Review of Kagemusha
by BrianKoller | Feb 25 '01
Undeniably the greatest of all Japanese directors, Akira Kurosawa is best known
for his 'Samurai' films. These are set in feudal Japan, and are determinedly
anti-war with their depiction of endless, futile battles between rival clans.
Empires are fleeting, stubborn pride proves costly, and human life is cheap.
Wisdom is provided by elders, but is often foolishly rejected by vain, glory-seeking
military leaders. Women are secondary in this world of testosterone, but they
may have their own private schemes for securing power and revenge
Kagemusha is another entry in Kurosawa's decades-long string of Samurai
movies. Although not without its problems in pacing and stiffness, it is better
than some of his more famous films, such as Yojimbo. It is also not up to the
level of his best work (Throne of Blood, Ran, The Seven Samurai).
The story is familiar, and yet unique. The warlord Shingen is mortally wounded
while besieging a fortress. His dying wish is that his dynasty continue. This
is accomplished by using an impersonator, Kagemusha (Tatsuya Nakadai),
who is a thief with humble ancestry. Kagemusha serves as Shingen's stand-in
for three years, improving morale and even helping to win battles.
The most impressive aspect of Kagemusha is its cinematography, costumes
and sets. Many scenes have waves of soldiers clad in armor and carrying banners,
set against the Sun and the Japanese countryside. Kurosawa gets even more from
the battlefield images by judicious use of composer Shinichiro Ikebe's score.
Outstanding cinematography and convincing sets and costumes are a familiar hallmark
for Kurosawa throughout his career. Many scenes, however, are lengthy and static.
People sit in a room and talk, and move so infrequently that it is sometimes
difficult to tell which character is talking. It is true, however, that this
criticism has to be diluted by putting it in a context of cultural differences
and expectations. Western audiences want action from their war films, and may
have less appreciation for character depth and development. Nonetheless, the
film improves markedly whenever Shingen's young grandson Takemaru (Kota Yui)
is on camera. Takemaru's energy, enthusiasm, and honesty of expression provides
a stark contrast to the cynical and circumspect adult men that fill most of
the film's roles. Kagemusha is forced to subjugate his honest and emotive
natural personality in order to impersonate Shingen. He can only be himself
around Takemaru, who is eager to see him as something other than a stern monolith.
Kagemusha was an expensive film by Japanese standards, and Kurosawa had
alienated himself from Japanese studios with his cutting comments about their
commercialism. For funding, he turned to George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola,
two of the most successful American filmmakers of the 1970s. Both are credited
as executive producers for the 'international' version, which apparently consists
of easily read yellow English subtitles and an excision of twenty minutes of
footage. Kagemusha was nominated for two Academy Awards, Best Foreign
Language Film and Best Art Direction. The film won various prestigious awards
around the globe, including the Golden Palm (Cannes Film Festival), Best Direction
(British Academy Awards) and Best Foreign Film (French Academy of Cinema, New
York Films Critics Circle). (74/100)
Shingen Takeda (Tatsuya Nakadai): Even with this resemblance, Nobukado,
he is so wicked as to be sentenced to crucifixion. How could this scoundrel
be my double?
His Double (also Tatsuya Nakadai): I only stole a few coins. A petty thief.
But you've killed hundreds and robbed whole domains. Who is wicked, you or
The tone of Kagemusha is distanced, almost cold. . .[T]he film participates
in the revision of Kurosawa's earlier work that the late films are collectively
elaborating. The dialectic between self and society is extinguished along with
the prospects for human freedom. These had always been rooted in the autonomous
personality, which Kurosawa had valorized over the interactionist self and the
socio-economic environment, but this was an ideological move of a deeply probelmatical
nature. Kurosawa's construction of personality, which once embodied the optimism
of the postwar years, collided with the institutional nature of political and
economic power in the modern world. . .Kurosawa's construction of personality
steadily broke apart. Now, in its wake, Kagemusha projects it as an empty
form by elaborating a world in which illusion and image replace enlightenment
and in which personality is hollowed out and becomes a role, to be performed
with great artifice, as human will and free choice are crushed beneath the weight
--Stephen Prince, The Warrior's Camera, pp. 274-75.
The problem with Kagemusha is not that it marks a radical turning point
in Kurosawa's career but that it resembles Kurosawa's earlier work too much.
Kagemusha is a virtual catalog of Kurosawa motifs, which, however, are
not integrated into a new whole but exist as mere fragments. What is integrated
into the overall design of the earlier films is now an autonomous component,
a commodified image of Kurosawa's authorial signature. . .This does not necessarily
signify the film's simple failure, Kurosawa's decline, or his old-age style.
Instead, Kagemusha can best be seen as an experimental film, a result
of Kurosawa's search for a new way of making films in the radically different
sociocultural conditions where the classical studio system was all gone. . .Kagemusha
and the following films show that even Kurosawa cannot ignore the "cultural
logic of late capitalism" to survive as an active filmmaker.
--Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, Kurosawa, pp. 352-54.
By Roger Ebert / January 1, 1980
Cast & Credits:
Tatsuya Nakadai (Shingen and Kagemusha), Tsutomu Yamazaki (Nobukado), Kenichi Hagiwara (Katsuyori), Jinpachi Nezu (Bodyguard), Shuji Otaki (Fire General). Directed by Akira Kurosawa and produced by Kurosawa and Tomoyuki Tanaka. Screenplay by Kurosawa and Masato Ide.
