Monday, December 28, 2009

Kagemusha (1980)

Kagemusha aka The Shadow Warrior
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Japan 1980
180 min
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kenichi Hagiwara, Jinpachi NezuHideji Ôtaki, Daisuke Ryû, Masayuki Yui and Takashi Shimura, among others.

Time to take on some of Kurosawa's famous samurai movies, and Kagemusha will be the first to enter this blog.


The title "Kagemusha" translates to "Shadow Warrior", an expression that is vital to this movie. The plot derives from actual events in 1570's Japan, a turbulent time when several clans tried to gather total control over Japan.

Our introduction to the film is a six minutes long uncut sequence with three seemingly similar characters (picture above). In the middle is Shingen Takeda (Tatsuya Nakadai, my hero from High and Low), the lord of the Takeda clan. To the left is his brother Nobukado (Tsutomo Yamazaki, the creepy medical intern from High and Low), who has acted as Shingen's double for several years.
To the right is a thief that Nobukado has saved from crucifixion because of his uncanny resemblance to lord Shingen. The thief will be referred to as Kagemusha, and is also played by Nakadai. He is granted to live as long as he takes Nobukado's place as Shingen's double - become his "Shadow Warrior".

Lord Shingen does however soon fall victim to a sniper's bullet, and before he dies he wishes that his death will remain a secret for three years, and that Kagemusha during that time will take his identity full time. That is to prevent the enemy clans - most prominently Ieyasu Tokugawa (Masayuki Yui) and Nobunaga Oda (Daisuke Ryû)- to get an opportunity to attack due to the Takeda clan's weakness.

Kagemusha as Shingen Takeda.

Ieyasu Tokugawa.

Nubunaga Oda.

Kagemusha undergoes serious training to imitate the late lord's manners, and is soon able to deceive not only lord Shingen's geishas, bodyguards and wakashus (young boy lovers popular in the samurai tradition, kind of like in the Ancient Greece), but even his grandson Takemaru (Kota Yui). He successfully leads the Battle of Takatenjin, and later on gets to witness to climactic Battle of Nagashino - often cited as the first "modern battle", due to the enemy army's effective use of firearms.

The task to completely consume someone else's identity is not as easy as it sounds, though. Kagemusha is plagued by nightmares of the late lord Shingen, but the constant temptation to just throw the fake identity aside is probably the hardest to fight. As Nobukado tells Kagemusha at one time:

"I know it is difficult. I was for a long time the lord's double. It was torture. It is not easy to suppress yourself to become another. Often I wanted to be myself and free. But now I think this was selfish of me. The shadow of a man can never desert that man. I was my brother's shadow. Now that I have lost him, it is as though I am nothing."

I think that the quoted line alone tells more about what Kagemusha is about, than my plot description does. The identity is as personal and unique as it is a vague thing.
With this in ming, study the screenshot of the introduction scene with the three Shingen's again - how many shadows are cast on the wall, and what does that tell you...? Kurosawa never left anything half done. (Thank you, Chrusjtjov, for pointing out "that weird lighting".)

As I've pointed out in my other Kurosawa reviews, his films has an unbelievable combination of everything. When it comes to the dialogue and the acting, there is intelligence, realism, philosphy and subtle humour, without it ever getting pretentious. As a viewer one feels both intellectually stimulated and amused.
The camera work is always satisfying on every level, and in color it is simply overwhelming. It is beautiful, simple and masterful. This is art in every way. (There is a reason to why I am including so many screenshots - one can simply not describe with only words.)

George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola checks up the progress on the set of Kagemusha.

Since Kurosawa never was willing to compromise with the quality of his films, or settling with any less than putting all his visions onto the screen, Kagemusha was almost not able to be created. Toho Studios complained about the huge budget and wanted Kurosawa to make changes. What he instead did was to put his visions onto paper (he was a great painter too), and sent his people to find sponsors with the help of the paintings. His paintings brought the attention of two other filmmakers, namely George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. They convinced 20th Century Fox to sponsor the making of Kagemusha, and in return have all distribution rights of the film outside of Japan. That's how cinema history is made.

Seldom has a final scene been so powerful, and Kurosawa might just be responsible for the most effective and artistic use of slow motion in history. (It does not matter if you look at the screenshots - the emotional experience of the scene will remain the same if you watch it a 100 times over.)


will said...

Nicely done!
Kurosawa's films, as a body of work, remain unassailable - his are a true gift of art.

Dymon Enlow said...

Excellent review!

Here's a side-by-side comparison of the Blu-Ray and the Standard DVD...

Lolita of the Classics said...

Bill Stankus:
Thank you! Well, I guess not many directors can compete with him. He reminds me of dear Ingmar Bergman's work, though... I just got my hands on the 5h version of Fanny and Alexander, I think I should see it before the Yule Tide is all over!

Thank God the colors of the DVD version were brighter than on the Blue-Ray! (Even though the sharpness was better on the latter one...) Now I don't need to feel any stress to buy Blue-Ray. But the menus were a lot cooler on the BR, though.

Samuel Wilson said...

Glad you liked Kagemusha, Lolita. If I remember right, the double ends up being a better strategist than the generals because he remembers a simple maxim, making his removal before the big battle a real tragedy illustrated by those post-battle tableaux you rightly praise. Now you need to see RAN to see Kurosawa and Nakadai at their mightiest together.

Anonymous said...

Here's an All-Region Blu-Ray player for $161. It might not be as good as the Oppo I spoke of earlier, but for $160 it's a good deal.

you don't have to publish this comment it just easier to talk to you this way at work. =P


Alex DeLarge said...

I'm in the first part of the new Kurosawa Criterion box set! I just finished NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH and am working my way through his ouvre. I've reviewed KAGEMUSHA, SEVEN SAMURAI and many others on my blog but hope you get the chance to see his early films...especially THOSE WHO TREAD ON TIGER'S TAIL. Keep up the good work:)

Lolita of the Classics said...

Alex DeLarge:
I envy you! And thank you ;)

Anonymous said...

thank you for post... after watching the movie I coudldn't get who was Tokugawaand who Nobunaga, only your post have cleared it all, thank you...