'Kagemusha' was released in 1980 with legendary Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa ('Rashomon', 'Seven Samurai'), penning the script and taking the helm.
Kurosawa has always been regarded as an extreme perfectionist. He notoriously spent five hours with one extra (Nakadai) before he was happy with his walk-off part in 'Seven Samurai' and he once redirected a river to get a better shot! He meticulously paints all the storyboards for his movies; such is his dedication to realising the ideas and concepts which are trapped inside his head. During the filming of 'Red Beard' in 1965, he gained a reputation for being very difficult to work with and alienated both studio executives and cast/crew members. In the following years, with his ultimate dream to make 'Kagemusha' slipping away due to lack of financial support (as a direct result of his poor reputation), he turned to Western cinema to give his career a much needed publicity boost. However, following his departure from the set of 'Tora, Tora' early on, it seemed as though Kurosawa's artistic integrity would forever ruin his chances of realising his dream of an epic samurai drama.
Kurosawa then went through a period of dark depression and even attempted suicide; such was his frustration at his inability to make a truly personal movie for which he had real passion. He once again withdrew to his paintings, which grew increasingly darker and more grandiose; a reflection of both Kurosawa's mood and his expectations for the movie he longed to make. Finally, in 1979, thanks to 20th Century Fox providing the $1.5 million that Toho Studios required to complete 'Kagemusha', production began. It was in fact Frances Ford-Coppola and George Lucas (who were long time admirers of Kurosawa's work), who convinced 20th Century Fox to get involved. Although it suffered some setbacks in the beginning due to press intervention (they were desperate to see Kurosawa ruin another movie), not to mention the fact that Kurosawa fired the original actor lined up to play the main character in the first couple of days, the shoot went without incident and the finished product was viewed as an overall success. A true visionary, Kurosawa is almost singly accredited for introducing the “Samurai Drama” to Western Cinema and was seventy years old when he directed this movie. Winning the Palme D'Or and nominated for two Oscars upon its release (Best Foreign Language Film and Best Art Direction/Set Decoration), this movie, along with 'Ran', has been sitting in my own collection for some time. As such I was delighted to be granted the opportunity to review this title on Blu-ray.
As usual, Kurosawa has assembled a positive powerhouse of Japanese acting talent for this, his major comeback release. Tatsuya Nakadai ('Ran'), one of Kurosawa's favoured leading men and possibly the most prolific Japanese actor, takes the lead as Shingen Takeda and his double (said Kagemusha). Tsutomu Yamazaki ('A Taxing Woman'), another incredibly well decorated actor, joins Nakadai playing Nobukado Takeda. Former pop sensation and all round bad boy, Kenichi Hagiwara ('Koibumi'), joins the team playing Katsuyori Takeda.
With a title which translates literally to “Shadow Warrior” in Japanese, 'Kagemusha' (a colloquial term for an impersonator) primarily tells the three intertwined stories of the Takeda clan, Shingen Takeda (the Takeda warlord and leader) and the Kagemusha (I will also refer to this character as the thief). The movie is set in feudal Japan, with all of the Samurai warlords battling for control of Kyoto, the then capital of the warring nation. The movie opens with a long six minute shot which is reminiscent of a Shakespearian play (this movie was actually inspired by “King Lear”). The three men in shot are identical to each other and even mirror each other's movements. This immediately lets the audience know that mimicry will be a strong concept for the piece. Of the three men two serve one purpose, the protection of Shingen Takeda. They are his doubles, a practice which was prevalent at this time in Japan to protect warlords from assassins. One of the doubles is Shingen's own brother, Nobukado, who has sworn his life to the protection of Shingen. The other man is a lowly thief, arrested for a petty crime, only to be discovered as the exact match for Shingen; the perfect double if you will, said Kagemusha. When Shingen is mortally wounded in battle, he issues a command that his imminent death must remain a secret for three years or else the future of the Takeda clan will be doomed. Two of Shingen's closest rival warlords, Nobunaga Oda and Ieyasu Tokugawa, are both saddened (due to the high respect which they have for the Takeda leader) and delighted with this news. If Shingen is truly mortally wounded/dead, then capturing Kyoto will become a tangible goal.
