Kurosawa’s 1980 samurai epic is much more than a dry run for his Shakespearean epic “Ran”. In its own right it is filmmaking on a vast canvas, documenting the downfall of the Takeda clan in 16th century Japan. The title refers to the double who takes the place of the warlord Takeda Shingen when the latter dies. The film then becomes concerned with the nature of identity, as the double learns to adapt to the role of the warlord, and reality and illusion merge.
Fans of the kinetic energy of Kurosawa’s classic black-and-white pictures must have been surprised by the opening shot – the camera doesn’t move once for the whole six-minute scene. In fact, the mostly static camera is a feature of Kurosawa’s mature style: detached, fatalistic, his characters now trapped by destiny and unable to change its course. “Kagemusha” is a pessimistic work, one which offers no hope of action. Kurosawa had begun to delineate the way things fall apart, and the atmosphere is one of melancholy and, ultimately, despair.
I have heard it remarked that this film (and “Ran”) suffers from the absence of Toshiro Mifune. While I agree that the break-up of Kurosawa and Mifune made cinema a poorer place, it must be said that Tatsuya Nakadai (a stage actor who had previously played villains in “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro”) does an excellent job in a role originally intended for the comic actor Shinaro Katsu. However, the true greatness lies, as always, in Kurosawa’s direction. Like “Ran,” “Kagemusha” was meticulously planned, mapped out first in the form of drawings and diagrams, a result of Kurosawa’s inability to secure financial backing for the film for several years. The film is full of visually stunning scenes, none more so than the finale one, the bloody aftermath of the Battle of Nagashino, its scenes of carnage apparently inspired by Kurosawa’s witnessing of the Kanto earthquake of 1923.
There are, however, several problems with the DVD, and that is why I haven’t given it the full five stars. Firstly, this is the international version of the film. That is to say, it is nearly 30 minutes shorter than the Japanese release. One consequence of this is that we miss out on the great Takashi Shimura’s last performance for Kurosawa. Secondly, the only English subtitles provided are for the hard-of-hearing. This smacks of laziness to me. Lastly, there has been no attempt to “clean-up” the picture, and sadly it is quite grainy, with the colours not as vibrant as they should be. While it is certainly watchable, one cannot help thinking that such a major work deserves better.
In conclusion, then, a great Kurosawa film let down by a so-so DVD.