'Kagemusha' is presented in widescreen 1.85:1 with MPEG 4 AVC coding.
Right from the opening scenes the precise framing of Kurosawa gives the entire piece an incredibly cinematic feel. The composition is crisp, clean and often epic in its presentation, especially during the brighter outdoor scenes. Kurosawa includes some beautiful images of the Japanese landscape which includes some wonderful greenery set to a backdrop of snowy mountains. The image has got a very pleasing depth but the image is never razor sharp, especially those objects in the background. As a whole the presentation does have are pleasing body about it and there are even a couple of instances of three-dimensionality, such as during the dream sequence.
The colour palette, while appearing slightly washed out in handful of the scenes, is for the majority very well saturated and naturalistic. The variation in colour is stunning, with royal reds, deep blues, lush greens and regal purples and golds. Colour vibrancy can vary from scene to scene but this is primarily due to the various filtering techniques employed by Kurosawa. There is a huge variety in clothing patterns, with detail such as the "Flux Capicitator" pattern on Oda's robe and the individual stands of twine comprising the soldiers' footwear, standing out with sharp definition. The delicate nature of the fine silk fabrics and the toughened quality of the intricate Samurai armour also shine through on this presentation. Colour gradations such as the fine layer of green moss, which overlays ancient and decrepit bleached brickwork, are also perfect. The various backdrops during some the battle sequences also produce some wonderfully deep purples, reds and blues, as does the dream sequence. Facial detail, such as the lines and other distinguishing features on the moustachioed visages of the hardened samurai warriors, is very well defined.
The contrast ratio is strong, with the inky depths of the Samurais' armour providing some cavernous blacks. Whites are bright and help to accentuate the primary colouring. The majority of the scenes do have a very obvious granular presence. While the levels are for the most part acceptable, often bolstering the cinematic properties of the piece, the grain can have a marring effect in some of the darker scenes, where it can introduce some softness in the image. These darker scenes can also give rise to black crush and other facets of indistinguishability. For such an old movie I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised at the overall quality of this transfer. A lot of the fineries of 'Kagemusha' are subtle but more obvious on this Blu-ray release, making it the most faithful representation available of Kurosawa's vision for this movie.
'Kagemusha' comes with an unusual Japanese dts HD Master Audio 4.0 surround track.
As this was originally presented in vanilla stereo on the initial Criterion DVD release I wasn't expecting a whole from this uncompressed mix. Front separation is very impressive and the overall directionality across the two main channels is very solid through. For example, as the Kagemusha is unveiled to the generals, the famous Kurosawa wind rips across the soundstage, causing the nearby flags to ripple intensely, as a brazier crackles away left field. The track also contains plenty of subtleties, such as the ringing noise of an iron pot being placed gingerly on the ground and the rippling noise of the foot soldier's standards as they rustle in the wind. The varying vocal levels are crystal clear, with the various baritone Samurai voices perfectly represented. Disappointingly, the surround channels don't get much of a workout at all. They are called into play for a few ambient effects, such as the hooting of an owl (in the forests), the cheering/roaring of soldiers or an enveloping whisper of Kurosawa's wind but they never really let their presence be felt. After intense scrutiny of the surround channels, I, personally, feel they are too low in the mix in comparison to the front, a little more would have really brought it to life.
The magnificent score from Shinichiro Ikebe gets the lion's share of the audio presentation. The score has various different tones; from the delicate and tender Shingen death sequence, to the faster paced military styled sequences featuring the triumphant Shingen/Kagemusha. The cacophony of instruments used is impressive and includes woodwinds, brass, harps, violins and tom drums. The treble is high and clear with the bass solidly pounding from the mid-range. There are some deeper bass offerings from the immense tom drums but these instances are few and far between. The score has a nice, ripe plumpness about it and is well represented in the mix.
I was pleased to note that the track appeared to be completely free from any pops, hisses or crackles. It's clear that the track has been carefully engineered, as demonstrated by the masterful front separation and directionality, but ultimately I found surround presence somewhat lacking; effectively making this presentation a stereo presentation (albeit a very good one) for the majority.
As this version of 'Kagemusha' is brought to us by Criterion, the extras portion of the disc is packed to the gills and every feature has English subtitles available for selection. Criterion must also be commended for including a high definition transfer for all included extras, which were previously available in SD on the DVD release. They've even included a deluxe colour booklet which features interviews with Kurosawa, some of his paintings for the movie and a foreword by Peter Grilli (a Kurosawa and Japanese culture expert).
Stephen Prince, who is the author of 'The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa”, provides a feature length commentary on the movie (recorded in 2004). Prince is a bottomless pit of information regarding the subjects of feudal Japan, the military and social operation of the Takeda clan, the works of Kurosawa and his biography as well as providing tons of background information on the movie itself. He dissects each of the scenes and discusses their importance in the overall bigger picture. He provides explanation on many of the set dressings and their importance (such as the various standards of the clans) and also gives a wealth of background information on the characters. He conveniently points out which scenes were cut from the original releases, which I found highly intriguing. A fascinating and worthwhile commentary which is up there with some of best I have heard. Second only to a commentary from the great director himself but at least I didn't have to read any subtitles. Kudos to Prince for talking non-stop for three hours!
