This review of Akira Kurosawa's 1980 samurai epic was written by the doppelgängers of Judges Dan Mancini, Joel Pearce, Adam Arseneau, and Erick Harper.
Our review of Kagemusha: Criterion Collection (Blu-Ray), published August 18th, 2009, is also available.
The shadow of a man can never stand up and walk on its own.
Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior) was cursed. Director Akira Kurosawa labored from beginning to end to complete it. By the time Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas stepped in to win him financing, Kurosawa had all but given up on realizing it as a film. He'd devoted much time to painting hundreds of elaborate, full color storyboards of his script, believing they would be the only visual representation of his tale. But Coppola introduced Kurosawa to Lucas, and Lucas asked 20th Century Fox executive Alan Ladd Jr. to buy the North American distribution rights to Kagemusha as a personal favor. Lucas was in the midst of pre-production on The Empire Strikes Back, and Fox hadn't yet secured the distribution rights to that film, so they were eager to do anything Lucas asked. Fox's relatively small investment covered the portion of Kagemusha's budget that Toho was reluctant to spend, and essentially shamed the Japanese studio into backing the film—how could they pass on a movie that had a major American studio's attention?
Unfortunately, Kurosawa's troubles didn't end with secured financing. Toho's interest in the project didn't rely solely on Fox's investment. They demanded a star be cast in the lead. Shintaro Katsu of Zatoichi fame fit the bill, but the strong-willed actor didn't even make it through rehearsals before his relationship with the equally strong-willed Kurosawa disintegrated. The production almost died despite its American subsidies. Dramatic star Tatsuya Nakadai (Sword of Doom, Ran) graciously stepped in at the last minute, saving the show.
With its veil of bad luck, it's no wonder Kurosawa fans spent years wondering if Kagemusha would ever find its way to DVD in North America. Assuming it did, would it be a disc worthy of the film and its maker? Whispers of a deal between Fox and The Criterion Collection were heard as early as 2002, but seemed too good to be true. Then Kagemusha appeared on Criterion's official release calendar for late 2004, only to be abruptly withdrawn weeks before release. Criterion, it turns out, had been on the verge of releasing the 162-minute North American cut of Kagemusha (owned by Fox) when Toho's 180-minute Japanese cut became available.
Kagemusha is an important late-period work by Kurosawa. That this is the first time his full edit of the movie has been available in North America makes this two-disc release by Criterion similarly important.
Facts of the Case
A petty thief (Tatsuya Nakadai) is rescued from crucifixion because of his uncanny resemblance to warlord Shingen Takeda (also Nakadai). When Shingen is killed by a sniper, the thief steps into the clan head's role in order to prevent attack by aggressive enemies Nobunaga Oda (Daisuke Ryo, Graveyard of Honor ) and Ieyasu Tokugawa (Masayuki Yui, Akira Kurosawa's Dreams). As the thief struggles to reconcile his identity with that of the deceased warlord, the impatience of Shingen's son Katsuyori (Kenichi Hagiwara, Double Cross ) leads to devastation for the Takeda's at the Battle of Nagashino, and propels Japan toward political unification.
Judge Dan Mancini: The Emperor and the Bard
One doesn't need to watch Kagemusha all that closely to recognize Kurosawa had Shakespeare on the brain when he made it. His scheme to transport King Lear to feudal Japan—which would eventually become Ran—predated the scripting and extensive storyboarding for Kagemusha. When it became obvious to Kurosawa that Japan's cash poor studios would never finance an epic of Ran's scope, he decided to make a smaller picture in the comic, adventurous style of his wildly successful 1958 film, The Hidden Fortress. But Shakespeare's tragedy was in his head, and so was Ran with its vast vistas of samurai combat. Kagemusha couldn't be contained. It wasn't destined to be light comedy or a breezy adventure picture.
Both Kagemusha and Ran are set in Japan's sengoku jidai, or warring-states period. This nearly 150-year span (1467-1615) was rife with civil war among feudal warlords (daimyo) seeking to consolidate their own power and unify Japan's government. In Ran, Kurosawa exploits a similarity between Lear and a 16th-century daimyo named Motonari Mori, who successfully divided his land and power among his three sons. Kagemusha looks to Mori contemporary Shingen Takeda, a fairly aggressive daimyo with eyes on Kyoto and the Shogunate. On the surface, Kagemusha appears more historical than Ran because Kurosawa didn't bother to change the characters' names, and the towering figures of Nobunaga Oda and Ieyasu Tokugawa are secondary players. But the film is nearly as much a confabulation as Ran, making hay with the mysterious circumstances of Shingen's death in 1573, and his son Katsuyori's stunning defeat to Oda at the Battle of Nagashino in 1575, in which 10,000 Takeda samurai were killed.
