When the majority of the Akizuki clan is killed during a time of civil war, General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) does his best to smuggle the surviving Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara) and a pile of gold across occupied borders with the hopes that her house can one day be rebuilt.
If the plot sounds familiar to Kurosawa fans, it should. This is basically a loose, pumped up remake of The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, which also featured a general smuggling disguised royalty across enemy territory. Also similar to that film is the inclusion of a pair of bumbling peasants who play the part of our down-to-earth guides as we muddle through the broader politics of feuding houses.
Toshiro Mifune once again plays Toshiro Mifune. I'm not complaining, because his trademark fierce loyalty, shifting from a brutal grimace to an approving grin, fits the character well and his physicality makes for some damn exciting action sequences, some of the best Kurosawa's put together. If I have one complaint, it's that more focus isn't given to the fact that he sacrificed his own sister, disguised as the Princess, to her eventual death at enemy hands. I know his lack of a response is supposed to show his unquestioning dedication, but I just wanted to see something. Anything.
Though she spits out her lines with a bit of forced authority, Uehara really sells her role as an unconventional Princess for Japanese films of this period, one who tomboyishly strides and glares and can hold her own in a fight with two larger men. There's a fierceness, a strength and dignity that rises above her petite frame, which really works for the character and, as much as I wished to have more from Makabe, I like how she expresses doubt and uncertainty towards the sacrifice of those around her. This is especially telling when she asks a scarred samurai why he'd serve a lord who maims him for a loss, when all she cares about is that he tried.
The real stars of the film are Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matakishi (Kamatari Fujiwara), the bumbling thieves who are tricked into carrying the Princess's gold when Makabe draws them into what they believe is a major heist. Despite the fact that they aren't good people and continuously work up schemes to rob the others, the ways they keep failing and are forced to return to the gang with their tails between their legs makes it impossible to not love them.
Also worth mentioning is the fifth member of the group, an unnamed young woman bought out of cruel slavery when the Princess learns she's a fellow survivor of the Akizuki Clan's pillaged lands. Though she comes in late and often slips into the background, Toshiko Higuchi is superb at showing her quiet loyalty to the Princess, most memorably in a hilarious scene where she fends off the two thieves with a large rock. It's a shame Higuchi only appeared in four other movies, because she seems like quite an overlooked talent.
I see that this is Kurosawa's first time filming in anamorphic widescreen. Other than a couple awkward shots (Yuki superimposed over her family banner, a quartet of people sobbing over a cliffside) he works it like a master. His editing, shot composition, and use of natural locations are all at play as Kurosawa gives us unforgettable imagery like a fierce horse chase, multiple hilarious uses of a steep mound of gravel, a wild fire worshipping festival, and a huge, surrounding army, slowly converging into view from a misty forest.
As far as the writing goes, Kurosawa can do no wrong when paired up with collaborators Kikushima, Hashimoto, and Oguni. The quartet really know how to peel back the layers of a story and its cast and fill them with the rich details necessary to create a true, encompassing world. And the others know how to twist Kurosawa's sentimentality just enough to make it believable, such as the seemingly happy ending that still carries with it a biting, satirical edge.
I really enjoyed this movie. It had me hanging on the edge of my seat in excitement, gaping at the epic imagery, cheering the heroes on, and laughing like hell at the bumbling situations they found themselves in. It's a fantastic film, absolutely fantastic, and should not, under any circumstances, be missed.
And as for the Star Wars connection, just watch it yourself. The influences are there, but beyond them, you're still in for a great flick.