and thoroughly “modern”—Michiko spoke English from childhood and practiced Catholicism before converting to Shinto for her marriage in 1959—Japan’s newest princess would become Empress Michiko when her husband took the throne in 1989.

Hidden Fortress’s Princess Yuki (Uehara Misa) is hiding out at the titular redoubt where the bearded man brings Matashichi and Tahei. There the bumbling pair learns that the bearded man calls himself Makabe Rokurōta, the name of a great samurai of the Akizuki domain. Absurdly, Matashichi and Tahei do not instantly realize that they are in the company of the missing princess and her loyal guardian. In their defense, Makabe and Princess Yuki go to great lengths to keep their identity secret. Since Yuki’s educated diction could give her away, she pretends to be mute around Matashichi, Tahei, and other strangers. The script finds much humor in the fact that the commoners do not recognize the princess as their social superior. In their ignorance they occasionally make advances on her, but these are foiled either by Yuki herself, who is alert and always carries a riding crop, which she wields skillfully, or by others, including a young woman whom the travelers liberate from a Yamana brothel.

The movie’s unlikely quartet leaves the hidden fortress and travels through a series of gorgeous landscapes that celebrate Japan’s natural beauty. In addition to the punishing grandeur of Mt. Fuji, Kurosawa took his actors into the rocky Horai Gorge of western Japan, part of the Setonaikai National Park. As he did so memorably in Rashōmon, Kurosawa shoots scenes in the dappled half-light of groves and alongside sparkling streams that, with the help of mirrors, cast wavering reflections onto the actors’ faces. Yet unlike Rashōmon, whose forest has a dark, claustrophobic feel appropriate to the evil events that take place there, The Hidden Fortress’s forests are bright and beautiful. So too are its granite cliffs and sloping river valleys. The new, wide film format that Kurosawa used for The Hidden Fortress conveys each location’s breathtaking beauty.

Holiday excursions to the mountains and seaside had long been popular forms of recreation in Japan. Kurosawa depicted one such idyllic trek in No Regrets for Our Youth (see Chapter 5) and another in Scandal (see Chapter 10). During the postwar boom, as people found themselves with more time and money for leisure activities, visiting Japan’s sites of natural beauty became an expression of cultural pride. Wartime bombing destroyed many man-made structures, but it left the mountains, valleys, and dense forests that covered over three-quarters of the Japanese archipelago intact, and the most impressive of them welcomed growing numbers of domestic tourists. In the first ten years after the war Japan expanded its number of national parks by 50 percent, adding over 1650 new acres of protected land and coastline. In 1957 a new law introduced Quasi-National Parks (“places of great natural scenic beauty next to the National Parks”) and Prefectural Natural Parks, which caused the number of protected acres to grow exponentially. The nation’s train agency, Japan National Railways, used slogans like “Discover Japan” to encourage urbanites to get away to inaka, the countryside. Weekend vacationers left the newly-acquired conveniences of their modern homes to walk in the woods, stay in traditional-style inns, visit old or reconstructed historical sites, and seek “authentic” local experiences that put them in touch with what travel brochures called the “womb of Japan,” the “Japanese heart,” and the “real Japan.” Those too young to remember life before the economic boom were among those most entranced by the lure of inaka: a survey in the early 1990s found that 70 percent of adults under 40 had visited “the mountains, a forest, valley or other natural area for a non-work purpose during the past year.” At the end of the century Japanese people visited their national parks at three times the rate Americans visited theirs.5

Matashichi, Tahei, Makabe, and Princess Yuki’s romp through the Japanese wilderness takes them to a colossal waterfall (probably the Shiraito Falls near Mt. Fuji), jagged cliffs dotted with pines, and wide rivers flowing through bamboo forests and tall grasses. Makabe references one location, Mt. Suribachi, by name—not the Mt. Suribachi on remote Iwo Jima where American Marines famously planted a flag in 1945, but one of many other similarly-named mountains on the Japanese home islands. The protagonists do not simply pass through this eye-catching scenery,
but actually use it to their advantage; the landscape provides them shelter from the weather and from enemy troops.

The Hidden Fortress, with all its humor and excitement, marks a change in Kurosawa’s approach to violence. In his earlier medieval tales Rashōmon and Seven Samurai, combat was a physical extension of characters’ moral struggles. Fighting in those movies was more grim than glamorous, and it was a means to an end rather than an end unto itself. In The Hidden Fortress, however, swordplay is pure spectacle. Audiences’ nostalgia for the past translated to a willingness to believe in the noble ideals of the samurai and to admire cinematic warriors’ strength for its own sake. In one long interlude in the film’s second half, Makabe rides away from the rest of the quartet and engages in a friendly but potentially-deadly duel with an old comrade (Fujita Susumu). In this fight there is no right or wrong, only an exhibition of bravery and skill.

