A petty thief who resembles a samurai warlord is hired as the lord's double, but when the warlord dies the thief is forced to take up arms in his place.
Kagemusha may be the most important Japanese film on the world stage. A sweeping statement perhaps and, of course, there are many different ways to measure such things. There were certainly films that came before and helped pave the way, some of which may be even better, but it’s Kagemusha / Shadow Warrior that made me, and many of my generation, sit up and take notice of Japanese cinema.
For a while, back in the early 1980s, it was among the best films I’d ever seen, even though I wasn’t seeing the whole thing! Apparently, 20th Century Fox had deemed the Japanese version far too long and ponderous for western audiences to tolerate and had jettisoned around 30-minutes from their international cut. Only now, with this beautifully restored ‘Director’s Cut’ on Blu-ray from Criterion, am I finally able to fully appreciate just how much I’ve been missing.
Director Akira Kurosawa’s own earlier films had been instrumental in building a broad international audience. Alas, in the days before home entertainment, even successes like Rashomon (1951), Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961), for all their critical acclaim and international accolades, were quickly relegated to arthouse obscurity. He was better known through association with a new wave of US-Italianate cinema that began in the mid-1960s with Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars (1964), being a thinly veiled remake of Yojimbo.
George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, fresh from their respective successes with Star Wars (1977) and Apocalypse Now (1979), both acknowledged Kurosawa’s formative influence upon their work. Acting as executive producers, they were to be instrumental in bringing Kagamusha to the screen. It was their endorsement that secured international distribution by 20th Century Fox and that brought in the extra funds to complete production after Japan’s Toho Studios had refused to meet the hefty budget.
It seems Kurosawa had more kudos abroad than in his homeland where his audience was drifting, and he was beginning to seem less relevant. Kurosawa had chosen to distance himself from his reputation as a Chambara master and, after helping to define the genre, had not made a samurai movie since Tsubaki Sanjûrô (1962).
His output had slowed to a trickle only directing a single film, Dersu Uzala (1975), during the 1970s. It seems that he’d been dealing with deep depression and sought solace in the solitary art of painting, from which emerged a narrative he continued to develop with extensive storyboards. He knew his paintings wanted to become a film and spent the second half of the decade meticulously researching and planning an epic like no other. Finally, he felt ready for a spectacular return to form.
In many ways, Kagemusha was also a departure for the great director. This was only his third film shot in colour, but its genesis in paintings had already prescribed its harmonious palette. It also turned out to be more of a jidaigeki (historical costume drama) than a chambara (swordplay movie). In fact, there’s no flashy, one-on-one kitana action at all. Though the staging of some of the most ambitious battle scenes in Japanese cinema more than makes up for this lack. The estimated 5,000 extras, along with their costumes and accessories, were just some of the factors that drove the budget beyond the reach of Toho. Add to that, more than 150 specially trained horses and their riders, that had to be brought in from abroad… and what we have is a dizzying feat of logistics, only to be matched by Kurosawa’s subsequent epic, Ran (1985).
Like Ran, which was his take on King Lear, Kagemusha is very much in the mould of a Shakespearean tragedy. The ritualistic precision of traditional Japanese interaction emphasises the feel of a play through much of the first half. Often, the actors look directly out of the screen when delivering lines… as if acknowledging the presence of the audience and addressing them.
The opening scene is one six-minute shot; a beautifully balanced theatrical composition of three, almost identical, characters delivering their measured dialogue as a form of scene-setting prologue. Here we are introduced to Lord Shingen Takeda (Tatsuya Nakadai), his brother Nobukado Takeda (Tsutomu Yamazaki), and a petty thief who’s had a stay of execution due to his uncanny resemblance to the Lord Shingen.
Although restrained, the performances are immediately engrossing and the hypnotic stillness absorbs the viewer into the distinctive Kurosawa tempo. We tune into the subtleties, noticing how each mannerism made by Shingen is reflected by his brother moments later, so strong is the empathic bond between the two. We can also see the contrast between their mannered poise and the nonchalant slump of the reprieved criminal who looks exactly like Shingen (a dual role for Nakadai) but is clearly of a different class. Though he doesn’t see himself as inferior. In fact, when the lord voices his concern about being impersonated by such a ‘scoundrel’ the criminal counters passionately that he was only guilty of stealing a few coins out of necessity, but the lord has murdered hundreds of thousands on the battlefield and mercilessly executed his enemies. Surprisingly, the lord concedes that the crook does, indeed, have a valid point.
