home of ... Douglas Social Credit
The Velveteen Princess: Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress
After doing Macbeth and then Gorky's Lower Depths, Kurosawa said he wanted to make a film that would be "100% entertainment." Yet Kurosawa can no more leave out the soul than he can leave out the camera. The result, Three Bad Men in a Hidden Fortress (1958, 130 minutes), is a cross-country romp in which the soul comes through with effortless ease. And as in so many of his films we have looked at, the soul of the film is a woman.
It is the sixteenth century, the civil wars. Three clans each share a border with the other two: Hayakawa, Yamana, and Akizuki. Yamana has just conquered Akizuki, and the Akizuki princess is a refugee with a price on her head. The Yamana are also looking for the Akizuki gold. Two Hayakawa peasants, Tahei and Matashichi sold their homes to buy armor, hoping to make their fortune in the wars. Instead, they were enslaved and forced to bury corpses. They are now in Akizuki with nothing. They start bickering like an old married couple and then split up. After being enslaved and escaping again, they joyfully find each other. Throughout the film, the pair are like feathers in the wind. They overreact to every slightest turn of fortune up or down. (In fact, one usually hears two identical exclamations of joy or woe in unconscious echo.) One moment they vow to be friends forever, the next they are at each other's throats.
They camp in the mountains near the Yamana border. The Hayakawa border is heavily guarded because the princess would naturally flee that way, so their ingenious plan is to get home via Yamana.
Matashichi tosses a stick and there is a metallic ring. Investigating, they find a gold bar bearing the Akizuki crescent! The stick had been drilled, and the gold bar hidden inside. Their mad search for more sticks is interrupted by the appearance of a formidable-looking stranger (Toshiro Mifune) watching them. That night he intrudes his presence at their fire and hearing their plan of getting into Hayakawa via Yamana, laughs out loud and says two horses and three men should be enough to carry the gold! So they are saddled with a partner or, rather, boss.
Next day he takes them to a fortress hidden in the mountains. He calls himself Makabe Rokurota, to which they respond, "Get out of here! Makabe Rokurota is a legendary Akizuki samurai general!"
They spy a girl with a switch up on a ridge and then again at the stream. Eluding them, she drops a comb with a crescent on it! Matashichi goes to report her and claim the reward, only to learn that the Princess was beheaded the day before. Hearing this, Rokurota goes to a cave behind a waterfall to report to the Princess: his sister has done her duty. The Yamana will relax their guard, and now is their best chance to get the gold out. The Princess is very angry. She shrieks at him:
P: Kofuyu was sixteen. I am sixteen. What difference is there in our souls? Lady-in-Waiting: It is our duty as servants. Kofuyu was honored P: If I were Kofuyu I would curse this Princess! . . . Rokurota, I don't even want to see your face! Your nobility that doesn't even shed a tear when you've killed your own sister. I hate it, hate it, hate it! [exit]. R: Her Highness is the real sacrifice. Her suffering of having to rebuild the Akizuki clan.
The Princess on a ridge. Tears streaming down her face as she gazes at her native land.
She finds three fine Yamana horses that Rokurota has stolen to carry the gold and rides one furiously to quench her raging emotion. Somewhat composed, she returns to the cave. Rokurota wonders aloud whether she could play mute (so her voice won't give her away), only to dismiss it as impossible. He wants to get her out with the gold, but knowing her contrary character, thinks to cozen her. But in a lovely scene, she rounds him, looks him straight in the eye, and says, "I'm not biting" then agrees to do it. The sticks are retrieved from where they were submerged in the stream, and the group embarks three horses, three men, and a mute girl. As they leave, her retainers appear up on the ridge, weeping to see their Princess reduced to a perilous journey in humble disguise out in the wide world.
At the river-border between Akizuki and Yamana, Tahei and Matashichi try to make off with the gold but are thwarted by the Princess-mute. Rokurota returns, slaps them silly, and tells them to take what they can carry and beat it. Realizing they don't know how to pass the border patrol, they come back begging forgiveness. Suddenly, smoke from the mountains! The Princess and Rokurota know her retainers have fought to the death to buy her time.
Rokurota gets them over the border with a ruse: brandishing a bar of gold, which he says he found in a stick, he so insistently demands a reward that the soldiers have to drive him away. Moments later and they would have been caught, for the significance of the Akizuki retainers' last stand was not lost on the Yamada. The Princess beams with pride in her resourceful man.
A town celebrating the Yamana victory: crowds, hubbub, laughter, shouting, carousing. The Princess walks around, taking it all in. She has never seen ordinary people at their ordinary occupations. Seeing a captured Akizuki girl being abused, she forces Rokurota to buy her, saying, "You cannot make my heart mute, too!"
