Star Wars fans and critics alike have been drawing parallels between The Hidden Fortress and Star Wars since it premiered; each story is told from the perspective of the lowest two characters, they utilize transitional horizontal wipes between scenes, two former best friends must fight as bitter enemies, the list goes on. Lucas even considered Toshiro Mifune to play the part of Ben Kenobi, and has admitted the large influence that The Hidden Fortress and other Kurosawa films had on his own work. When I first watched The Hidden Fortress, the parallels that immediately struck me most were the similarities between Princess Yuki and Princess Leia.
In both Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958) and George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), a princess plays a significant role. Kurosawa’s Princess Yuki resides in the titular “hidden fortress,” patiently awaiting her chance to move to more friendly Hayakawa territory, while Princess Leia is captured by Darth Vader while on her way to transmit plans to help the rebel alliance defeat the imperial empire. Both princesses have moments playing both the damsel in distress and the badass; however, Kurosawa and Lucas deal with these character archetypes in different ways.
They both do not mind using their witty, fast tongues against men when the moment calls for it. They both use their power to reward goodness and bravery in a ceremony at the end of their respective films. They are both characterized as strong women who are caring and passionate about their duties to their people; when disaster strikes, they are both full of anguish and sadness, something they hide from the men around them in order to maintain the aura of strength as a tactic of survival. Both princesses privately grieve when their homes, the Akizuki clan and the planet of Alderaan, are destroyed by the larger, evil forces of the Yamana clan and the Imperial Empire. In turn, both princesses channel this pain into dedication to fighting and defeating the evil that has wronged them. If the male characters see them crying, then they will be seen as overly “emotional” or “losing control,” and therefore unable to properly fight back, which is their only goal.
Yuki and Leia are both “stand up and fight” princesses, but are they both protagonists in their own stories?
In interviews, Lucas has described Princess Leia as more of a “stand up and fight” kind of princess than Princess Yuki, but I disagree. It is not fair to discount the moments where Princess Yuki fights against injustice committed against others and herself, such as saving a servant woman from sexual slavery or fighting the peasants off with a staff when they attempt to sexually assault Yuki. And although she does not do so by brute force, she literally saves the gang. Her speech at the end of the film about how even in the face of death, she has enjoyed seeing the beauty and ugliness of humanity on her journey, is what convinces Tadokoro to change his mind and help them escape across the border to Hayakawa. Unlike Yuki, Princess Leia fights against Stormtroopers in order to save the rebel plans in the opening and then is captured for the majority of the film in order to make way for the true hero of the story, Luke Skywalker.
I assert that the function of the princess character is different in The Hidden Fortress and Star Wars. Princess Yuki is a protagonist who fights alongside Makabe Rokurota, while Princess Leia serves as a supporting character in Luke Skywalker’s story. There is no comparable Luke Skywalker character in The Hidden Fortress because Princess Yuki fills roles of both Luke and Leia; Kurosawa’s writing is so streamlined that the princess can also be the protagonist who ultimately saves the day. Although Princess Yuki needs Rokurota in order to help her safely cross the border into Hayakawa, she is often the character driving the action of the narrative. If Kurosawa had written Star Wars, then Princess Leia would be the one blowing up the Death Star at the end of the film. Although Lucas claims he wrote a “stand up and fight” princess, I believe he preferred a “get captured and wait for someone to save her” princess; why else would this be such a recurring motif in the series?
I do not intend to discount Leia’s bravery and “stand up and fight” moments; without her courageously inserting the stolen plans into R2D2 and recording a message for Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke could have never blown up the Death Star. However, Princess Leia has many more moments of supporting Luke than she does moments of driving the action of the narrative forward; she cannot drive the action forward if she is captured and there is no hope for escape until Luke comes to save her. Her beauty in the hologram message is what sparks Luke’s interest in the rebellion in the first place, she gives Luke kisses on the cheek and pep talks for courage multiple times, her body clings closely to his as they swing across the chasm; not only are these are examples of the actions of a supporting character (not the protagonist), but I also assert that these moments are meant for the audience‘s pleasure or excitement. These moments do not drive Leia’s narrative forward. Rather, they only serve to hint at a future relationship with Luke and to excite, what film theorist Laura Mulvey calls, the male gaze. The male gaze means looking at female characters and the world through the eyes of a male protagonist. Women are often seen as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer when seen through the male gaze.
By definition, the protagonist is the character the audience is supposed to identify with and root for; we see ourselves in the protagonist, and imagine ourselves in his or her shoes. The protagonist drives the action of the narrative forward. The protagonist undergoes character growth and development; they go through a journey and are not the same person that they were when they started. Supporting characters are interesting and can undergo development in their own right. However, their main function within the narrative is to help the protagonist achieve success on their journey. Luke Skywalker is the character the audience is meant to identify with in Star Wars, not Princess Leia; he undergoes a lot of growth on his journey from working on his uncle’s farm to saving the rebel alliance and blowing up the Death Star. Therefore, we are meant to gaze at Princess Leia from Luke’s eyes; and as it turns out, Luke sees Leia as an object of beauty and pleasure. I do not think it is a coincidence that Princess Leia is laying down in her cell in a sexually suggestive way when Luke finds her. A more extreme example of Lucas overtly sexualizing Leia would be her golden bikini when she is captured by Jabba the Hutt in The Return of the Jedi (1983). This costume decision was not made in order to empower Princess Leia; it was made to humiliate her and titillate the viewer. In an article with Interview magazine, Carrie Fisher (rest in power queen), who depicted Princess Leia in the entire Star Wars series, once said to actress Daisy Ridley, “Don’t be a slave like I was…You fight against that slave outfit.”
There are no such images of Princess Yuki in The Hidden Fortress. Instead of encouraging the audience to look at Princess Yuki in a sexual way, Kurosawa actively critiques and discourages this kind of viewing by having Princess Yuki easily fight the peasants off from sexually assaulting her. This is a metaphor for Kurosawa swatting voyeuristic viewers away. In fact, he takes a step further and encourages the banding together of women against patriarchal systems in the scene where Princess Yuki insists on saving the servant girl from sexual slavery, even despite the objections of her male allies. In this case, strong female relationships are more important than relationships between men and women. Additionally, Kurosawa did not need to include a Luke Skywalker character to gaze upon Yuki because the audience is meant to identify with Yuki herself.
Kurosawa insists that Princess Yuki is her own person who commands respect, while Lucas, whether intentionally or unintentionally, reinforces the idea that “the determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female figure, which is styled accordingly,” (Mulvey) perhaps in a revealing gold bikini, which instantly became a visual fantasy for young American boys. Princess Yuki is never costumed this way, which is refreshing. Since Princess Yuki is a protagonist, we identify with her instead of gazing at her through the male lens as we do with Princess Leia. This distinction is important when having conversations regarding how filmmakers and audiences present and view women on screen.
So, should women be the protagonists of their own stories or are they better serving as the love interests for the male protagonist? Although their princesses have a lot in common, I believe Kurosawa and Lucas might have different answers to this crucial question, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine why this could be; as a fan of both films, I can only speculate. The Hidden Fortress is arguably ahead of its time; since it debuted 19 years before Star Wars, the classic reasoning that “older movies are just worse for women because times change” is automatically ruled out. Perhaps this highlights an important difference in the way women function in American films versus Japanese films, or it could just be a personal storytelling preference. This matters in the context of the larger cinema because representation matters so much to audience members of all genders and ethnicities. Seeing oneself represented on screen is an important part of growing up and especially when seeing oneself as the protagonist of your own story, instead of a supporting character in someone else’s story.