In 16th century feudal Japan a common thief is saved from crucifixion because of the uncanny resemblance he bears to a local warlord, Shingen Takeda (both played by Tatsuya Nakadai). He is employed as a double for Shingen but when the lord dies after being injured in battle this kagemusha (‘shadow warrior’) must convince everybody – ally and enemy – that he really is the formidable leader of the Takeda clan.
The Critics Said
“There is beauty in Kagemusha but it is impersonal, distant, and ghostly. The old master has never been more rigorous.” – Vincent Canby, The New York Times, 1980
“The legion fans of Kurosawa’s work are left to wonder if he has full control over the heavens themselves, as a rainbow clashes against the soot-dark skies as a warning of battle. History and nature are intertwined, lowly man slaves to forces beyond our meagre ken. Kurosawa was certainly not letting age or depression dim his ardour for the big screen effect.” – Ian Nathan, Empire
Country: Japan, USA
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cinematographers: Takao Saitô, Shôji Ueda
Writers: Masato Ide, Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ken’ichi Hagiwara
Runtime: 162 minutes
Audiences around the world owe their gratitude to George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola for facilitating the release of Akira Kurosawa’s late-career samurai epic Kagemusha outside of his native Japan. After the original producers of the film, Toho Studios, found that they could not fully finance this ambitious picture, the two Hollywood directors persuaded 20th Century Fox to fund the film in return for international distribution rights. There was a twenty year gap between Kagemusha and Kurosawa’s previous samurai film, Sanjuro (1962), but the intervening years and the complications of Kagemusha’s production did not diminish its impact; it is as ambitious, grandiose and intimate as any of his previous works.
Like Kurosawa’s iconic Yojimbo (1961), in which a ronin plays two rival clans against each other, Kagemusha is as much defined by the subterfuge of its samurai as it is by their nobility or their martial prowess. The story – based on real historical figures and events – concerns a 16th century lord and the petty thief he hires to act as his double. After the formidable lord Shingen Takeda (Tatsuya Nakadai) is killed, this double (also played by Nakadai), referred to simply as kagemusha, meaning ‘shadow warrior,’ must convince everyone – friend and foe – that he is the real lord of the Takeda clan, in order to protect it from the rivals who would be eager to capitalise on Shingen’s death. This only works because of the veracity of the kagemusha’s performance as the dead lord; his is more than a mere impersonation, partly because of his uncanny resemblance to Shingen but also because of his ability to adopt his mannerisms so precisely. Only a few of Shingen’s closest allies are in on the secret, including his loyal house servants, but even they are moved to tears when their beloved master appears to have been resurrected in front of them, if not in body then in spirit. This moment is one of the film’s most poignant, for the intense grief displayed by those usually so reserved and for the concern that passes across the face of the kagemusha as the weight of this secret bears down upon him.
Kurosawa’s ambition is most plainly manifest in Kagemusha’s climactic battle scene, a recreation of the Battle of Nagashino that required thousands of extras to shoot, but his fascination with the poetry of the subconscious, a theme he would return to more elaborately with his series of short dream stories, Dreams (1990), encouraged a striking digression in which Shingen’s double is stalked across a luminous, rainbow dreamscape by his dead master. This is a brief, unrepeated visualisation of the internal anxieties of the kagemusha, plainly intercut with the rest of the story, making Kurosawa’s dream-realm as tangible as his physical realm.
The omen of this dream sequence is only one aspect of the film’s fatalistic tone. Old wounds are reopened as the hierarchy of the Takeda clan continues to obfuscate the death of its beloved lord. Tragedy seems inevitable. The kagemusha adopts the role of Shingen with the greatest commitment, bonding closely with his grandson and heir and successfully repelling a rival clan’s invasion yet a lingering, difficult-to-locate unease suffuses all he does like the red, backlit glow that colours Kurosawa’s battlefields. Success or failure, what is to become of this shadow warrior who, really, has no allegiance to the Takeda clan, as they have none for him? In a broader sense Kagemusha tells the story of the end of an era, as the Warring States era of Japanese history was all but ended by the Battle of Nagashino, to be succeeded by a relatively peaceful period of unification. The Takeda standard floating unclaimed in the water at the conclusion is only one of many symbols of discarded tradition that Kurosawa utilises and most of these allude to the modernising influence of European culture that began to take hold of Japan in the 16th Century. The progressiveness of the rivals of the Takeda clan poses as much of a threat as the death of Shingen, for what chance does a charging cavalry have against a wall of musketry?
Kurosawa’s visuals are as elegant as ever, the symmetry of the Takedas’ formal gatherings emphasised by the director’s precise framings. An opening prologue, during which Shingen meets his doppelganger, is shot simply from the front, a courageous decision considering that two of the characters in the picture are played by the same actor. The set is uncluttered, undistracting. We are allowed the freedom to scrutinize everything within the frame. It is Kurosawa at his most confident. Unlike his characters, the director presents everything to us candidly, yet with the colourful flourishes of his dream-sequence or the scene in which the rays of the setting sun shine through the silhouetted figures of the Takeda army. At that point they haven’t discovered the death of their master but the atmosphere is mournful nevertheless, perhaps because Kurosawa himself would soon move on from the samurai genre to offer his own response on Japan’s more modern history, on World War ll and the atomic bomb. Kagemusha is wistful but not overly sentimental, a glance back in history by a director with feet planted firmly in the present.
More by Akira Kurosawa
Yojimbo (1961) – Kurosawa’s tale of a ronin stranger playing two rival gangs against each other has influenced a number of films since, most notably Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and Seijun Suzuki’s Youth of the Beast (1963). A defining work in Kurosawa’s career and similar to Kagemusha for the guts and guile of its characters.