The next day they are on the road again with a cart to replace the horse that Rokurota dared not refuse to sell. Accosted by mounted men, Rokurota kills two and chases the other two down on horseback, only to land squarely in the middle of the enemy camp, where he is heartily greeted by name. It is his respected and honored rival, Hyoe (Susumnu Fujita, Noge in No Regrets for Our Youth), and they can't resist the opportunity to try each other's skill with the spear. Hyoe is forced to yield, but Rokurota refuses to kill him. He rides off, saying, "We'll meet again!"
Rain. They are hiding in the woods and wondering how to move, since a description of their party has been published. In Rokurota's absence, Tahei and Matashichi plot to take advantage of the pretty Princess-mute, but the Akizuki girl intervenes. She has overheard the description of the Princess's party and realizes the truth. A bit later, the rain over, they hear drums and chanting. It's the Yamada Fire Festival, a parade of people all carrying wood. This provides an opportunity, so they join the parade.
Night. Bonfire in a clearing. A circular dance around it and a rhythmic song:1
As Tahei and Matashichi struggle to keep their cart, Rokurota appears, wrests it from them, and crashes it spectacularly into the bonfire. Rokurota shouts, "Dance!" and they all join the dance. The Princess's face shines.
A foggy dawn. They pick through the hot ashes for the gold. Sound of horns approaching. Soldiers are searching the woods. Our little band climbs up into the mountains. On the other side lies Hayakawa.
Full moon. Suddenly, the horns again. The enemy is upon them, and they are pinned down behind a fallen tree in a clearing. Rokurota gives the Princess a knife with a long look. He is going to draw fire to give her a chance to escape, but the Akizuki girl beats him to it and takes a bullet. As Tahei and Matashichi run for it, the Princess-mute shouts, "Farewell!" Rokurota and the Princess rescue the brave girl and run under fire. At the top of the ridge, they see Hayakawa and are immediately captured. At the border patrol where they have gone, in their lowest act yet, to tell what they know of the missing gold, Tahei and Matashichi learn their late companions have already been arrested.
Morning. Hyoe enters the room where the prisoners are. He stands in shadow, but Rokurota senses a change in him. As he steps into the light, his face reveals a hideous scar punishment for losing the duel. He is blaming Rokurota for letting him live, when the Princess shouts at him:
P: Fool! Are you the great Tadokoro Hyoe? What you make of another's kindness is up to you. You and your Lord, evidently you're both fools. To punish you so for losing to an enemy. Even I do not dare such a thing. Akizuki Girl: I'm the Princess! It's me! P: Stop. I appreciate your loyalty, but I want to die with dignity. R: Your Highness, this Rokurota cannot apologize enough. You endured so much, and it was all in vain. P: You're wrong, Rokurota. I had a good time. The happiness of these days I would never have known living in the castle. I saw people as they really are. I saw their beauty and their ugliness with my own eyes. Rokurota, I thank you. I can now die without regret. R: Your Highness! P: Rokurota, that Fire Festival was fun. I like that song. [She sings it.]
Outside. Rokurota and the Princess tied on horseback, an escort of foot soldiers, four horses laden with the gold, behind them Hyoe seated on the ground, brooding, and the open gate. Rokurota and the Princess look questioningly at him. Hyoe looks at the open gate. Suddenly, Hyoe starts to sing, brandishing his spear:
life of a man
"Let's burn it then! Turn the horses! Turn them I said!" His perplexed men obey. He drives the gold-laden horses out the gate, then turns on his men, cuts the prisoner's ropes with two spear-flicks, and cries: "Hurry, Rokurota! Take the Princess! She is a great leader. Serve her well."
"Hyoe!" cries the Princess. "Don't die in vain! If you wish, follow us!" With that, she gallops through the gate to freedom, followed by Rokurota (who scoops up the Akizuki girl). Hyoe, with a "Forgive this traitor!" leaps on horseback and follows. The four pull up at the top of a ridge in Hayakawa and burst out laughing: below them are the four horses with the gold, their saddlebags jingling!
Tahei and Matashichi wake up on the ground. The horses come walking up. They have scarcely realized their good fortune (and started to fight over it), when they are discovered by Hayakawa officers, who arrest them.
A porch with three figures: the Princess in the middle, in full regalia, flanked by Rokurota in full armor, and Hyoe. Two crouched figures below. Rokurota says, "Matashichi, Tahei, look up." They do not recognize him until the Princess makes him remove his helmet and also teases them, "You don't recognize your Princess?"
Rokurota says, "Matishichi, Tahei, you two went through a lot for us. However, that gold is an indispensable fund to restore Akizuki. Not I, not even the Princess, can take it. I hope you will be satisfied with this." The Princess says, "Split it fairly. No fighting." It is one gold bar.
