Director : Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay : Akira Kurosawa & Masato Ide
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1980
Stars : Tatsuya Nakadai (Shingen Takeda / Kagemusha), Tsutomu Yamazaki (Nobukado Takeda), Kenichi Hagiwara (Katsuyori Takeda), Jinpachi Nezu (Sohachiro Tsuchiya), Hideji Otaki (Masakage Yamagata), Daisuke Ryu (Nobunaga Oda), Masayuki Yui (Ieyasu Tokugawa), Kaori Momoi (Otsuyanokata), Mitsuko Baisho (Oyunokata), Hideo Murota (Nobufusa Baba)
By 1980, as he was entering the fifth decade of his career as a film director, Akira Kurosawa was probably best known outside of his native Japan for his samurai films, including Seven Samurai (1954), The Hidden Fortress (1958), Yojimbo (1961), and Sanjuro (1962). While certainly entertaining and formally brilliant (as most of Kurosawa’s films tend to be), these films are relatively limited in scope; generically speaking, they are action films, comedies, and disguised Westerns.
Thus, Kagemusha, a vast historical samurai epic, was a bold step in a new direction for the great Japanese master. It was a film Kurosawa had been trying to make for more than half a decade, and it was only after American producers Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas convinced Twentieth Century Fox to pony up a million and a half dollars for the international distribution rights that Kurosawa could get the go-ahead. He had never made a film of this scope before, but he was clearly due. Only the third color film he had ever made, Kagemusha is a glorious masterpiece of both large-scale historical grandeur and intimate personal questions about the nature of identity and power.
The story is set in late 16th century, when several rival clans were attempting to unify Japan for the first time. It a time in which Japan was going through massive changes, both politically and industrially. In a sense, then, Kagemusha is similar to American Westerns set at the end of the 19th century, when the U.S. was beginning to modernize and the old ways of the West were dying beneath the onslaught of the Industrial Revolution. In Kagemusha, this is most clearly epitomized in the introduction of the rifle to warfare, which forever changes the nature of the battlefield and the way in which the samurai fought. While Kurosawa’s previous films featured small skirmishes and hand-to-hand swordplay, Kagemusha ends with a massive battle of apocalyptic scale, in which the old ways are literally slaughtered in a hail of bullets.
While there are three rival clans vying for control of Japan, Kurosawa focuses on the Takeda clan. The clan’s lord, Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai), is mortally wounded by a sniper’s bullet, and one of his last requests is that his death be kept secret for at least three years. To maintain this façade, his inner circle must employ a kagemusha, or “shadow warrior,” to double as Shingen. It turns out that the person who most resembles him is a petty thief who has been saved at the last minute from crucifixion (also played by Nakadai). Thus, the great warlord is impersonated by a common criminal, and once the thief takes over the role, he begins to assume Shingen’s identity, to the point that the two are no longer separable. For all intents and purposes, the thief becomes the warlord, which brings up a host of troubling questions about what constitutes one’s identity.
Interwoven throughout this story are subplots involving others in the Takeda clan, including Shingen’s brother, Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki), who has doubled for him in the past, and Shingen’s son, Katsuyori (Kenichi Hagiwara), who is bitter because he was not named as his father’s successor because his mother is the daughter of one of Shingen’s rivals. The political and familial tensions cut through the clan’s grand aspirations of complete control, constantly reminding us that even the greatest powers are ultimately human. To this end, the film is replete with a dark irony not typical of Kurosawa’s humanist tendencies. There is something almost absurd about the narrative, in which a thief is treated like a lord and comes to think of himself as the lord, but is in reality only a “shadow.”
Kagemusha is one of Kurosawa’s most intensely visual films, which some have argued is the result of the long gestation period before it was made. For five years Kurosawa painted hundreds of images that would serve as storyboards for the film; thus, he had it completely mapped out in his head before he ever stood behind a camera. The film’s painterly images are stunning, as Kurosawa deftly mixes realism with artistic flourishes and splashes of surrealism. An early battle scene is intensified by setting it against a completely blood-red sky, which introduces an element of bold theatricality that in no way diminishes the impact of the violence. Wide-angle shots of enormous armies marching across the land have a rousing sense of scale.