The historical record is foggy as to whether Shingen died from a combat wound or sudden illness. We know that his funeral wasn't held until two years after his death. One of his many doubles likely took his place during those two years in order to hide the Takedas' weakness. Kurosawa, either consciously or subconsciously, saw a nexus between this piece of medieval Japanese history and Shakespeare's penchant for exploring the concept of personal identity via the mechanisms of disguise and mistaken identity. Twins mistaken for one another, gender-bending disguises, and rendezvous between crossed lovers are the plot engines for The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, among others. Even Hamlet offers a play within the play, in which an actor playing a king unknowingly ferrets out the crime of Claudius, the real king. Kurosawa's shadow warrior, then, is a Shakespearean character. Compelled into taking on the role of the daimyo, the thief is at first contemptuous of the political powerbrokers around him. He (rightly) sees the brutality of their skirmishes as a far greater moral wrong than the petty crime for which he was to be crucified. But, slowly, he takes on the personality of Shingen, adopting his mannerisms as though he is channeling the dead warlord. The transformation is most touching in the thief's growing love for Shingen's young grandson and heir. Their fondness for one another is genuine, and might be read as the catalyst for the thief's growing loyalty to a clan determined to execute him before they found him useful.
Kurosawa originally conceived Kagemusha as a vehicle for the comic actor Shintaro Katsu. An on-set conflict, which became the subject of Japanese tabloids, ended Katsu's involvement in the project. Had he remained, the picture would have been livelier, more comic, and more human, but its Shakespearean elements would have remained nonetheless. Played as he is by Tatsuya Nakadai, the thief is a blank template who slowly assumes the characteristics of Shingen as he is immersed in his role as doppelgänger. The only time he seems uniquely himself is when he panics over the possibility that he might lose himself in the role he's playing—if he becomes Shingen, what happens to the thief?
Unfortunately, Nakadai's gifts as an actor are better suited to the role of Shingen. The philosophical question is blunted by his inability to breathe full life into the thief. One can imagine the thief in Katsu's hands as a Falstaffian character, crass, full of bluster, but oddly vulnerable. Katsu's interpretation may have resembled the second act of King Henry IV, Part 1, when Falstaff play-acts being the king over drinks at the Boar's-Head Tavern, chastising Prince Henry. The comedy is vigorous, witty, and sometimes broad, but it ends with Falstaff wounded at Henry's jest that he'll have him banished (a joking threat that comes tragically true by play's end). Kagemusha's story is almost an expansion of this single scene into a grand and bloody epic. Had Katsu remained in the lead, the film might have achieved a similarly perfect mix of comedy and pathos. Without him, it is colder, more austere. Tonally, it's a bit out of balance.
Kurosawa's treatment of history in Kagemusha is quite Shakespearean, a complete break from his handling of it in jidai geki like Seven Samurai or Yojimbo, made during his creative zenith. Fate lurks in the background of Shakespeare's plays, his characters caught in its ever-turning wheels. Some readers and viewers, for instance, see Richard's treachery and murder in Richard III as fate's way of undoing past treachery and clearing the way for Richmond's rightful ascension to the throne. In Kagemusha, Ieyasu Tokugawa is the least assuming character, yet he's the one historically destined to rise to the Shogunate, his dynasty stretching from the early 17th-century until 1868. Tokugawa is a lesser daimyo in the movie, acting as Oda's ally out of self-preservation (the historical Nobunaga Oda, after all, was just as aggressive as Shingen, and much closer to successfully establishing himself as Shogun). There's a cosmology in the background of the picture in which fate uses the combination of Shingen's death, Katsuyori's impetuousness, and Oda's arrogance as the mechanism through which Tokugawa is elevated to power. None of this is explicit, but the emphasis Kurosawa places on Katsuyori's defeat at the Battle of Nagashino points towards the end of the period of the samurai class's greatest influence, and the beginning of the peace, unity, and centralized governance that would characterize the Tokugawa Shogunate. By the end of the picture, the thief comes to personify the melancholy with which Kurosawa views the inevitability of these political and cultural developments, making the climax of Kagemusha simultaneously epic and personal, and giving it a striking emotional power.
