No director during the eighties needed second life more than Akira Kurosawa; the influential Japanese autuer, who would be 100 this year, revolutionized cinema with masterpieces from the late 40s through mid 60s with films like Drunken Angel, Stray Dogs, Seven Samurai, and High and Low, but didn’t to seem to fair very well in decade after. With the introduction Japanese New Wave, where young talented Japanese filmmakers like Masahiro Shinoda, Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura emerging and criticizing the Japanese film generation before them (which included Kurosawa and his films), the golden age of Japanese cinema seemed to be over. Yet Kurosawa still had a few masterpieces left in him and at the start of the eighties, he proved it with the release of his great epic, Kagemusha. Too often regarded as a mere dress rehearsal to the Director’s more popular and critically acclaimed masterpiece Ran (a film most point to as the director’s comeback film), Kagemusha remains the director’s most overlooked epic.
Kurosawa tells the story of a petty criminal saved from crucifixion to take on the role of being a body double for the warlord Takeda Shingen. But after Shingen is wounded during an assassination attempt, the petty criminal must impersonate him to create the illusion to his many enemies that he is in fact healthy. Things began to get complicate as the warlord’s health worsens and asks his closest affiliates to keep up the illusion even after his death. Kurosawa doesn’t only create a powerful historical epic but a wonderful character study. The story’s protagonist belongs among some of the most fascinating of Kurosawa’s films; after reluctantly agreeing to play the role of Shingen’s shadow, he slowly becomes a mirror image of the fallen warlord. Kurosawa is able explore the idea of lost identity through the character of the impostor. Not one point in the film do we given an in depth background for the character or even a name; instead we are just shown a man who has no background but being a petty thief given a chance to be maybe the most important figure of the clan. As we see the film progress, we see the character’s transformation progress to the point where he grows an emotional attachment to Shingen’s grandson and even where he believes he can do things that Shingen could do like taming the warlord’s wild horse. Its a difficult performance, playing both the warlord and the man who’s trying to impersonating him, but Tatsuya Nakadai, given a chance to play the lead in Kurosawa film for the first, is up for the task. Nakadai’s convincing portrayal further proves the actor deserves as much right to be considered not just with the great Japanese actors of the era like Tashiro Mifune, Chishu Ryu, and Takashi Shimura, but in contention when discussing the greatest actors who ever lived. The way Nakadai plays him is essential because we can see through his performance how lonely the character is and how acting the role of the warlord gives him meaning. The performance of Tsutomu Yamazaki, playing Shingen’s brother and the impostor’s teacher, is also one that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Kurosawa also explores one of his favorite motifs, the duality between wealth and poverty. As he had done so with almost every one of his masterpieces from Rashomon, which not only personified by the confrontation of the poor bandit and wealth couple but through the woodcutter and his actions at the end of the film, to his early 60s crime thriller High and Low, where the relationship between the businessman and kidnapper is not motivated through a personal vendetta but of economic statues. Here we see it through the character of poor thief taking the place of the dead warlord. The obvious class difference is shown evident through the character’s early attempts to leave behind his whole life be more accustomed to the life of wealth and nobility. It’s not as deeply explored as some of Kurosawa’s gritty modern day crime films like Drunken Angel or Stray Dogs, but the motif still plays an important role in understanding the character. The big theme explored here is the idea of power: the obsession of power, misuse of power, and war for power. Kagemusha is the only one of Kurosawa’s samurai epics to focus more on the politics of war rather than the battles of war, so you can understand how some felt disappointed by film. It lacks the brutal battle sequences we had grown to expect from Kurosawa’s films and takes it’s time telling the story.
This, however, is why the film actually appeals to me and makes me believe that Kagemusha might actually be the director’s greatest masterpiece. The film finds a fine line between being both a sophisticated look at feudal Japan clans and a well balanced character study, joining the ranks with other brilliantly crafted historical dramas like Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Visconti’s The Leopard. While Kurosawa was a filmmaker who explored the nature of violence through out his career, his films were pretty tame when compared to some of his contemporaries, especially Kihachi Okamoto and Masaki Kobayashi (until Ran). But Kurosawa’s films often featured grandiose battle sequences that were as well choreographed as any ever put on celluloid. Yet Kagemusha never actually gives us those great battles, but instead shows us the horrified reactions and the slaughtered remains of the fallen warriors. The absence of such sequences demonstrates a more mature Kurosawa that doesn’t want to in anyway to romanticize the brutality but rather just show it. In many ways the Kagemusha also has some of the most interesting visually surreal moments of the director’s career. Aside from containing maybe the director’s most iconic dream sequence, the film also features beautiful hallucinatory colors during every scene. This is most evident as the double watches over the battles and a purplish blue flame spreads behind them, creating a powerful silhouette. Kurosawa’s use of colors to abstract reality disproves the idea that black and white is the preferred medium to transport the viewer to another world. As Hitchcock did with the color green to show his protagonist’s envy in Vertigo (as well as in his superb Rope) or Antonioni achieved with the heavy dark gray mist that surrounded the urban landscape creates the feeling of isolation in his fantastic Red Desert, Kurosawa uses color to further visualize his themes and ides; in this case, the double’s psychological state as he witness the true horrors of war in front of him.
A movie like Kagemusha could only made by a master filmmaker. Through it’s epic scope, Kurosawa creates a masterpiece for the ages. But as the film’s main character tries to escape his own identity of being a petty thief, the film itself has difficulty itself to escape it’s own unfair label given by many film enthusiasts: Kurosawa’s samurai film before Ran. The director himself referred to the film as a dress rehearsal to Ran as well, further lessening it’s image in history. But Alfred Hitchcock once called Rope a fail experiment, Andrei Tarkovsky believed Solaris to be an artistic failure; I don’t agree with either quote at all, nor do I agree with Kurosawa’s own statement of his film. But looking back at it, Kagemusha, for me, feels superior to the director’s second 80s’ masterpiece. It may always be plagued by being the film that precedes his great Ran and as a result never be given the respect that it truly deserves. Its a shame really because it’s one hell of a film.