Yet, for all the film’s visual power, Kurosawa often goes against expectations by leaving some of the most crucial events completely off-screen, thus relegating them to the viewer’s imagination. It also allows him to emphasize the results of the events, rather than the events themselves, thus eliding sensationalism for its own sake. For example, the final battle, toward which the film has been steadily building, takes an enormous risk in leaving virtually all of the fighting off-screen; instead, Kurosawa focuses on the reactions of the leaders as they watch their men dutifully march to the slaughter and then a heart-wrenching series of nearly static images of the aftermath, punctuated only by the slow motion death throes of soldiers and horses that stand in visually for the death throes of a dream destroyed. It’s the most chilling sequence of any of Kurosawa’s film.
In Kagemusha, almost 40 years after his directorial debut, Kurosawa found his most authoritative cinematic voice at a time when his career was most in jeopardy. Even after numerous international successes early in his career (starting with 1950’s Rashomon), the 1970s had been a difficult decade for him, and there was a point at which it seemed that he might not make another film. Thankfully, that was not the case, and Kagemusha, which shared in the 1980 Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, reignited his career, leading to a final stage of production in the 1980s and early 1990s that ensured his lasting legacy.
|Kagemusha Criterion Collection Blu-Ray|
|Audio||Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 surround|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment|
|Release Date||August 18, 2009|
|VIDEO AND AUDIO|
|When Criterion released the complete 180-minute version of Kagemusha, as opposed to the truncated 160-minute international version usually seen in the U.S., on DVD back in 2005, it looked fantastic, and now it looks even better in full 1080p high-definition on Blu-Ray. The transfer, which was was taken from a 35mm low-contrast print struck from the original negative and then digitally restored, gives us gorgeous images, with intense, vivid colors and great contrast that leaves them looking slightly stronger and sharper than they did on DVD, with an even more filmlike appearance that emphasizes a moderate amount of grain. The four-channel surround soundtrack was transferred from the original four-track magnetic master and is now presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio, which gives it a slight edge over the Dolby Digital on the DVD. Like the film’s color scheme, the soundtrack is purposefully heightened, with certain sound effects like flags rippling in the wind given an almost hyperreal prominence. The surround effects are very good, with decent directionality and a solid sense of envelopment, especially in the large-scale sequences.|
|All of the supplements included on this Special Edition Blu-Ray disc are the same as those included on the original Criterion DVD. Film scholar Stephen Prince contributes a lucid audio commentary in which he provides historical and cultural information that is crucial to a thorough appreciation of Kagemusha, especially because Kurosawa assumes the audience has a certain level of knowledge that most Western viewers are unlikely to have. |
Also included is a 19-minute featurette titled “Lucas, Coppola, and Kurosawa,” which features circa-2005 interviews with George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola about their involvement in getting the film financed. Further information about the film’s production can be found in a 41-minute making-of documentary that was originally produced for Japanese television as part of the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. To get a true sense of Kurosawa’s brilliant visual skills, the 43-minute video presentation “Image: Kurosawa’s Continuity” reconstructs Kagemusha through Kurosawa’s paintings and sketches, illustrating just how specific he was in previsualizing the film prior to production. There is also a separate storyboard gallery, as well as U.S. and Japanese trailers. Of particular interest from a commercial standpoint is the inclusion of a handful of Suntory Whiskey TV ads shot by Kurosawa on the film’s set, several of which feature Kurosawa and Coppola.
Lastly, the set includes another one of Criterion’s gorgeous insert booklets, this one running 48 pages and featuring a new essay by scholar Peter Grilli, a reprinted 1981 Sight & Sound interview with Kurosawa by critic Tony Rayns, and biographical sketches by Japanese film historian Donald Richie, as well as two dozen of Kurosawa’s storyboard paintings.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © 20th Century Fox / The Criterion Collection