Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Masato Ide, Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ken’ichi Hagiwara, Jinpachi Nezu, Hideji Ôtaki, Daisuke Ryû, Masayuki Yui, Kaori Momoi
Country: Japan, USA
Running Time: 180 min
Year: 1980

After his disastrous involvement in the American-Japanese co-production Tora! Tora! Tora! in the late 60s and a lukewarm reception to Dodes’ka-den in 1970, Akira Kurosawa found himself struggling to find financing for any of his film projects. Allegedly suffering from health problems too, the director was in a troubled state and attempted suicide at the end of 1971.

He survived and his health soon recovered, but the rest of the decade saw Kurosawa produce little work, other than Dersu Uzala in 1975.

However, towards the end of the 70s, Kurosawa fans George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, who were shocked to hear the director was unable to find funding for any of his projects, offered to help. Kurosawa showed them his script and storyboards for Kagemusha, a grand historical epic, and Lucas talked 20th Century Fox into coming on to distribute the film in the West. He’d just made them a huge amount of money through making Star Wars so they were happy to do him a favour. Lucas and Coppola also came on as executive producers and the project got underway.

The production of Kagemusha was hit with some major problems, chiefly the firing of its original star, Shintaro Katsu (best known for playing Zatoichi in the original run of films), at the last minute. A replacement was soon found though and the finished film was a massive hit in Japan and did well worldwide too, bringing the director back into the fold.

Though a critical success at the time, winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes, its reputation has lessened a little over the years, with some finding it not quite up to par with Kurosawa’s best. However, it’s still a respected film from a greatly respected director. I’m a fan of Kurosawa’s work, but must admit I haven’t seen Kagemusha, so I spied my chance to remedy that when offered a copy of the Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray release of the film. Adding further fuel was the fact this was the first time the full 180-minute Japanese cut was being made available in the UK. My thoughts on the film follow.

Kagemusha (which translates as ‘Shadow Warrior’) is set in Japan during the Sengoku period. Takeda Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai), daimyō of the Takeda clan, is badly wounded during his army’s siege on the castle of Tokugawa Ieyasu (Masayuki Yui). He is dying and, in his final days, he orders the withdrawal of his troops and asks his closest advisors to keep his death a secret for three years, so that the clan can carry out his desired plans.

Keeping Shingen’s death a secret seems impossible for such a long time, but his brother Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki) knows a man who looks identical to the lord, a lowly thief (again played by Nakadai) who was saved from execution due to his resemblance to Shingen.

The thief, who doesn’t know of Shingen’s death to begin with, initially uses his role to try to steal from the lord’s estate. He is caught in the act when discovering Shingen’s body in a jar he believed to contain treasure, and Shingen’s generals decide to give up on the ruse. However, when watching the secret burial of his lord in Lake Suwa, the thief has a change of heart and begs the generals to reconsider. They do, and he assumes the identity of Shingen, with only a few key officials and pages aware of the plan.

The task is very difficult though, with the thief even having to deceive Shingen’s grandson and mistresses. He succeeds admirably for a long time, but the job becomes more difficult when war looms. Shingen’s generals try to stay peaceful at the request of the late lord, but his son, Takeda Katsuyori (Ken’ichi Hagiwara), is hellbent on taking Kyoto and furious that this deceptive scheme is keeping him from his place as head of the clan.

One criticism Kagemusha has faced is that it feels quite cold compared to a lot of the rest of Kurosawa’s work. This might partially be due to the fact the story is based on historical records and the director seems keen to stay true to what actually happens, though he does take a few liberties here and there.

I think the film’s core message may also be why there’s less of a humanist side to the film though. Surprisingly, from a director whose earlier work often championed rebellious individualism, Kagemusha celebrates staying true to one’s clan. The film is about how the image of a leader or the code of an institution can be enough to rule and inspire, not necessarily a great ruler him or herself. In this way, the film is less about one great man and more about a great set of ideals, which may be more difficult to connect with on an emotional level.

There is little sentimentality or moralising here either, to point viewers in one direction. Events are instead presented as they were, letting you make your own judgements on them. Personally, though I didn’t immediately warm to the film as I did something like Seven Samurai or Yojimbo, I found Kagemusha deeply enthralling.

For one, I found the story and overall concept engrossing. The idea of having to play the part of such a famous and important figure for such a long time brings up numerous questions and moral dilemmas, and Kurosawa’s storytelling is first-rate as always. The military campaigns and names of generals and such can be difficult to get your head around but the main crux of the story is always clear, as is the relevance of key events.