This sequence is training us how to watch, and listen to, Kagemusha. Immediately, we’re seeing the overlap of historical accuracy and Kurosawa’s poetic fancy. Lord Shingen was a formidable and very real Daimyō, still honoured in modern-day Japan by a three-day festival every April. The Daimyō period was a time of turmoil after the collapse of the Shogunate era and before national unification, when clans were vying for control of the country.
Shingen was a fierce warlord and effective strategist who quickly rose to prominence. His brother Nobukado Takeda was known to impersonate the Daimyō on many occasions, either when the lord’s life was in genuine danger from ninja assassins, or simply to ensure his visible presence to boost the morale of his armies. Historians still contest the exact details of Shingen’s death and into this uncertainty, Kurosawa injects the notion that Nobukado employed a second and even more convincing double who was just getting the hang of the role when the real Shingen was assassinated by a sniper.
To maintain political stability and avoid the inevitable bloodbath, this lowly impersonator must quickly learn to emulate the ways of the elite and assert authority. It’s literally a double bluff! He must convince his generals, his rivals, his grandson, his horse… and his own wives. We get to know the deceased Shingen through the reactions of those who knew him. The nameless double begins to understand and respect the man, appreciating the burdens of honour and duty he shouldered. As the narrative develops, it also invites a supernatural reading that the double does, in some way, become a vessel for Shingen’s spirit. This remains an underlying, poetic interpretation and is never pushed to the fore. Though a striking dream sequence, owing a visual debt to Masaki Kobayashi’s gorgeous Kwaidan (1964), does imply that the double is haunted by Shingen.
Although he looks exactly like Shingen, his personality’s not the same. Whilst his more relaxed, at times jovial, personality is dismissed as the result of the illness he suffered following his injuries, he also begins to affect those around him, not least Takemaru, the Lord’s young grandson and heir (Kota Yui). Initially, the child refuses to accept the man’s still his grandfather because he’s not stern and scary enough. The narrative following the deepening relationship between the man and boy is nicely observed and tinged with the bittersweet understanding that it cannot last.
Apart from a select few, who are in on the ruse, the double manages to convince everyone. Or perhaps, they allow themselves to be deceived. Either way, a change in behaviour isn’t too much of an issue and this raises interesting questions about what constitutes identity. The perception of others can be predetermined by context, general consensus, and also what serves them best to see and choose to believe. It’s quite clear that if it becomes known that Shingen is dead, then his fearsome reputation will cease to keep the other clans in line. The vacuum of power left by his absence would suck all the rival lords into a conflict to establish a new hierarchy. As the other clans are closely matched, this would lead to a prolonged conflict that may never reach a conclusion. So, even those who oppose him realise they’re ultimately better off if he remains in power.
Tatsuya Nakadai approaches perfection in the nuanced and multi-layered lead role. He carries the first half of the film with an underlying humanity, warmth and a genuine, albeit subtle, humour. A meld of two different characters that gradually fuse into one can’t be easy to convey. To begin with, he signals the switch from one to the other with clear cues in his body-language and gesture. These transitions become increasingly subtle, but what’s strange is that a new character emerges that is neither lord nor thief. This could be interpreted as the ‘shadow warrior’ of the title—a person made up of elements from both men that had been submerged beneath the personalities they had been forced to assume in life. Symbolically, an understanding develops that bridges the chasm between their two classes. An understanding between, perhaps even a union of, the disparate strata of Japanese society.
Nakadai is one of Japan’s most versatile actors and Kurosawa was well aware of this, having discovered him as an extra for Seven Samurai and working with him in Yojimbo and Tsubaki Sanjûrô. I remember him best in two of his earlier roles, as the handsome woodcutter in Kwaidan, a part he plays with the charm of innocence, and as the psychopathic samurai in Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom (1966), cold and inhuman. He would work with Kurosawa again in Ran for which he reprises a similarly doomed and haunted feudal lord.
In addition to fine performances all round, Kagamusha’s central appeal lies in the pure and simple visual pleasure it offers. Some may find the pace a little too slow but that’s because each scene allows us the time and space to transition from our modern world and become immersed in the meticulously recreated period milieu. The rituals of greetings, of entering a room, or receiving a guest are all convincingly authentic. The attention to every aspect of mise-en-scène is superb and if this were simply an exhibition of costume and period design displayed in a series of tableaux, I’d happily spend three hours in the gallery having a good look round.
