Criterion // 1980 // 180 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // August 18th, 2009
"Sumptuously reconstructing the splendor of feudal Japan and the pageantry of war"
After a quick count, it appears that Akira Kurosawa is the most-represented director in the much-vaunted Criterion Collection (with Ingmar Bergman a close second). Roughly half of the films the master of Japanese cinema made have been released by the label. When the dust finally settled in the hi-def format war, Criterion embraced Blu-ray quickly and fans knew it was only a matter of time before we saw Kurosawa in glorious 1080p. The only question was which of the many wonderful films released in the collection would get the treatment first. I'm guessing most collectors were hoping for Seven Samurai, especially after the wonderful re-release, but Rashomon is arguably just and important, and I doubt anyone would have complained about Yojimbo or Ran in hi-def. Instead, we get Kagemusha, Kurosawa's late-career epic on identity as our first Kurosawa film in Blu-ray. Although it might not have been my first choice, I'm glad we've got Kagemusha: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray).
Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai, Kwaidan) is a powerful feudal warlord, but he's dying. Because his death could mean chaos for the people under his rule, he decides to have a common criminal (also Tatsuya Nakadai) be his kagemusha, or shadow warrior, to double for him once he has died. It's not so easy to be a warlord, and the kagemusha learns this lesson while being haunted, both literally and figuratively.
Kurosawa was a noted student of Shakespeare, and that's obvious in both his films that are based on the Bard (like Ran), and those which are not (Rashomon). Unsurprisingly, Shakespeare was a huge fan of using doubles in his plays, like A Comedy of Errors. As that play's title might suggest, Shakespeare used the concept in his comedies, and although there are dramatic "doubles" in some of his histories and tragedies, the device of explicit doubles was left in the comedies. Not one to follow Shakespeare slavishly, Kurosawa decided to transfer the concept of doubles into an historical epic with tragic overtones.
The effect works well. The whole "prince and the pauper" thing has been done before, but Kurosawa eschews the silly sentimentality of having the warlord become a peasant. Instead, we see the kagemusha rise to the challenge of becoming a leader, even if it's more performance that competence. It also gives Kurosawa a chance to examine the feudal system, probing its strengths and weaknesses, showing how one man can fit into a huge system.
Visually, Kurosawa is up to his usual high standards. Kagemusha emerged after one of the darkest periods in Kurosawa's career, following a string of commercial and critical difficulties. Because of this he was denied the kind of budget necessary to complete a large-scale project. This sent the director to his study, where he meticulously wrote and visualized Kagemusha long before he ever stepped behind a camera. In fact, it was only thanks to the assistance of Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas that Kurosawa secured the funding necessary for this film. Luckily for us, Kagemusha did well, leading directly to Ran, what many consider Kurosawa's late-career masterpiece.
I remember a few discussions popping up during the height of the hi-def format wars where various people claimed that hi-def was only useful for new releases, since old films wouldn't look good with all the added resolution. Well, Criterion's Blu-ray releases have singlehandedly put that notion to bed. Kagemusha, for instance, looks spectacular. Although it's occasionally soft, colors are very strong, and detail is surprisingly high throughout the film. Filmlike is an easy adjective to throw around, but Kagemusha on Blu-ray looks like it was painted with light. The audio isn't quite as revelatory, but the DTS-HD 4.0 soundtrack sounds better than many films from 1980, with clear dialogue.
All of the extras from the previous DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray disc (with the exception of a single essay in the included booklet). Stephen Prince is his usual informative self in an audio commentary that covers production and historical context. For more production info, we get an installment of "It Is Wonderful to Create," which covers Kagemusha. There is also a feature which allows a glimpse of the film as told by Kurosawa's storyboards combined with dialogue from the film. Kurosawa, Lucas, and Coppola chime in for interviews in another featurette that describes Kurosawa's influence, and in a wonderful bit of cross-promotion we get commercials for Suntory whiskey that were filmed on the set of Kagemusha. The film's trailers round out the disc. The booklet contains a fine essay on the film as well as an interview between Kurosawa and scholar Tony Rayns. The only thing missing from the DVD is a third biographical essay not included here.
Those reared on Kurosawa's early samurai films like Yojimbo, or Seven Samurai might not enjoy Kagemusha quite as much. Although it has its share of battle scenes, the overall pace is much slower and more contemplative than some of Kurosawa's earlier work (or even than his next film, Ran). That doesn't make Kagemusha a bad film, just one that requires a bit of preparation on the part of the audience. Those looking for a more traditional "action" film should probably look elsewhere.
Kagemusha inaugurates Kurosawa on Blu-ray with consummate style. Fans of international, especially Japanese, cinema would do well to check this disc out if they're unfamiliar with the film, and Kurosawa fans owe it to themselves to be versed in its magnificent visuals. The upgrade question is a tough one. Because the original DVD is so well-done, there's nothing new here except for the upgraded audio and video. Because of Kurosawa's strengths as a visual filmmaker, fans of the film who own the original DVD from Criterion don't need to upgrade, but if they do they won't regret it.
All concerned are not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 4.0 Master Audio (Japanese)
Running Time: 180 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Rated PG