on 9 November 2002
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.
After years in the wilderness ended only when Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas persuaded 20th Century Fox to invest some of the money they'd made from Star Wars in his financially stalled epic, Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha was one of those real life fairy tales that you feel bad for not liking more. It's a film with good things in it and the odd great moment, but despite having a good story to tell and the budget to do it justice it never really comes to life. The tale of a thief whose uncanny resemblance to a warlord leads to him assuming his role after his death to prevent his kingdom falling apart and slowly gaining both the admiration and unease of those who use him over his alternately inspired or disastrous improvisation in the role itself tends to feel like a convincing imitation rather than the genuine article. A big part of the reason is that the characters never come to life thanks to a script that's thin on character and a performance by Tatsuya Nakadai that's more than competent but feels like it's had the life directed out of it. Kurosawa originally cast Shintaro Katsu, the larger than life star of the Lone Wolf and Cub and Hanzo the Razor films, only to fire him in rehearsals over what he saw as a lack of respect and, as Coppola suggests on one of the interviews on Criterion's DVD and Blu-ray, that was probably what the part needed instead of Nakadai's quieter, more contained but all too often near-anonymous performance. Throughout he seems kept at arm's length, observing events but never allowed to take centre stage until near the end of the film.
The film's other big problem is it's pacing. For international consumption Fox cut the film by some 20 minutes from its original Japanese version (losing Takashi Shimura's brief last role for the director entirely), and you can understand the reason for the cuts - the first hour is at times almost stultifyingly slow, the Noh Theatre influence resulting in scenes that aren't just slow and studied as positively glacier-like in their pacing: the opening shot runs for several minutes in an unbroken stationary shot, and it's far from an isolated example. Yet as a result when the film does explode into movement, such as the mud-covered messenger waking sleeping troops as he runs to deliver his news or when the shadow warrior improvises a rousing ride-by to rally 'his' troops only to fall from his horse, the contrast gives them much more impact.
While it's not top tier Kurosawa by a long way, it's not entirely negligible either. There's an especially bold use of vivid colour, even going into outright stylisation in the watercolour-like nightmare sequence, and the justly celebrated final battle sequence that defies expectations has real impact: it's the one part of the film where Kurosawa's emphasis on technique over character actually provokes a genuine emotional response, though it is telling that you feel more for the mass of victims that we've never met than the main character who carries the film. There are enough moments of pure cinema to carry it over the rough spots, but it feels more like a bit of a miss than the triumphant comeback critics hailed it as back in 1980.
Fox's original European PAL DVD was a real dogs dinner of a release, offering only the cut version in an exceptionally grainy and muted transfer that did a grave disservice to Takao Saito and Shoji Ueda's fine cinematography (no extras either), but Criterion's US DVD and Region A-locked Blu-ray offer the uncut three hour Japanese version in a very pleasing transfer. It's also accompanied by a slew of extras: audio commentary by Stephen Prince, five Suntory Whisky commercials shot on the set alternately showing Kurosawa and Coppola sharing a glass or the director talking to the extras or inspecting prop helmets before downing a glass; a 43-minute reconstruction of the story through Kurosawa's concept paintings that was edited by actor Masayuki Yui, who plays Ieyasu Tokugawa in the film; a comparison of some of those paintings to frames from the finished film; 19-minute interview with Lucas and Coppola; a 43-minute retrospective documentary that's part of Toho's It Is Wonderful to Create series of Kurosawa documentaries; and the US and two Japanese trailers with some footage of Kurosawa at work.
This is an extraordinary film combining great scenario and incredible visual effects, made by THE great master of Japanese cinema Akira Kurosawa. Below, more of my impressions, with some SPOILERS.
"Kagemusha" is the story of just three years of the incredible but true and short but extremely intense saga of Takeda clan. The period of great importance of Takeda was in years 1536-1582, but this film tells just the story of the dramatic years 1573 to 1575, from the siege of Noda castle to battle of Nagashino. In order to better understand the events described in "Kagemusha" it is helpful to know the main events of the history of the Takeda clan in the previous years, as they are ocassionally referred to, but not fully explained.
