The Hidden Fortress and Samurai Creed

The Japanese samurai have captured the fascination of people since their rise to power. Western cinema has made countless films depicting their bravery and sometimes brutality like The Last Samurai. Comic books have been adapted to tv-series like Rurouni Kenshin. Movies like The Hidden Fortress have inspired movie directors like George Lucas and the creation of Star Wars. The Hidden Fortress is of particular interest, because it is a Japanese depiction of samurai and not a western idealized depiction. But how does the film’s portrayal of the samurai ethos compare with that of real samurai in Japanese history? In the following article I will compare The Hidden Fortress to some of the primary sources in Japanese history. I will use the abbreviation SJT for the book titled Sources in Japanese Tradition, and AJL for the book Anthology of Japanese Literature.

A big part of the samurai ethos is the idea that samurai have to be proficient with different weapons and in general be strong warriors. If we look at a passage from the Tale of the Heike where it describes the warriors of the east, we get a good idea of what samurai were supposed to be able to do: Aside from having tremendous archery skills “once a rider mounts, he never loses his seat; however rugged the terrain he gallops over, his horse never falls” (SJT, 278). Legendary warriors such as Minamoto no Tametomo were known for their almost superhuman abilities with various weapons such as the bow and arrow. The Hogen monogatari describes a stunned Taira warrior, who upon seeing Tametomo’s skill with the bow proclaimed “one cannot feel this is the act of an ordinary man” (SJT, 273). This kind of ideal is portrayed in the film by the General of the defeated Akizuki clan Makabe Rokurota who single handedly fights off a party of several enemy Yamana soldiers. He kills every one of them, including two that tried to flee on horseback. While chasing down the two fleeing soldiers, Rokurota shows distinct skill by being able to wield his sword with both hands and killing them while riding; this is in agreement with the description of mounted warriors in the Tale of the Heike.

In The Hidden Fortress we see another samurai ideal exemplified, the ideal of preserving one’s honor. In the film, General Rokurota stumbles upon the enemy camp of General Tadokoro. They both share a mutual respect for eachother, and decide to fight a duel. Both men fight with great prowess, but ultimately Tadokoro loses. As General Rokurota rides away from the enemy camp, Tadokoro yells to him: “Rokurota!” — several times. At first I thought Tadokoro was yelling at him because he was escaping, but later I realized he was yelling at him because Rokurota didn’t finish him off, instead he left him there defeated in front of all his men. In The Tale of the Heike there is described an incident that occurs on the beach, in which a samurai name Kumagai sees another samurai riding away and yells out “Shameful! to show an enemy your back. Return! Return!” (AJL, 180). The other samurai was young Atsumori, who upon hearing this, rode back and engaged Kumagai in mortal combat. The latter got the better of Atsumori, but upon seeing his youthful face, Kumagia was moved with compassion and wished to spare him. But Atsumori would have none of it, saying “Take my head and show it to some on my side, and they will tell you who I am” (AJL, 180). This is the same type of honor that we see in the movie, where death seems a better option than shame. It is likely because showing cowardice was considered a lowly thing to do, something we would expect from peasants like Tahei and Matashichi, but not from a samurai; much less a General, as we see in the movie.

Another important part of the samurai ethos is service to a lord. From the beginning, samurai like Tametomo were employed to settle disputes between claimants to the throne. Samurai would take sides, and battle it out in the service of the emperor they were backing. The Tale of the Heike talks about men who fell into swift destruction “after refusing to be governed by their former lords and sovereigns” (SJT, 277). In the movie, we see this kind of loyalty in General Rokurota, who strives to protect Princess Yuki Akizuki and considers it his only goal to the point that he sacrifices his own sister in the process. In their relationship, we see that Rokurota is a samurai because he serves her and the Akizuki clan. We can see that the movie The Hidden Fortress encompasses many elements of samurai ethos that are also found in Japanese literature such as: proficiency with weapons and horses, bravery, honor, and loyal service to a lord. These are just some of the things that samurai are supposed to live up to according to Bushido.

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