“Lucas, Copolla and Kurosawa” (HD 19mins) - Lucas and Copolla, who secured financial backing and acted as executive producers for the movie, are interviewed here (in 2004) following the Criterion release of 'Kagemusha'. Both expand on how they were first introduced to the works of Kurosawa and the man himself, providing personal accounts of how they perceive their idol. They discuss his directing techniques and how his works were initially influenced by great directors (such as John Ford), and later influenced up and coming great directors. They comment on working with the great director and the importance of the movie itself. Kurosawa was obviously very gracious for the financial interjection from his fellow Western directors, presenting both Copolla and Lucas with some of his watercolours for 'Kagemusha' as a token of his appreciation.
“Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create” (HD 41mins) - This “making-of” documentary features interviews with the actors who play Shingen (Nakadai), Ieyasu (Yui) and Nobunaga (Ryu). They provide insight into working on the movie (focusing on selected scenes) and with the famed director. They speak candidly and openly, obviously giving Kurosawa the respect he deserves, while also sharing some amusing anecdotes from the set. Opening with an introduction to Kurosawa himself and featuring his paintings for 'Kagemusha', the creation process for the movie is explored with an informative voiceover. There's plenty of behind the scenes footage/photographs as well as footage from the finished product itself. Interviews with the crew, including directors of photography, producers, assistant directors and composers, also provide in depth personal experiences of those who worked closely with the director. Discussion regarding the much published falling out with Katsu, Nakada's fall from his horse and a wide selection of opinions from those who worked with this sometimes difficult director are also included. This is a very worthwhile and interesting feature, which provides a lot of background information on the movie.
“Image: Kurosawa's Continuity” (HD 42mins) - This very interesting feature provides a visual representation of Kurosawa's vision for the movie through his painted storyboards. Each of the paintings, which strikingly represent scenes from the movie itself, are accompanied by the full audio mix from the movie itself. Interestingly, this presentation was assembled by Masayuki Yui, who played the role of Iesayu. A fascinating piece that shows the evolution process for getting one man's vision committed to celluloid.
“A Vision Realised” (HD) - This feature is similar to the previous feature in that the original painted storyboards of Kurosawa are the focus. Here we get to see twenty five of the original storyboards side by side with the finished scenes from the movie itself. This feature, like the previous one, serves to highlight how accurately Kurosawa followed his painted originals when actually filming the movie.
Suntory Whiskey Commercials (HD mins) - Following the completion of 'Kagemusha', Kurosawa faced a period of personal financial difficulty. To earn some extra pocket money he appeared in and directed a number of adverts for the Suntory Whiskey company; ala Bill Murray in 'Lost in Translation'. Included here are five such commercials, faithfully restored in 1080p and provide an interesting glimpse at the personal side of Kurosawa (albeit in a slightly contrived manner!).
Trailers (HD) - High definition trailers for the U.S and Japanese releases of the movie are included here for your viewing pleasure (three in total).
From a director whose movies are often imitated by Western Cinema but never equalled, the ever intense Akira Kurosawa brings us a Samurai warlord epic with 'Kagemusha'(1980). When Shingen Takeda (warlord of the mighty Takeda Clan) is mortally wounded in battle, the future of the Takeda clan hangs in the balance. To avoid a hostile takeover from rival warlords, a lowly thief (who is the exact double of Shingen) is employed to impersonate the revered Takeda warlord, the future of the clan resting on his initially unwilling shoulders. There are many themes and concepts included but ultimately this is the tale of the last days of the traditional Samurai. Kurosawa himself stated that this piece was merely a dress rehearsal for his (apparently) more impressive 'Ran'. I am pleased to report that as a standalone movie 'Kagemusha' is thoroughly enjoyable and engaging. While not containing the sheer enjoyment of 'Seven Samurai', this movie is most definitely an epic and engrossing Samurai drama nonetheless. The authentically detailed costumes/locations, stunning cinematography, convincing performances from the entire cast (Tatsuya Nakadai in particular) and the multi-layered plotline make this a must watch for all fans of Asian cinema.
For such an old movie the image quality was surprisingly good. Don't get me wrong, this release will not match up to some of the newer BD discs but it is incredibly cinematic, with bold, well saturated colours. Softness can creep into some scenes and the darker scenes suffer from some indistinguishability at times but for the most part it is a remarkably solid transfer. The uncompressed 4.0 surround track is good but not exceptional by any stretch of the imagination. There aren't very many battle scenes, nor are there a whole load of ambient effects, so the surround channels are not very active. The fronts, on the other hand, convey the majority of the audio activity and create a wide soundstage which has good directionality and clear vocals. The extras package contains a whole wealth of information on the movie. Steven Prince, a Kurosawa historian, provides a fascinating commentary and there are some interesting storyboard/feature comparisons. 'Kagemusha', because of its age and the original film stock, will never look or sound stunning. What we have here is a highly polished release, packed to the gills with extras, making it a must for all Kurosawa and Asian movie fans alike.
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