Acting on Shingen's last wishes, the Takeda generals employ the unwilling thief to assume the role of Shingen. Initially the thief despises this task but following his first appearance as the revered warlord he begins to change, as if the spirit of Shingen is acting through him to reclaim his rightful place as leader of the Takeda clan. The thief eventually loses his scepticism and gradually becomes enamoured with the role he plays. He eventually gains so much respect for the Takeda clan that he is willing to die for them. Shingen's paiges and personal guard (who are now the thief's own) guide the Kagemusha in the ways of the Takeda clan. The most important clan mantra is Shingen's personal code, quoted directly from the great Sun Tzu's “Art of War”:
Swift as the wind
Silent as the forest
Fierce as the fire
Immovable as the mountain
This is also the governing code of the Takeda Clan and Shingen is the final part of the mantra; the mountain. Immovable and always present as the last line of defence of his army, he was one of the most feared and respected warlords in all of Japan. Shingen was the keystone of his clan and ruled with authority and a distinct vision of what he perceived to be the future for the Takeda members. Bound by honour and a profound respect for their wise and decorated leader, the entire clan follow Shingen's last instruction to the letter, concealing his death from the world. The thief himself evolves through these teachings, his personality changes as he assumes the guise of Shingen, whose beliefs and values eventually become his own. Ultimately, the Kagemusha is a doomed character, his own identity (however pitiful) is completely lost in the powerful dominance of Shingen, who he is forced to become and eventually embraces.
Nobunaga and Ieyasu desperately search for proof of Shingen's passing and make further advances towards securing terrain and dominance. Nobunaga is the more powerful of the two and is cosmopolitan, with access to advanced military hardware. He gained these weapons through his interaction with Christian missionaries who herald him as the true king of Japan. At various junctures the thief comes close to having his true identity exposed (by spies and his own foolish behaviour) and after almost three years of continuing the charade, one wonders how long this elaborate hoax can continue. The Takeda clan also has another problem, an internal one. Shingen's own son, Katsuyori, is stewing in a pit of frustration. His own father would not grant him leadership of the clan, even though he had proved himself many times on the battle field. Now he is forced to bow and call a doppelganger “Father” and obey his wishes. Like Kagemusha, he too is living in the shadow of his dead leader. A Shadow Government, which comprises Shingen's generals, control Kagemusha and guide the fate of the Takeda clan as per Shingen's wishes, much to the increasing frustration and rage of Katsuyori. With his aides whispering delusions of grandeur in his ear, he eventually convinces himself that he is the rightful warlord of the Takeda clan. Katsuyori's deep desire to become warlord eventually drives him to mount an attack on Nagashino, against the Kagemusha's will, with the aim of cementing the Takeda clans hold on its territory and continue their advance on Kyoto. Ultimately it's the power of the Takeda's great leader (Shingen) who was the foundation for their power and reputation. Without his presence/the presence of his image (as represented by the Kagemusha), the clan is surely doomed. It is, however, Katsuyori's actions which will ultimately lead to the final, bloody battle of the Takeda clan. As such, Katsuyori almost becomes the scapegoat of the piece, threatening the clan with indirectly exposing the thief's true identity and forcing the Takeda warriors into battle scenarios through his reckless actions. What will become of the lowly thief if he is thrust into the unfamiliar reality of war and what will be the fate of the once great Takeda clan if his deep secret is ever exposed?