In 1536 Takeda Nobutora, the head of Takeda clan, was the daimyo of impoverished mountainous province of Kai. But not only was this province a dirt poor backwater, but the Takeda didn't even really control all of it, as some of their nominal retainers, like the Hirada family, were in fact completely independent. Therefore the Takeda were really just a little, not very wealthy provincial samurai clan, without much importance. In 1536 Takeda Nobutora lost an important battle against the Hirada family, but soon after Takeda Harunobu, his then barely 15-years old son, avenged the defeat and destroyed completely the Hirada, greatly stregthening the position of his clan.
That great achievement notwithstanding, there was not much love between father and son and Harunobu, although being the oldest son, was not designed as heir - that position went to his younger brother Nobushige instead. Refusing this, Takeda Harunobu in 1541 seized the power and banished his father. Both his younger brothers decided to stay in Kai and remain loyal to Harunobu - when "Kagemusha" begins, Nobushige was already dead (see below) but second brother, Nobukado, is one of the main characters in the film. Takeda Nobuzane, his half-brother, who was still a child at that moment, also was going to serve him loyally once fully grown up.
The new leader was very ambitious and even if he had now all the Kai under his control he immediately attacked other daimyos from the neighboring province of Shinano, destroying first the Murakami clan. His next target was the Suwa clan, comprehensively defeated in 1542 - their leader, Suwa Yorishige, was taken prisoner and later murdered. Of all the Suwa clan only the daughter of Suwa Yorishige survived (we don't know her name - she is known only as Lady Suwa) - impressed by her beauty Takeda Harunobu took her as a concubine and she gave him his favorite son, Takeda Katsuyori, who is another important character in the film.
Having completed the conquest of Shinano province and having signed the alliance with the powerful daimyo Imagawa of Suruga, young Harunobu beacame a very famous and powerful warlord - from that moment he was called "The Tiger of Kai". It was at that time that encouraged by his main strategist, Yamamoto Kansuke, he had made a new war banner, under which the Takeda clan would fight from now on - and which would become a legend in its own. This banner was called "Furin Kazan", from characters signifying "Wind, Forest, Fire, Mountain" and the flag itself carried the inscription taken from Sun Tzu's writings, precising the characteristics necessary for a great general: "Fast as the wind, silent as the forest, ardent as the fire, calm as the mountain".
His next target was the province of Echigo and its young lord Nagao Kagetora, who had the particularity of being not only an exceptionnal warrior but also a buddhist monk, better known under his religious name Uesugi Kenshin and also called "The Dragon of Echigo". The long confrontation between the "Tiger of Kai" and "Dragon of Echigo" lasted 14 years, roughly from 1550 to 1564. During this time they fought no less than five battles at the Kawanakajima plain!
In 1559 Takeda Harunobu decided to become himself a novice Buddhist monk and took a new name - from that moment on he was known as Takeda Shingen.
The culmination of the confrontation between the Takeda and Uesugi armies was the fourth battle of Kawanakajima, in 1561, in which at one moment Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin fought one against other, swords in hand! Takeda Shingen was wounded during this fight - and as you will see, the scar from this wound plays an important role in "Kagemusha" plot. The battle itself however was a draw - Uesugi Kenshin lost more soldiers (4000 against 3000 for the Takeda clan) but he could withdraw without being bothered by exhausted enemies. The Takeda clan lost also two precious generals - the famous strategist Yamamoto Kansuke and Shingen's loyal younger brother, Takeda Nobushige.
Realizing that his fight against Uesugi Kenshin is a dead end, Takeda Shingen made ultimately peace with his old nemesis in 1564. Uesugi Kenshin appears briefly in "Kagemusha" without being openly named - you will recognize him by his impressive monastic clothes and the buddhist rosary he always held in hands. Both warlords needed peace because a new power was rising in Japan - Oda Nobunaga, the terrifying and somehow extravagant daimyo of Owari, who apears a lot in "Kagemusha" (including a greatly hilarious scene in which he and his guest taste some Portuguese wine or like they call it "barbarian sake"...).