Judge Joel Pearce: Kagemusha: Stepping Out from the Shadow of Ran
This is the first time I've watched Kagemusha. I wasn't as enthusiastic about it as I was about some other Kurosawa films, since it's so often described as a trial run for Ran, which would come five years later.
To an extent, I can understand why this comparison has come about. Both films have a similar theme, an aging Lord, and the loss of a kingdom. Both Kagemusha's Shingen and Ran's Hidetora lose their kingdoms after a lifetime of bloodshed, and both because of an error in leadership. Ran is unquestionably a masterpiece, a fabulous adaptation of King Lear that improves on it in many ways. Kagemusha has awkward moments, as though Kurosawa was still toying around with what can be accomplished by filming with color. But I would argue that Kagemusha can be seen as much more than just a herald signaling the arrival of a coming king.
The main events of these two films are an inversion of each other. In Ran, Hidetora makes a fatal error when he divides his kingdom between three sons that he cannot trust. His distrustful sons take advantage of his offer, eventually forcing him out of his own castles. Through the second half of the film, he is treated as though he were already dead, even though he still clings to life until the end of the film. Though still alive, he loses the respect of other rulers in the area since he no longer controls military power. A ruler who gives up power is not a ruler to be feared, and so he is seen as worthless and impotent.
In Kagemusha, Lord Shingen maintains control over his kingdom even though he is dead. The "Shadow Warrior" of the title refers to the double that takes his place, but there is a second meaning as well. The shadow of Shingen hangs over the rest of the film, even after he is gone. His warlike spirit never leaves the film, and the other characters continue to feel his presence. He is a dead man who still holds the power of a kingdom, eventually failing because he has too much faith in his own singular power.
With these two films taken as a pair, Kurosawa suggests that the rule of a Kingdom requires a balance between absolute control and the sacrifice of power. From his own past in aristocracy as well as his struggles to get both of these films made, perhaps they can also be seen as a reflection of the last few years of Kurosawa's own life. He had already gained a reputation like that of Lord Shingen by this point, a fierce individualist who refused to work well with studios. He enlisted the help of Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas to make Kagemusha, but its success still wasn't enough to get him the support he needed to make Ran.
Even during the despair Kurosawa felt during this whole process, he managed to make two brilliant samurai epics in these last few years of his life. While Kagemusha has a few awkward moments, it better captures the feel of the classic Kurosawa epic samurai films. It has Shakespearean plotting, rousing action scenes, moments of very human comedy, and some of the most breathtaking cinematography I have ever seen. Kagemusha is an excellent companion piece to Ran, but it is also every bit its equal and deserves to be judged solely on its own merits.
Judge Adam Arseneau: Kurosawa as His Own Kagemusha
One of the more under-appreciated films in Kurosawa's canon, Kagemusha is constantly overshadowed by Ran—not without good reason, of course. Ran is excellent stuff, no doubt, but in the canon of Kurosawa's work, there should exist a special place for Kagemusha as a deeply personal piece. It should be recognized not for its epic battlefield scope or dynamic use of color, since these elements were dwarfed by his later films, but for its inherent sense of cynicism and disillusionment. No, seriously.
Years prior to Kagemusha, Kurosawa had infamously attempted suicide, a culturally acceptable (if still slightly reprehensible) action for a successful man who perceived his career (and therefore, his reason for existence) to be over. Experiencing commercial failure for the first time in his career, Kurosawa believed he had nothing left to offer the world, and growing difficulty securing financing for his work made things even more difficult. Kagemusha was Kurosawa's first attempt to revisit the historical epic genre that epitomized the early success of his career, and with it came a lot of Kurosawa's own personal lamentations about the state of the film industry and his perceived worth as an artist.
At its heart a raucous and dramatic historical reenactment (the kind of film that in his early years he infused with great fanfare, spectacle and more than a little romanticism), it can be no coincidence that Kurosawa infused Kagemusha with more than a slight touch of cynicism. Convinced that his career was at an end, unable to fund his projects, Kurosawa was at a turning point in his life. He was at the threshold of the modern cinematic world, attempting to re-integrate himself into an ever-changing industry and claim the respect and success of his early career. Kurosawa was not the only one having difficulty; this period of re-adjustment was not isolated to the Japanese industry. After the cataclysmic financial debacle of Heaven's Gate, auteurs and innovators within the film industry in North America (and at large) were finding it increasingly difficult to secure funding for the ambitious, avant-garde projects stored deep within their brains. The world was changing, and Kurosawa had a hard time adjusting, to say the least.