Kagemusha is a samurai drama by the director who most successfully introduced the genre to the West (with such classics as The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo), and who, at the age of seventy, made an epic that dares to wonder what meaning the samurai code_or any human code_really has in the life of an individual man. His film is basically the story of one such man, a common thief who, because of his astonishing resemblance to the warlord Shingen, is chosen as Shingen's double. When Shingen is mortally wounded in battle, the great Takeda clan secretly replaces him with the double_so their enemies will not learn that Shingen is dead. Thus begins a period of three years during which the kagemusha is treated by everyone, even his son and his mistresses, as if he were the real Shingen. Only his closest advisers know the truth.
But he is not Lord Shingen. And so every scene is undercut with irony. It is important that both friends and enemies believe Shin-gen is alive; his appearance, or shadow, creates both the respect of his clan and the cau-tion of his enemies. If he is unmasked, he is useless; as Shingen's double, he can send hundreds of men to be killed, and his own guards will willingly sacrifice their lives for him. But as himself, he is worthless, and when he is unmasked, he's banished into the wilderness.
What is Kurosawa saying here? I suspect the answer can be found in a contrast between two kinds of scenes. His film contains epic battle scenes of astonishing beauty and scope. And then there are the intimate scenes in the throne room, the bedroom, the castles, and battlefield camps. The great battle scenes glorify the samurai system. Armies of thousands of men throw themselves heedlessly at death, for the sake of pride. But the intimate scenes undermine that glorious tradition; as everyone holds their breath, Shingen's double is tested in meetings with his son, his mistresses, and his horse. They know him best of all. If they are not fooled, all of the panoply and battlefield courage is meaningless, because the Takeda clan has lost the leader who is their figurehead; the illusion that he exists creates the clan's reality.
Kurosawa made this film after a decade of personal travail. Although he is often considered the greatest living Japanese director, he was unable to find financial backing in Japan when he first tried to make Kagemusha. He made a smaller film, Dodeskaden, which was not successful. He tried to commit suicide, but failed. He was backed by the Russians and went to Siberia to make the beautiful Dersu Uzala (1976), about a man of the wilderness. But Kagemusha remained his obsession, and he was finally able to make it only when Hollywood directors Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas helped him find U.S. financing.
The film he finally made is simple, bold, and colorful on the surface, but very thought-ful. Kurosawa seems to be saying that great human endeavors (in this case, samurai wars) depend entirely on large numbers of men sharing the same fantasies or beliefs. It is entirely unimportant, he seems to be suggesting, whether or not the beliefs are based on reality_all that matters is that men accept them. But when a belief is shattered, the result is confusion, destruction, and death. At the end of Kagemusha, for example, the son of the real Lord Shingen orders his troops into a suicidal charge, and their deaths are not only unnecessary but meaningless, because they are not on behalf of the sacred person of the warlord.
There are great images in this film: Of a breathless courier clattering down countless steps, of men passing in front of a blood-red sunset, of a dying horse on a battlefield. But Kurosawa's last image_of the dying kagemusha floating in the sea, swept by tidal currents past the fallen standard of the Takeda clan_summarizes everything: ideas and men are carried along heedlessly by the currents of time, and historical meaning seems to emerge when both happen to be swept in the same way at the same time.
One does not merely appreciate Akira Kurosawa; one is awed by him. His status as the greatest filmmaker in the history of the cinema is beyond debate. Based on vision, diversity of subject matter, and consistency of greatness, he is an untouchable of such magnitude that one almost feels compelled to speak of him in hushed tones. With 1980's Kagemusha, his brilliance is reinforced yet again, despite his dismissing the work as mere "preparation" for the greater challenge of 1985's Ran. Perhaps he's being modest, but to think that Kagemusha was but a trial run is to gain an insight into the mind of an artist that forces mere mortals to concede all further efforts in the act of creation. If he's capable of that, we argue, what's the point of our pathetic scribblings? When someone like Kurosawa sees it all so clearly, we are forever running behind.
Kagemusha concerns the story of a thief (Tatsuya Nakadai) who is spared execution so he may act as a double (or "Shadow Warrior") for the dying warlord Shingen Takeda (also played by Nakadai), but to reduce the film to a line or two is like saying Citizen Kane is simply about a guy and his sled. It's not the plot that drives Kurosawa's vision forward; it's the scope of his humanity. As always, Kurosawa sees the human experience as a sad, desperate grasp for relevance and power, as we are burdened by the reality that in the end, historical forces out of our control sweep us along to our doom. The switch enables the clan to cling to life for a few remaining years (under the illusion of strength), but it is clear that they will soon be wiped out in favor of the next temporary regime.
As usual, Kurosawa lets us in gradually, through an examination of pained ritual and bursts of spontaneity that are invariably punished. And as we arrive at the shattering climax, we have been privileged to view things as a god; helpless to intervene and shamed by our passivity. Man and beast alike snort and wail, flailing about as if fully aware of the punishing indifference of the cosmos. We strive to stand and live on, but to what end? The disappearance of the rulers (dead? stolen away? a cowardly escape?) speaks further to this sense of abandonment, as if we are led to battle under a righteous banner, only to be humiliated for assuming there could ever be sufficient cause to commit atrocities.
Visually, it goes without saying that Kurosawa has once again used color to saturate our minds with the splendor of horror. Each scene is so intricately designed and staged that we cannot conceive that a single filmmaker was able to pull it off. And yet, Kurosawa is the rare filmmaker who refuses to let an epic scope overwhelm his characters. And of course, his unparalleled battle sequences would be breathtakingly beautiful were they not in service of such colossal waste. But so much of what we admire is based on this crucial contradiction. We recoil as we embrace.