Published on January 29th, 2014 | by Noah Dimitrie0
The Criterion Cut: Kagemusha
We all know his name. We all know his legacy. He summoned the Seven Samurai and sat on the Throne of Blood. He’s been called ‘The Master’ by people we commonly recognize as masters themselves — directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Federico Fellini. He truly is as prolific as they come. His name, in case you haven’t already guessed, is Akira Kurosawa, an artist whose work has been meticulously viewed and analyzed, possibly more than any other filmmaker.
When you think of Kurosawa’s body of work, films like Seven Samurai, Rashomon, and Yojimbo come to mind the quickest. Surely, these are some of his most unique and groundbreaking pictures. However, relatively little attention is placed towards the end of his career, discounting his final masterpiece, Ran, which was released in 1985 and has quietly become one of his most acclaimed productions. But sitting more or less comfortably in the darker corners of his vast cannon is Kagemusha, a film full of depth and despair; of hope and of loss.
Kurosawa’s 1980 epic, starring the immensely popular Tatsuya Nakadai (Harakiri, High and Low) follows a feudal lord named Shingen who happens upon a thief who quite impeccably resembles him. Shingen decides to employ the thief as a body double, a decision that pays off when he is wounded by a sniper in battle. As the lord suffers through a slow, but inevitable death, he requests that his people do not learn of his passing, but instead think of his scoundrel of a body double as their lord. His wish is their command. As the imposter tries to pass himself off as Shingen as convincingly as possible, his real personality shines through. Everyone who has been deceived retain a inkling of suspicion, just as the generals who know of the scheme retain a hint of anxiety. As a warring feudal lord grows militant and Shingen’s son grows jealous of his father’s clone, tensions rise to a boiling point and no one walks away unscathed.
The body double, who is referred to as Kagemusha when he isn’t being addressed as Shingen, grows fond of his fake family and his fake country. He rules with an innocence and an unprecedented level of objectivity that benefits the war effort. Against explicit instructions, he is pacifistic and fair. Nobody likes it, but it seems to work. By designing his protagonist in such a way, Kurosawa throws a layer of hopeless irony into the mix, making the film feel significantly more tragic than exciting.
Nevertheless, Kagemusha feels overwhelmed. He doesn’t believe he can be the man he is supposed to be, even though the man he already is is truly the man the people need. It’s no wonder the film was released in North America under the title Shadow Warrior as Shingen 2.0 declares that he is only that — a shadow of his great predecessor. In a stunning dream sequence, he sees the real Shingen stare loathingly into his eyes. He tries to run, but the stare follows him. The colourful landscape behind him looks otherworldly, though not particularly heavenly or hellish, but rather like a purgatory that his soul is trapped inside of.
Which brings us to the films cinematography, which is every bit restrained as it is enlightening. Frequent Kurosawa collaborator Takao Saito creates a world that feels both dead and alive. He catches the sunset just as the cavalry marches, making it feel more like an end than a beginning. The cold, unforgiving night falls over Kagemusha as he waits patiently for victory to come. The fires of battle mixed meticulously with the moonlight is nothing but exquisite.
The Criterion Edition features a plethora of content focused heavily on Kurosawa’s overall creative process, including a delightful short documentary on Kurosawa’s trek into unchartered territory behind the scenes of Kagemusha. Another interesting feature is the series of whiskey commercials done in participation with the film. Call it selling out if you want, but the project probably wouldn’t have been finished without all that booze-soaked cash. Plus, they are fairly amusing, like most Japanese commercials.
Still, Kurosawa’s tragic tale of a man who gains the whole world only to have it swept out from under his feet, is so disparate, you really have to see it to fully understand. It is just as much an intimate look at a dying breed of man as it is a sweeping epic. Over the course of its three hours, you see a man built up — by his overlords and himself — only to be broken down and forgotten, left to scour the evaporating corners of the world that he knows he could’ve saved. The film discovers the most simple of truths in ways that make you feel like you’ve never heard them before. It’s an exercise in self-reflection that goes beyond the place that most large scale epics reside.
Kurosawa puts as much humanity and originality into Kagemusha as any of his other films, proving that the director cannot be summed up as quickly as he sometimes is. His films continue to surprise audiences to this day with a unique selection of stories that are constantly universal and crafted with genuine honesty. That may be enough to reserve his place as one of the greatest of all time, or at the very least, prove that he is the master that so many auteurs recognize him as.