Consider the kagemusha himself; a shadow clone, a duplicate figure, and at the start of the film, a character full of disillusion, anarchy and chaos. Against his will and with great difficulty he finds himself thrust into the specter of an almost mythological presence, a personality greater than any single human being, one that transfers down from person to person from beyond the grave. So was Kurosawa himself, a man who on the surface resembled the specter of his own past success, but internally was awash with contempt for the establishment and doubt of his own self-worth. As the film progresses, it emulates the historical epic from Kurosawa's previous films, but lacks the charismatic romanticism, the glorification of the battle, of the hero figure. In Kagemusha, the shadow clone is an anti-hero, not a leader but merely an imitator, trying to fill in the footsteps of a great man. Kurosawa plays the role of both Shingen and the body double, imitating himself in order to re-claim what he had lost.
On the surface, Kagemusha parallels the joyous enthusiasm of his previous historical battle epics. In fact, it is a sad, bitter, and jaded film, a film of the death of an era, a shift from the romanticism of the samurai medieval period to the modern unification of feudal Japan. Kagemusha parallels disturbingly against the backdrop of Kurosawa's own life. The kagemusha himself bears an odd symmetry to Kurosawa; a man going through the motions of an existence not his own, a shadow of an ideal that no longer applies, a simulacra of an era that no longer exists. In Kurosawa's mind, his glory days were over, and Kagemusha no doubt speaks to this unstated frustration, an artist coming to terms with the instability in his own profession, of having to re-invent himself to somehow be useful in the modern world.
Luckily for us, Kurosawa was dead wrong about his own worth. After Kagemusha, he made Ran. 'Nuff said.
Judge Erick Harper: Kurosawa in Color
Kagemusha marks only the third time that Kurosawa chose to make a film in color rather than his customary black and white. He resisted making the change until 1970, long after most other filmmakers in the world had embraced it, on the grounds that it was not yet realistic or effective enough to present his visions faithfully.
There is a pronounced difference in feel between Kurosawa's classic black and white masterpieces and his later color work like Kagemusha and Ran. There are technical explanations for the difference, such as the change from anamorphic lenses and widescreen compositions to more conventional lenses and the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Black and white photography to this day provides sharper contrasts and clearer details than color. With the change to color, some of the starkness and clarity of Kurosawa's compositions, a hallmark of his work, were inevitably lost; to an extent, Kurosawa in color simply doesn't look like the Kurosawa one would expect from films like Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, or Throne of Blood.
The change to color coincided with a slight shift in the master's approach as a filmmaker. According to his friend and chronicler Donald Richie, Kurosawa was no longer as concerned as before with presenting images of absolute realism and everyday appearance. Color in most people's minds lends itself to an even closer approximation of reality, but Kurosawa used it to create something more exotic, more heightened. Colors in Kagemusha become a vehicle more for creating heightened emotional response than recreating the world of Takeda, Tokugawa, and the rest. This is most pronounced in the lurid, otherworldly environment of the impostor's dream sequence, and echoes later in the conflagration of battle.
Probably the biggest difference, however, between Kurosawa in black and white and Kurosawa in color lies in the viewer's own perception. From a Western-centric perspective, it is one thing to admire Kurosawa's technique and storytelling, but part of the appeal of his films will always lie in their exotic, "other" nature. Black and white films, with their obvious remove from everyday life, achieve this psychological distance more readily than those shot in color. They become artifacts not only of culture but of time, and as such acquire a timeless, ageless quality that can elude even the best color films. Kagemusha, for all its brilliance, suffers by comparison with Kurosawa's earlier works for a number of reasons, but shooting in color on the inferior film stocks of the late 1970s/early '80s gives the film an extra burden of age that it must carry as well.