In 1560 Oda Nobunaga greatly weakened the powerful Imagawa clan from Suruga by winning the battle of Okehazama. Seeing that Suruga province was now ripe for picking, Takeda Shingen betrayed his Imagawa allies and finally seized this precious land in 1569. The Takeda clan was now a major power and one of two top pretenders to the control over all Japan. The only rival of the Takeda was the alliance between Oda Nobunaga and a young daimyo from Mikawa, a certain Matsudaira Takechiyo, who in 1567 changed his name and became Tokugawa Ieyasu - this latter famous character also appears in "Kagemusha"...
In 1567 Takeda Yoshinobu, Shingen's oldest son by his wife, Lady Sanjo, rebelled against his father resenting his favouritism towards Katsuyori. Easily defeated, Yoshinobu was forced by his father to commit seppuku.
After defeating Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu in some minor engagements and in the major battle at Mikatagahara on 25 January 1573, Takeda Shingen besieged, at the end of January 1573, the castle of Noda defended by 500 men loyal to Tokugawa Ieyasu. This is AT THAT MOMENT THAT "Kagemusha" BEGINS - and I will not say much more about the action of the film.
"Kagemusha" means "the shadow warrior" and in feudal Japan was the word designing the decoys used by some warlords to impersonate them in various occasions, to avoid risks of assasination or to let them recover in peace from sickness or simply to allow them to catch a moment of rest during the campaign... The use of "kagemushas" was a common practice and it gave of course occasion to some wild rumors - according to some of them, Tokugawa Ieyasu himself was supposedly killed at the second siege of Osaka in 1615 and during the following 12 months was replaced by a decoy, the time that his power is safely transmitted to his son (that story is almost certainly NOT true). In our times the decoys are also used - the most famous was certainly Clifton James, a simple soldier who for a time impersonated Montgomery, in order to deceive Axis intelligence services...
This film tells the story of a fictitious "kagemusha", as Takeda Shingen was not known for using one. Both Shingen and his double are played by the great Japanese actor Tatsuya Nakadai - and as always, he does a great job. Other important characters are Takeda Nobukado (Shingen's younger brother), Takeda Katsuyori (Shingen's favourite son) and Takemaru (real name Takeda Nobukatsu), Shingen's grandson, aged 5 at the beginning of the film.
Takeda Shingen was famous for gathering around him 24 excellent commanders, known as Twenty Four Generals of the Takeda. In 1573, when the film begins, many were already dead, so in this film we see only seven of them, including Takeda Nobukado. The most important character amongst them is Yamagata Masakage, the old man with red face. Two other real generals I managed to identify were Hara Masatane and Naito Masatoyo. Those are the three generals who at one moment cross their lances together, in an extremely powerful scene towards the end of the film.
Other than the scenario, which is excellent, as always in Kurosawa films, the great treasure of this film are the images. Samurai armies are impressive, battles are even better and the sequences of the dreams (or rather nightmares) are very powerful.
The final scenes of the great battle of Nagashino are of course a very beautiful thing from the artistic point of view, but the REAL battle was absolutely NOT such an one sided affair as it is pictured. Kurosawa needed to adapt this battle to obtain a Wagnerian finale and also there is no question that this battle ended with a great disaster for one of the sides - but still, in real history, things went VERY differently from what we see in "Kagemusha".
On another hand, the character of Oda Nobunaga is IMPRESSIVELY good! In this film he appears really as a warlord for whom thousands would be ready to rise, fight - and die.
The film doesn't say (sorry SPOILER coming) what would happen later to three of the most important characters, Takeda Nobukado, Takeda Katsuyori and little Takemaru (yes, here is the SPOILER - they survive to the final credits). And honestly I would advise you to NOT research this question before watching "Kagemusha". Do it after. Believe me, it is a good advice.
