June 4, 2012

Movie Monday: Kagemusha

Book Cover Akira Kurosawa earned international fame with samurai films like Yojimbo and Seven Samurai.  When he wanted to return to telling samurai stories later in life, he had trouble securing funding.  He painted storyboards for the majority of Kagemusha while waiting to make the film.  Finally, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, both admirers of Kurosawa, convinced Alan Ladd to produce the film in exchange for the foreign rights.  The resulting historical epic is one of Kurosawa's last masterpieces.

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)
 Tatsuya Nakadai is unrecognizable as Shingen and his double.  He looks about two decades younger in modern interviews than he does in Kagemusha.  (To be fair, he looks even older in Ran.)  While he does a decent job, his charisma is lacking.  The swagger and vitality he brought to the screen as Unosuke in Yojimbo is nowhere to be found, except in the first scene, when the thief gets fed up with the way Shingen and his brother discuss his crime and punishment.

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.
The Takeda army is introduced wonderfully too.  Their final scene is one emphasizing the cost of war, that starts off excellent but goes on a mite too long.  But it's also an echo of the beginning, when a mud-encrusted soldier runs through brightly dressed soldiers lying on the ground.  Until they stand up in the wake of the messenger, it's hard to tell whether they're asleep or dead.

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.


  1. Whoa, this looks magnificent! I only saw one Kurosawa film--the Seven Samurai--but I have a big respect for his work, and for foreign cinema in general. Love your insights on the show!

    1. Thanks. If you liked Seven Samurai, you'd probably like a lot of his other films.


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