Kurosawa researched extensively to ensure that the props were as accurate as possible, right down to the fabrics assigned to each clan, the patterns on the walls, the standing screens. Each of the Takeda generals wears their historically correct insignia. The banners of the rival clans and the flags used by soldiers to denote the different divisions are all genuine. All this is beautifully showcased with Kurowsawa’s precise compositions, that deliberately echo the prints and watercolour paintings of the period, and delicious cinematography from two repeat collaborators, Takao Saitô, who’d worked with Kurosawa since Ikiru (1952) and Shôji Ueda who would go on to work with Kurosawa on each of his following films.
The minimal score by Shinichirô Ikebe is also used to good effect and the, occasionally obtrusive, orchestral swells add texture. There’s also some inventive use of diegetic sound here and there, particularly an emotional scene when the double is excluded from an important ceremony and we seem to hear the hollow howling of his inner torment. Only when the camera pulls back do we realise the weird ‘music’ is being created by the wind blowing across the cut staves of a bamboo barricade. The emotional pain of his separation is being given voice by the physical structure that enforces that separation!
By the final act, any semblance of humour has been dispensed with and the focus has shifted from intimate interpersonal dynamics to the broader political canvas. If one has knowledge of 16th-century Japanese history, then it’s quite clear that the story is playing out against the backdrop of events unravelling toward the decisive Battle of Nagashino which, in 1575, marked the end of an era. In the interest of narrative economy, the battle we’re presented with is a poetic ‘sketch’ of real events, which would’ve taken another entire movie to cover anywhere near comprehensively.
One of the big clues that places the story in this context—apart from the regular captions bearing the actual dates—are the presence of Jesuit missionaries. However, the narrative thread involving these priests was completely excised from the international version. This was a rather odd decision as they are the only explicit connection with the non-Japanese world of the day and would’ve been a reference point for western audiences. So, it’s great to finally see the whole film with these interesting scenes restored.
Christianity had not long arrived, having been brought to Japan by the Portuguese who also introduced long rifles known as tanegashima. When deployed in battle, this deadly technology proved to be a match for the relatively new tactic of the cavalry charge, which had been pioneered by Shingen. So, when his disgruntled son, Katsuyori (Ken’ichi Hagiwara) rashly rushes into battle, the cavalry charge he hoped would bring swift victory is a terrible tactical failure.
This is where those thousands of extras and hundreds of horses come in, martialled to great effect by Kurosawa with the understanding of one born into a Samurai family. We in the west tend to think of a samurai as the Japanese equivalent of a medieval knight but they were generally high-ranking commanders with extensive training in military tactics and an understanding of ‘grand battle strategy’. To plan and execute the battle scenes for Kagemusha involving a veritable army of extras, Kurosawa seems to have taken on the mantle of samurai himself.
The climatic battle is convincingly chaotic. The thundering gallop of cavalry. The defining barrage of rifle fire. Battalions of infantry rushing hither and thither. Swathes of smoke only adding to the confusion. The strewn dead and the walking wounded… the effect is numbing but it’s the scenes of the aftermath that are truly devastating. From history, we know that, with losses in excess of 10,000, the Takeda clan was defeated. Effectively, this was the end of the Daimyō period and, by the close of the 1500s, the ensuing savage civil war had brought all of Japan under the totalitarian rule of a re-established Shogunate that was to take the nation into its two centuries of isolationism.
Kagemusha wasn’t expected to perform so well at the box office. The distributors thought the bleak period setting would prove unpopular and that the ending wouldn’t satisfy audiences. It surprised everyone by becoming Japan’s number one film for 1980, earning a whopping ¥5.5 billion. No one seems sure just how much it ended up costing, though, and budget estimates range from $6M to almost double that, but clearly it made its money back and is estimated to have pulled in around $33M. It was critically well-received, too, nominated for a couple of Academy Awards and winning a dozen international awards—including the Palm d’Or at Cannes and two BAFTAs for ‘Best Costume Design’ and ‘Best Direction’.
Although human beings are incapable of talking about themselves with total honesty, it is much harder to avoid the truth while pretending to be other people. They often reveal much about themselves in a very straightforward way.—Akira Kurosawa
JAPAN • USA | 1980 | 180 MINUTES • 160 MINUTES (INTERNATIONAL CUT) • 153 MINUTES (DVD) | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | JAPANESE
director: Akira Kurosawa.
writers: Akira Kurosawa & Masato Ide.
starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kenichi Hagiwara, Jinpachi Nezu, Hideji Ōtaki, Daisuke Ryu, Masayuki Yui, Kaori Momoi & Hideo Murota.