Near the end of their journey the travelers happen upon a large himatsuri, a fire festival where villagers dance, sing, and play taiko drums and shakuhachi flutes around a celebratory bonfire. Fire festivals take place in many parts of Japan, but the most famous ones occur near the old capital of Kyoto, a leading destination for travelers seeking echoes of old Japan. Kurosawa highlights the elemental beauty of the event, punctuating wide shots of the crowd and flames with closer ones of Princess Yuki smiling and dancing in the crowd. This is precisely the kind of “authentic” local encounter that tradition-seeking tourists of the late 1950s craved, and Princess Yuki is an attractive representation of the ideal tourist experience. First-time actress Uehara was a new face for audiences in 1958, as anonymous as the young female models in railroad advertisements who met with rustic locals and gazed happily at historic landmarks and scenic vistas.6

The Hidden Fortress has an upbeat ending, as optimistic as anything Kurosawa ever filmed. With the help of Makabe’s dueling partner the protagonists escape enemy territory with their lives and most of Princess Yuki’s gold. Reflecting on the value of travel, Yuki says, “The happiness of these days I would never have known living in a castle.” Matashichi and Tahei, too, have seen the world, and they end their adventure little richer but with smiles on their faces.

The movie’s nostalgia is inextricable from its sense of national pride. Some critics view the ending, in which Princess Yuki and Makabe plan to rebuild the destroyed Akizuki kingdom using the gold they smuggled through enemy territory, as an instance of “fairy tale logic.” In the context of medieval Japanese warfare it does beggar belief, but in the context of 1958 and Japan’s economic miracle it was no more implausible than the fact that Japan had gone from total collapse to astonishing plenty in the span of a decade. The flag of the Akizuki kingdom, a huge crescent moon on a plain background, has more than a passing resemblance to the modern Japanese flag’s circular red sun on a field of white, and when Kurosawa superimposes it over Yuki’s face it elicits what film scholar Catherine Russell calls “a nostalgic longing for an imaginary nation” that was readily transferable to the real nation. Expressions of patriotism were firmly discouraged during the American occupation, as were depictions of Japan’s feudal past. It was now six years since the occupation ended, and a new kind of patriotism was taking root: a patriotism based on “social reconciliation and peaceful nation-building” powered by miraculous economic growth and adorned with Japan’s celebrated natural treasures.7

The popular escapism of The Hidden Fortress paved the way for future action/adventure movies like Yōjimbō (1961) and Tsubaki Sanjūrō (1962), not to mention George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977). Yet Kurosawa would never abandon his interest in the darker parts of postwar life, as his next feature, the independently-financed The Bad Sleep Well, would prove.

  1. Cherie Wendelken, “Aesthetics and Reconstruction: Japanese Architectural Culture in the 1950s,” in Rebuilding Urban Japan After 1945, eds. Carola Hein, Jeffry M. Diefendorf, and Ishida Yorifusa (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 189–90, 201.

  2. Asanobu Kitamoto, “Digital Typhoon: Typhoon Damage List,” accessed April 18, 2022, http://agora.ex.nii.ac.jp/cgi-bin/dt/disaster.pl?lang=en&basin=wnp&sort=dead_or_missing&order=dec&stype=number.

  3. Mark Metzler, Lever of Empire: The International Gold Standard and the Crisis of Liberalism in Prewar Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), xiv–xv, 239.

  4. “Natural Resources and Japan: Gold, Timber, Urban Mining and Metal Thieves,” Facts and Details, accessed April 18, 2022, http://factsanddetails.com/japan/cat24/sub159/item932.html.

  5. Natural Park Act, Act No. 161 of 1959, accessed April 18, 2022, http://www.env.go.jp/en/ laws/nature/ law_np.pdf; John Knight, “Competing Hospitalities in Japanese Rural Tourism,” Annals of Tourism Research 23, no. 1 (1996): 168, 344; Millie Creighton, “Consuming Rural Japan: The Marketing of Tradition and Nostalgia in the Japanese Travel Industry,” Ethnology 36, no. 3 (Summer 1997), 239, 244; Oliver R.W. Pergrams and Patricia A. Zaradic, “Evidence for a fundamental and pervasive shift away from nature-based recreation,” accessed April 18, 2022, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2268130/pdf/zpq2295.pdf.

  6. Creighton, 245-46.

  7. Catherine Russell, “A Princess and Three Good Men,” The Hidden Fortress DVD insert (New York: The Criterion Collection, 2014).

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