Also aiding the comprehension of the various factions and armies are visual clues. Shingen’s armies are colour-coordinated, depending on the branch, and factions each have their own crests.

Speaking of visual references and colour-coordination, Kagemusha’s biggest selling point is its visuals. Kurosawa uses a rich palette of colour to bring his vision vividly to life. Most notably, there’s a stunning dream sequence in the middle of the film in which the director hand-painted strikingly bold backdrops and sets to make it seem like an oil painting come alive.

Whilst not as dynamically edited and shot as his earlier samurai films, each sequence is carefully composed and subtle movement is incorporated at times too. It’s a stunningly well-crafted film in which each shot could be framed and put on your wall. Indeed, for a long time, Kurosawa believed the project would never get funded, so he painted detailed and beautiful storyboards for the film (around 200 images) long before production, to immortalise his concept in some way. These were used to make the film once it eventually did go into production and the painterly approach shows on screen.

Though an epic production set during a turbulent time in history and focussing on warlords and their campaigns, the film is surprisingly lacking in on-screen violence. Several battles that prove to be key to the plot are not shown at all, in fact. The commentary included on this disc suggests it might be a nod to traditions of Noh theatre, of which Kurosawa was a great fan (there are two clear demonstrations of the form in the film).

This hiding away from action setpieces also pushes the focus on the character of the thief. He is not a warrior, so knows nothing of warfare. Therefore, we see events through his eyes. This helps add a personal side to the otherwise quite academic historical account. Though we don’t learn much about the character’s backstory, we are drawn along the tale of his current troubles. Plus, the core concept of the film is the idea that he is a mere shadow of someone else, so any personal background is irrelevant.

Though some have bemoaned the fact the great Shintaro Katsu never got to sink his teeth into the lead role, which would have likely given the film more humour and heart, I think Nakadai does a very good job and gives the character depth and humanity.

So, overall, the film’s length and cold, historical nature make it less approachable than many of Kurosawa’s other classics, but the story remains compelling, as well as the craft. Its grand canvas and beautiful use of colour are very impressive and, though epic in scale, the tight central focus on one man standing in for an institution is a fascinating one.

Kagemusha is out on 8th March on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The grain can be a touch heavy and certain scenes are a little on the soft side, but overall it’s a pleasing picture that beautifully presents the rich colours of the film. The stills in this review are screengrabs to give you an indication of the picture quality, though some compression has taken place in uploading them.

The audio is very strong. I found some of the percussive elements of the soundtrack came through particularly nicely on my system.

Special features include:

– Restored high-definition digital transfer with DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 soundtrack
– Audio commentary by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince
– Lucas, Coppola, and Kurosawa, a 19-minute interview piece in which directors George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola discuss Kurosawa and Kagemusha
– A 41-minute documentary on the making of the film
– Image: Kurosawa’s Continuity, a 44-minute video piece reconstructing Kagemusha through Kurosawa’s paintings and sketches
– Suntory Whiskey commercials made on the set of Kagemusha
– Gallery of storyboards painted by Kurosawa and images of their realization on-screen
– Theatrical trailers and teasers
– Plus: A booklet featuring an essay by scholar Peter Grilli and an interview with Kurosawa by renowned critic Tony Rayns

Stephen Prince’s commentary is superb. Incredibly, it runs for the full 3 hours without pauses and delivers deep insight and analysis throughout. Prince often compares events in the film with records of history from the era represented on screen too, which is fascinating to hear. It’s one of the finest commentary tracks I’ve come across, and I’ve heard a lot.

The ‘Lucas, Coppola, and Kurosawa’ documentary sets the background of the American directors’ involvement and also lets them discuss how impressed they were in watching Kurosawa at work.

The ‘making of’ is very good too. Featuring numerous interviews with cast and crew members, it offers a fairly substantial and illuminating look at the production.

‘Image’ is also a fine piece. It presents a truncated, whistle-stop version of the film in audio form, using Kurosawa’s beautiful hand-painted storyboards and designs to tell the story visually. I originally only intended to skim through a little of this piece to get an idea of the style, but I ended up sitting and watching the whole thing.

There’s also an option to view another gallery of the paintings, placed alongside stills from the film to compare.

The Suntory adverts are brief and basic but offer a few peeks at the work behind the scenes on Kagemusha.

I wasn’t provided with a copy of the booklet to comment on that, unfortunately, but even without seeing this, I can wholeheartedly recommend this excellent release. The film is strong and the features are fabulous.

Kagemusha - Criterion
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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