Criterion have included the mammoth full uncut version of the movie, which weighs in at a whopping three hours. Previously it was only available as a 160 minute version in the US, with the complete 180 minute cut only available in Japan. I feel that this version flows extremely well and, although the run time is of 'Lord of the Rings' proportions, it feels as though the vast majority of the scenes are important to the story. What was initially striking was the immediate cinematic presence of the piece. The composition is crisp, clean and often epic in its presentation. Kurosawa includes some beautiful images of the Japanese landscape which includes some wonderful greenery set to a backdrop of snowy mountains. The plot is extremely methodical in its progression. Kurosawa takes time to provide in depth explanation on how the clan operates and also on many other historical aspects of the piece. For example, a lengthy scene involving a sniper loading a matchlock rifle and explaining how he fires it is a prime example of the director's patience with his material.
There is plenty of typical Kurosawa pageantry throughout, such as the various horseback messengers galloping to the castle to deliver instructions (with an accompanying fanfare of trumpets) before dashing off again. However, the actual action content is pretty much non-existent, firmly placing 'Kagemusha' in the drama department. The key events in the movie such as Shingen's wounding, Katsuriyi's taking of Takatenjin Castle and the final climatic battle of Nagashino are not granted any actual visual representation. They are merely implied through sometimes vague imagery (less so in the case of the climatic end battle), highlighting the obtuse nature in which Kurosawa presents the unfolding of events to his audience. Even though there aren't any battle sequences or other major action scenes, Kurosawa uses plenty of axial cuts and other framing techniques to inject pace into proceedings, preventing the onset of boredom as a result of the dialogue orientated script. This is in fact only the third film which he made in colour. This inclusion of colour gives the visionary director yet another tool which he has at his disposal to deliver this epic Samurai tale. The palette is intensely saturated, enhancing the incredibly cinematic feel of the entire production. The authenticity of the presentation is bolstered by the meticulous reconstruction of vast Japanese dojo's, battlefields and outposts. The costumes are beautiful, with a huge variation of kimono's and traditional Samurai warrior armour, all of which are imbued with highly intricate patterns and beautiful colouring.
A vivid, oil-painting like dream sequence is included midway through, which provides commentary on Kagemusha's fears as a result of impersonating Shingen. The lowly thief is haunted by the ghost of Shingen in his dream, shrouded in despair and loneliness due to the great lord's departure. He is trapped by both the memory and also the loss of the man he now considers his master. As mentioned, the imagery for this movie was borne from Kurosawa's detailed, hand painted storyboards. The dream sequence is a prime example which highlights how 'Kagemusha' was borne into existence from the imagery first captured in Kurosawa's paintings. The lighting also plays a major role in conveying some of the movie's concepts. For example, when Katsuyori puts Kagemusha on the spot regarding a crucial tactical decision, the serenity and calm demeanour of Shingen seems to fall upon the lowly thief. During this scene Kurosawa includes a large shadow cast behind the impersonator by a single candle, perhaps indication that the spirit (/shadow) of Shingen is infused with the thief. The off camera electric lights are obviously providing the real lighting but this is a nice touch none the less. The score is also used to great effect to convey the various themes which run throughout, and the ever present Kurosawa wind is also included to aid in moments of high drama.
As is to be expected from such a complex piece, there are various themes which are discussed and implied. The tone of the movie can also shift heavily from scene to scene, drawing comparison to the different “Scenes” in a play. Modern versus traditional ways of thinking is a primary theme throughout. Modern weaponry versus traditional Samurai weapons is a key topic for this particular theme and is extrapolated through the story of the Takeda clan. It's the Takeda's refusal to fully embrace modern muskets and other military strategies (such as palisades) which acts as a reflection of the impending end of the Samurai era. The Takeda Clan warriors are portrayed focusing primarily on Samurai cavalry charges with spearman flanking in supportm, heavily outgunned by the rival warlords (and their Western weapons). This is not entirely accurate as Shingen heralded the matchstock rifle as the most important weapon in the Samurai's arsenal and employed three hundred riflemen in his army. Aside from this minor historical embellishment, the overall accuracy of piece (with regards to the presentation of the Takeda clan) is spot on. Rival clan leader; Nobunaga, embraces Western traditions/weaponry and enjoys pleasures, such as wine, which is in contrast to Ieyasu's tastes. This is another example of Kurosawa's historical commentary, indicating that the development of Japan could have potentially been influenced much more heavily by Western culture; if it was Nobunaga, and not Ieyasu, who eventually triumphed in the battle of the warlords.
