Kagemusha (1980)

“The shadow of a man can never stand up and walk on its own. I was my brother’s shadow. Now that I have lost him…I don’t know what to do.”

Kagemusha was the film that brought Kurosawa into artistic proximity with future masterpiece Ran. Here we saw, for the first time, the way his background in painting–the beautiful paintings themselves included in the booklet of the Criterion edition of this film–could be brought to bear in conjunction with his film-making artistry as applied to his epic jidaigeki. Feudal Japan is brought to life for the first time in colour by Kurosawa, and it is absolutely stunning. While I’ve complained in the past about modern (over)use of filters and obsessive manipulation of colour therein, even in the most “excessively” colourful shots, Kurosawa makes them seem at worst bold, but never unnatural. Thousands of troops bearing standards for the four principal elements of the Takeda clan–Fire, Forest, Wind and Mountain–stand clearly away from each other, but seem wholly acceptable and realistic in composition. The battles themselves feel like choreographed documentary footage; it seems completely natural, yet perfectly planned, but the use of the camera and set up makes it feel as though the planning is simply the brilliant eye of a documentary camera operator, blending the true choreography into the natural apperance of the action.

Much has been made of the film as a simple precursor to Ran, and I’ve already noted the resemblance in passing, but I should make absolutely clear that it feels like the two should be paired in some way, the visual and tonal resemblance is so strong. But, I’ve read many comments on the film, and while I’m miffed at those who feel the need to incessantly compare it to the later film and thus demean its own qualities and characters, it was interesting to note that others feel it is his least western (in the European/American, rather than genre, sense) film. I felt that myself, for we had less influence from westerns as a genre, were dealing with the politics and actual history of Japan, and did not have as basis something like the writing of Shakespeare. Instead, we have a script by two Japanese men about the “Warring States” era of Japanese history, many characters and events literal pulls from history.

The essential premise is this: we have a clan leader, Shingen Takeda, of the Takeda clan, known for the might of his cavalry and its strikes, who is boldly attempting to take the capital Kyoto, when he is injured for his curiosity at the flute played at the site of an ongoing battle. Here we see the entrance of the second of his kagemusha–roughly translated as “shadow warriors,” but here best described as “doubles”–a former thief, saved at the last moment from crucifixion by Shingen’s brother Nobukado, formerly his sole kagemusha. Nobukado alone saw the resemblance between the two, for their manners were so different–the difference between the stoic Takashi Shimura and the manic Toshiro Mifune–that no one else could see it. The resemblance is most certainly strong, for both are played by Natsuya Takadai, last seen by myself as Onosuke, the revolver-wielding gangster in Yojimbo. Nakadai, I had not realized, also played Hidetora Ichimonji, the lead in Ran, and here we see a sort of bridge between the two. The gaunt, hollow Ichimonji appears in Nakadai’s character toward the end of this film, whilst the proud braggart of Onosuke appeared throughout most of the rest of the film, as the unnamed kagemusha takes on the role of Shingen to hide his injury. From here we see the politics and infighting of the Takeda clan, and their interaction with the Tokugawa and Nobunaga clans, their two main–allied–opponents.

I felt relieved upon reading the intelligent comments of another viewer, though he had seen the film multiple times and thus had analyzed more deeply, for the line I quoted at the beginning jumped out at me as soon as I read it–I’d have said ‘heard,’ but my Japanese is awful, though I was struck with the urge to practice whilst watching this very scene–and I felt it was without a doubt the point of the film. Said viewer noted the importance of symbols in the film–in the sense of their importance in culture, not that a flag here represents the blood of those lost in such-and-such battle. The kagemusha is the public symbol of Shingen; his representation to the world around him, and of course, he becomes the more important for his health, visiblity and identification as Shingen, even though he remains the two-bit thief, and not the respected warlord–or does he? If he is, in the eyes of everyone around him, effectively this warlord, does it matter whether he always has been, or is he, in fact, now that very man?

To someone as literal but philisophically transitory as myself, this is an engaging and interesting central conceit, and with Kurosawa’s brilliant imagery, the film was a natural joy.

However, many have noted issues they feel with the pacing. I saw none, myself, though I was a bit restless in the last few minutes, it was because this was a very long shot designed to establish the result of the battle of Nagshino, and felt right, even as I anticipated the ending. The final shot, which last shows the flag of the Takeda clan–“Swift as the wind, quiet as the forest, fierce as the fire, immovable as the mountain,” a Sun Tzu quote–is worth the wait, as we see the fate of Shingen’s kagemusha, of what this very flag has meant to him–the symbol HE has chosen. The painting of this very shot is one of the best to appear in the provided booklet.

As is the nature of Kurosawa–recommended.


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