Judge Dan Mancini: A Tale of Two DVDs
Having made the case for Kagemusha as an important, if flawed, film by Kurosawa, let's take a look at its release on DVD. Disc One of this two-disc set contains the full three-hour cut of Kagemusha. The feature is presented in its 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio, and is enhanced for widescreen displays. According to the notes in the insert booklet, Criterion sourced the transfer from a low-contrast print struck from the original negative. Colors are bold and accurate. Just check out the iconic shot of a line of samurai passing before the setting sun in chapter four, "A Final Wish," or chapter 21, "The Dream," in its entirety, to see the director's use of color in this picture at its most dynamic. Criterion's digital restoration of the film elements is excellent, leaving only a few instances of minor wear. Heavier levels of grain are indicative of the lower quality film stocks of the time, but Criterion has handled them with aplomb. By avoiding excessive digital manipulation, they've produced a transfer that looks much like film. This respect for the built-in limitations of the sources at their disposal is the hallmark of Criterion's style as a production house, and the look of Kagemusha on DVD is in line with the high standards Criterion's fans have come to expect.
The film's original four-track Japanese audio is presented in a fine Dolby Stereo surround track. It's not immersive, but dialogue and effects are clear and free of hiss or other defects. Shinichiro Ikebe's elegiac score, reminiscent of Ennio Morricone, is beautifully handled, benefiting enormously from DVD's greater and more subtle dynamic range. Broadcast television and VHS releases of Kagemusha simply can't compare.
Criterion's Kurosawa releases have become more elaborate in the past couple years as they've been provided greater access to supplemental materials by Japanese studios. In terms of extras, Kagemusha is their most impressive Kurosawa title to date. In addition to the feature, Disc One contains an excellent audio commentary by Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa. Given three hours to discuss the film, Prince covers it from every conceivable angle. He talks about its troubled production history, its structure and themes, and its place in Kurosawa's oeuvre. He identifies scenes restored in this longer cut of the film, and provides biographical information on some of the actors, taking special note of cameo appearances by Takashi Shimura and Kamatari Fujiwara (members of Kurosawa's stock company during most of his career, Kagemusha marked the last time either actor would work for the director).
Disc One also contains the U.S. theatrical trailer, plus the Japanese teaser and full trailers.
Disc Two kicks off with Lucas, Coppola, and Kurosawa, a 20-minute featurette that details the American filmmakers' rescue of Kurosawa's project. The piece is built on interviews with Lucas and Coppola, conducted in 2004, giving each director the opportunity to talk about Kurosawa's influence on their work and why they felt compelled to use their clout to get Kagemusha made.
The Kagemusha episode of the Toho Masterworks series, Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create, which has become a standard supplement on recent Criterion releases of Kurosawa films, is next. Indexed into seven chapters and running 41 minutes, it covers the making of the movie from Kurosawa's extensive storyboarding, to Nakadai's replacing Shintaro Katsu in the lead role, to the shoot. The piece features interviews with actors Nakadai, Daisuke Ryo, and Masayuki Yui, as well as members of the film's crew, including associate producer Teruyo Nogami and director of photography Takao Saito. As with other entries in the series, it is a making-of chock full of information.
Image: Kurosawa's Continuity is a video feature created by Masayuki Yui that reconstructs Kagemusha by combining the director's full-color storyboards with dialogue and audio from the film. It's not only a great storehouse for Kurosawa's paintings, but a demonstration that his visual style is just as dynamic in a medium other than film. The featurette never bores across its 44-minute running time.
A Vision Realized is a gallery that pairs 23 of Kurosawa's storyboard paintings with still photographs from corresponding scenes in the final film. The juxtaposition demonstrates the startling fidelity with which the director recreated his vision on screen.
Finally, Disc Two houses five Suntory Whiskey television commercials featuring Kurosawa, made during the production of Kagemusha. The director's shilling booze is a melancholy demonstration of the financial straits in which he found himself at the time.
In addition to the supplements on the two discs, this set contains a 48-page insert booklet loaded with gems. "Kagemusha: From Painting to Film Pageantry" is a new essay by film scholar Peter Grilli about the movie's troubled production. A lengthy interview of Kurosawa by film critic Tony Rayns is reprinted in full from a 1981 issue of Sight and Sound. Kurosawa scholar Donald Richie (The Films of Akira Kurosawa) provides biographical sketches of Kurosawa and would-be Kagemusha star Shintaro Katsu, from his book Public People, Private People: Portraits of Some Japanese. Twenty-one of Kurosawa's storyboards are also reproduced in the booklet.
Kagemusha may be eclipsed by Ran as Kurosawa's late-period masterpiece, but it's still a powerful story told in the director's incomparable visual style. Criterion's two-disc set is everything Kurosawa fans could have hoped for in a DVD release of the film.
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• Commentary by Kurosawa Scholar Stephen Prince
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