The character of Shingen has a couple of identifying mannerisms, such as stroking his moustache while appearing deep in thought, which Kagemusha mirrors to perfection. The thief's mimicry of Shingen's mannerisms, in combination with donning the departed lord's garb, transforms the lowly thief immediately into the powerful warlord; his paiges and personal bodyguard completely dumbfounded by the apparent resurrection of their beloved master. So with the correct props/surroundings and instruction, the thief truly becomes Shingen. This raises the interesting question of what exactly defines a man, if he can indeed be replaced by another so successfully. The age gap and the dynamics of Samurai family interaction (which is also highly formal and governed by protocol) is another strong theme. This is exemplified by Katsuyori's struggle to come to terms with his own father's (Shingen) refusal to make him clan warlord. Betrayal was common practice in this period of history, with Shingen himself wrestling control of the clan from his own father. Finally, the actual existence of the Takeda clan is questioned by Kurosawa during the last hour of the movie. If the entire clan is based on the mere shadow of a man then do they deserve to exist at all? This is a clever catch 22 situation as the clan is bound to this charade by the last wishes of Shingen himself.
It's a miracle that this movie was made at all. Aside from Kurosawa's monumental personal problems regarding his financial ruin and horribly tainted reputation, the leading man was lost early on into the shoot. Shintaro Katsu was at the time coming off the successes of the 'Zaiotichi' movies and the whole script for this movie was written for him. But following artistic difficulties (due to Katsu wishing to film Kurosawa's directorial techniques for his acting class) he was replaced by the more traditionally schooled Nakadai, who would also respond much more favourably to Kurosawa's precise direction. It is a credit to Nakadai's great acting prowess that he manages to convincingly pull off a difficult part which was written completely for someone else. Nakadai's portrayal of Shingen/Kagemusha is incredible. The variation in his facial expressions, from the sunken eyed death visage of the mortally wounded Shingen, to the manic howling of the drunken thief with the melancholy realisation of doom in his eyes, is simply stunning. Without doubt Kurosawa's guiding hand had much to do with this actor's success but he most certainly puts on an acting master class nonetheless. The other main supporting cast members; Yamazaki (Nobukado); Hagiwara (Katsuyori); Ryu (Nobunaga) and Yui (Ieyasu), all offer equally impressive performances, if not quite matching the greatness of Nakadai. In fact all of the actors involved are very, very impressive indeed. What really struck me was the convincing nature in which they all delivered their lines. Many conveyed more with their eyes and changes in expression than most modern actors can convey with pages of script.
The visual poetry which is conveyed through the stunning cinematography urges us to witness the end of the Samurai era in Japan and the heralding of Western influence. Kurosawa implies the futility of resisting this tide of change, brought upon the Takeda clan by time itself; ultimately making the present, regardless of what honour or ideals it champions, ancient history. Kurosawa himself stated that this movie was merely a warm up act for the more grandiose and favoured (amongst the critics) 'Ran'. I'm glad that I watched this movie first as I feel that 'Kagemusha' in itself is a very poignant and worthwhile movie. More importantly it captures the legendary director's love of the Samurai and his mood at the time; darkness and hopelessness are two of the strongest themes contained within. The apocalyptic end battle sequence has a few choice cuts that can seem a bit overblown and some of the traditional aspects of the content, such as the funeral ceremonies, can seem a bit strange but overall the entire message of the piece is still conveyed with clarity. Without doubt a monumental achievement, 'Kagemusha' is a sweepingly epic movie which contains all of the required attributes, in conjunction with a plot of immense depth, to make it a classic.