As they walk down the steps from the palace, Tahei presses the bar into Matashichi's hand:
T: You keep this. M: No, you keep it. T: But . . . M: Don't worry about it.
These unlikely adventurers have come home with something after all, and the gold is the least of it. What a story they have to tell!
Kurosawa was dissatisfied with all the auditions for the role of the Princess and kept looking till he found Misa Uehara, a fresh and inexperienced actress who had the quality he was looking for "like a samurai's daughter." Proud and fierce, the Princess feels passionately her kinship with the least of her subjects. Yet being Princess keeps her from knowing them. Forced to flee in lowly disguise, she finds herself liberated, and a whole new world opens up to her people as they really are, her people or people just like her people. She sees them up close, both their beauty and their ugliness; and her heart goes out to them. She loves and suffers with them.
She sees many people in the town and at the Fire Festival, but none as closely as Tahei and Matashichi. It would be easy to dismiss them as rascals, but she doesn't. She sees that they are weak, vain, foolish ne'er-do-wells. Rokurota, living by the samurai code, sacrifices his own sister without emotion. Tahei and Matashichi sin from weakness, but they are more alive than Rokurota; and for this Life the Princess is grateful. She first breaks her silence as mute to shout a hasty farewell to them; and in the final scene, she says, "You don't recognize your Princess?" that is, she has adopted them as her own. In their sudden deference to one another in the last scene, we see that the Princess has won them over, too shown them something worth more than gold.
Rokurota has about as much respect for the peasants as for horses a little less, in fact. Marveling at their clever plan to get to Hayakawa, he and another retainer have a laugh: "Sometimes even moss is smart." But not even Rokurota is immune to her influence. In the beginning he thinks of the peasants as slaves to be barked at and used and of the Princess as a spoilt girl who can be "handled." By the end, she has won the loyalty of his friend; and even he can now address the petrified Tahei and Matashichi in gentle tones. Tahei and Matashichi, Hyoe and Rokurota the Princess has little by little redeemed them just as she redeemed the Akizuki girl. The title Three Bad Men points to the woman as the good.
The hidden fortress is only a small part of this film, but the Princess-mute herself is a hidden fortress. She is a Princess hidden in humble disguise, but more important, she is a soul hidden in a Princess. Her soul longs to sparkle in the daylight but lies entombed in a priosn like gold in a stick.
It is at the Yamada Fire Festival, with its haunting song of mystical union, that she breaks free. As is the moth to the bonfire, so is the soul to Life. Though Life consumes us, it is our destiny. It is only there, refined of all falseness and pretense, that our souls truly touch one another. So do not be lukewarm, do not live half-heartedly and cravenly, do not throw up walls between yourself and your fellow creatures, but live, live! Lose yourself in Life! Love and suffer! Loving and suffering go together, they cannot be separated. It may be painful, but out of the ashes of your self the true gold will shine forth.
The Princess's soul blooms, and that night she breaks her silence to bid her two friends Tahei and Matashichi goodbye. They have not known her at all, but she has known them and loved them. (They don't know who spoke, each thinks it must have been the other.)
The hearty friendship and mutual respect between Hyoe and Rokurota, on opposite sides of the war, is a wonderful touch, a high-water mark of the samurai code. But Rokurota's sacrifice of his sister and Hyoe's humiliation by his lord belong to the same code, a code the Princess despises in every democratic fiber of her being. The code does not go with the mystical song. The code is an evasion of love and suffering. "It isn't the ocean that drowns you, it's the puddle," says Gleb in Solzhenitsyn's First Circle.
The Princess could not join in the singing at the Fire Festival, because she was playing mute. Facing death, she sings it with all her heart. Paradoxically, bound and facing death, she is free and alive for the first time in her life. She sings with all her heart, and her song touches another imprisoned soul ready to bloom the brooding, pregnant Hyoe and he, too, makes the choice of Life.
The Princess says, "Burn it," and is ready to die with joy. She has renounced all. But this is a fairy-tale, so guess what? The heroine who in the depths of her heart renounces all, gets all back: there's a hair-breadth escape, and voila! even the gold comes jingling back borne by magical horses! The Princess has been tested and found worthy. A heart that has once chosen Life will never be corrupted by gold, so God puts the gold into the hand that belongs to such a heart . A Princess who has lived the life of a poor exile and befriended the scruffy comrades fate thrust in her path, not with a sigh but with heartfelt gratitude such a Princess will be a great leader of all us Taheis and Matashichis poor exiles and wayfarers on the road of Life.
1. The first translation is from the subtitles, the second from Complete Works of Kurosawa (Tokyo: Kinema Jumposha, 1970).