By Mike Dub
It might be hard to think that, at the age of seventy and already recognized around the world as a master of modern cinema, Akira Kurosawa would be capable of surprising us with a film that is as grand and captivating as Kagemusha. His previous effort Dersu Uzala was a staid crowd-pleaser that felt mired in its simple and old-fashioned narrative, and suggested that perhaps the march of time was creeping in on the genius who gave us Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and Ikiru, among so many others.
But while Dersu is tepid, with an easygoing message delivered with kid gloves, Kagemusha is anything but. Released five years after Dersu, Kagemusha replaces the contemplation of it predecessor with pointed incisiveness, yet it also feels more expansive in its themes. The result is a grim, beautiful, harrowing, and, at times, oddly humorous study of war, identity, politics, and tradition.
Based on a true story, the film takes place in 16th century Japan, an era of constant war among three major clans vying for control of the country, and primarily follows the Takeda clan, led by Lord Shingen. When Shingen’s brother discovers that a petty thief who is scheduled to be executed has a remarkable resemblance to Shingen, they decide to spare his life, assuming he will be of use to them in the future. Years later, Shingen is fatally wounded in battle, and with his last breath he commands that his death be kept a secret for three years, so as to keep his loyal army intact and to avoid emboldening his enemies. Shingen’s brother and a select few executive statesmen train the boorish thief, known as the kagemusha (which translates as “the shadow warrior”), to act as Shingen.
Kurosawa’s narrative may seem simple, but, like The Godfather (probably the film’s closest cinematic antecedent), the somewhat straightforward storyline and character motivations belie the film’s depth and ambition. While Kageumsha contains a sprawling network of subplots, along with two grandiose battle sequences, it is most concerned with the study of the kagemusha and his dual identity as both pawn and king in a system that is so much larger than himself, a system that he ultimately succumbs to.
Even during what we would normally expect to be a massive, epic battle sequence, the camera remains restricted to the kagemusha’s perspective. Kurosawa has been properly lauded throughout his career for his masterfully choreographed and edited battle sequences, particularly the intricate staging of the combat in Seven Samurai, but here he pulls a sleight-of-hand trick. The horror of war is not illustrated through blood and carnage, but by simply focusing on the kagemusha, his shock, his fear, and his horror at the carnage occurring in front of him. When several of his bodyguards are shot protecting him, he watches in stunned silence. They know he is not the real Shingen, and yet they have died protecting him, still in service of their dead leader. There is as much honor as absurdity in their deaths.
Throughout the film, Kurosawa works with a dazzling, baroque visual palette that provides an unsettling surrealism to the horror of war. Highlighted by sequences that show armies marching along a disturbingly artificial blood-red horizon, Kurosawa unloads a panoply of colors that are as beautiful as they are sinister. Every moment of the film is expertly framed, intermingling the calm blue hues of nature, the fiery reds of nightmares, and the barren, earthly browns of the battlefield.
Kagemusha was the third film in Kurosawa’s “comeback,” after years of professional and personal tumult, including a failed suicide attempt. It revisits several themes that Kurosawa has investigated in the past: the individual’s place among the collective, family dynamics, the virtue and limits of tradition, the power and horror of war. But there is a peculiar kind of nuance in Kagemusha. On one hand, he examines those themes with the weight of his age and his recent past – he seems more cynical here, less conflicted. Here, war is a tragedy. On the other hand, he seems artistically inspired, his visual presentation as ambitious and youthful as ever – he was perhaps spurred somewhat by the New Hollywood of the 1970s (Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas helped secure financing so Kurosawa could finish Kagemusha). Kurosawa may have once been close to death, but Kagemusha is a film full of life.