The point of view is that of two peasants, down on their luck, and entirely without loyalties (even to each other) and addicted to greed. It is a 16th century time of civil war. For most of the film the peasants travel with the last princess of one of the two clans, her loyal general, and what remains of the royal wealth in gold, as they endeavour to leave the occupied lands to reach a safe haven. The story is presented as if it were from a fabulist; in other words, fabulous or fantastic. Kurosawa presents the fable with architectural legerdemain, entirely deliberate, frequently fanciful, often with irony of style, and interspersed with tableaux, as the rescue of the fair maiden unfolds for ill and good. The linkages between the tableaux are the comic interludes of the two peasants; the thread that pulls the interludes and the tableaux together and along is the story of the rescue.
It all works well. The peasant scenes work as well in the film as do similar episodes in Shakespeare. The legitimacy of the princess is never in doubt, and the valour and devotion of her general are unquestionable.
The major tableaux are six:
- a dramatic chase and violent killing of a soldier by horseman of the conquering clan
- a revolt of hundreds of prisoners of the conquering clan that reaches its climactic success on the steps of a castle (and the visual relationship to Eisenstein’s scene on the steps of Odessa in Battleship Potemkin is, I think, deliberate)
- an electrifying sword chase on horseback by the loyal general of armed horsemen of the conquering clan
- a superb choreography of a duel by lance between the loyal general and a general of the conquering clan
- a ritual fire festival dance by hundreds of peasants in the conquered land
- the escape from capture of the princess, the loyal general, and the gold, through the intervention of the general of the conquering clan
The moral of the tale is in the lyrics of the fire festival song, for which the Kurosawa scholar, Donald Richie, gives this translation:
“Kindle your life and burn it away,
Live with all your might.
Kindle a blaze in this dark world,
For life’s dream lasts but one night.”
It is, Richie writes, “an exhortation to be yourself, to be what you are, to realize yourself.” Kurosawa explores this in great depth in his later film, Red Beard. If one accepts this, the exhortation is as old as the Ethics of Aristotle.