The years Kurosawa spent storyboarding paid off. Kurosawa began as a painter and was always a very visual director. The images he creates in Kagemusha linger in your mind and make you wonder what he could have done with access to color technology earlier in life.
It's not a scene people usually talk about, but I absolutely love the lighting. The sun setting over the troops is even more dramatic on film. People do discuss the night scenes in this film, which used green gels instead of blue gels to unsettling effect.
There's even a night battle, seen only as distant light. The rest of the army, seen in silhouette, can tell no more clearly than the viewer if their side is winning.
Kagemusha is set at the end of the Warring States period. The warlord Takeda Shingen is one of the last powerful enemies to the alliance of Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu. While Shingen is a somewhat obscure figure, anyone who knows much about Japanese history knows how Kagemusha will end as soon as they hear who Shingen is fighting against. Unfortunately for the Takeda clan, Shingen is killed and Oda and Tokugawa to not fear his son Katsuyori. Thus, the clan's council decides to convince everyone that Shingen is still alive using his body double.
|Nakadai in Sword of Doom (1966) vs. Kagemusha (1980)|
That first scene, by the way, is a brilliant introduction to the film. Three men, dressed identically, with two of them moving in sync. Until the end of the scene you can't discern who is talking. How better to introduce the concept of a shadow double?
|The movie is based on history. This isn't a spoiler.|
I'm also a fan of the jazz-influenced soundtrack, which uses plenty of western instruments like the trumpet and timpani. It's a change from the early samurai films, but it fits Kagemusha's international origins.
Kagemusha proved that Kurosawa still had it. He was a director to reckon even in his advanced age. If you want to watch this masterpiece, I do recommend picking up the Criterion Collection version. The reproductions of Kurosawa's watercolors collected in the booklet are worth the price by themselves. The documentary and other special features are just bonus. And like all Criterion editions, Kagemusha looks and sounds gorgeous despite its age.
First two images cropped from a photoset by http://senor-spielbergo.tumblr.com.
Third image made from photosets by http://tgurule.tumblr.com and http://cinemagreats.tumblr.com.
Fourth image cropped from a screenshot by http://quasimorto.tumblr.com.