CONCLUSION: this film is a masterpiece; it lasts 3 hours but at the end you will only feel sorry that there is no more; a film to buy, watch, keep and re-watch. Enjoy!
on 14 May 2013
I'm writing this primarily to clear up the confusion among other reviews here of Kagemusha. Reviews complaining about the quality of the DVD transfer would appear to be of the earlier release of this film on DVD (or even on VHS). This is a review of the latest region 2 PAL version of the 162m international print released by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment in February, 2013 and I want to emphasize there is nothing wrong with the quality here at all. The image is full frame (16:9) with English subtitles properly letter-boxed. Potential buyers put off by said DVD inferiority need hesitate no longer. Those wanting the 179m Japanese domestic print should go for the region 1 NTSC Criterion version. Personally I see no point in going for the longer version in an already overlong picture especially when Akira Kurosawa himself cut the international print making them both 'director's cuts'.
So what about the film itself? It certainly looks fabulous with colors well saturated and Kurosawa's fabled use of the wide screen splendidly brought out. The premise in the story is highly promising with it's theme of doubling (the differences between reality and appearances) being one that resonates strongly down Kurosawa's long career from the doctor/gangster in Drunken Angel (1948) and the detective/murderer in Stray Dog (1949) right through to the kidnapper/industrialist in High and Low (1962). However, where those three wonderful films use mirror-imaging and doubling to probe us towards wider metaphysical philosophical debate and have the depth of Dostoyevsky embedded in their structures, Kagemusha offers the theme entirely (and simplistically) on its own terms. The theme is baldly stated in the opening 6 minute discussion with a double (actually a thief) set to 'become' Lord Shingen in the event of the Lord's death to make people think their leader is still alive during a 16th century war. After much repetition (both visual and in the dialog) this happens. The very obviousness of the theme leaves the audience with nothing to take in except a marvelous series of cinematic images which (while impressive in themselves) cannot mask the hollowness of the film's nature. Time and again promising scenes collapse into simplistic spectacle which overwhelms everything else. The film's lack of intellectual rigor is highlighted by the paucity of characterization. A simple comparison with Seven Samurai (1954) illustrates my point. In that film each samurai warrior is clearly drawn so that when they fight and die we care and are deeply moved. This draws us in to that film's debate on the meaning of existence. On one hand are the peasant farmers who are struggling day by day to survive honorably. On the other are the bandits who survive dishonorably, while in the middle is the samurai code which exists as a possible solution to society's problems, with the Toshiro Mifune character representing a bridge of hope - an example other peasants can adopt to fight back. The film is a glorious, visceral and savagely realistic canvas which juxtaposes mighty themes through Kurosawa's uncanny knack of fleshing out his characters. In Kagemusha we learn little about any of the characters (even the eponymous "shadow" of the title) so that the numerous tableaux vivant impress as spectacle, but leave our hearts untouched.
Living in Japan as I do I can tell you there isn't much to Kagemusha that stands out from the rut of usual jidai geki TV dramas. Of course, this being Kurosawa one does respond to the occasional flair of his cinematic vision like in the dream sequence when the double breaks out of a funeral urn and foresees his own future death and in the final battle scene with numerous shots of horses on their backs, legs flailing in hopelessness, but the achievements are purely visual and the film sags badly in the middle with much obscure running around in battlescenes fought in near darkness - to hide the lack of funds perhaps? In Kurosawa's best films (pretty much everything from 1948 through to 1962, especially Rashomon (1951), Ikiru (1952) and Seven Samurai) we are moved because tragic themes emerge naturally from the script, the acting and the extraordinarily vital direction. Everything feels so organic. With his lesser efforts he waxes into over-manipulation of the audience's emotions (in this case the crude use of over-emphatic music to make us 'feel' for characters we barely know let alone care about) and sentimentality. Kagemusha escapes this second charge as it constitutes one of his darkest, most nihilistic visions completely absent of hope. It's all very impressive in a way, but quite why the Cannes jury gave Kagemusha a prize is hard to say. The prize looks more like a 'welcome back' from years in the critical wilderness than an award for artistic merit intrinsic in the picture itself. Posterity has shown that Kurosawa made his triumphant return to jidai geki with Ran (1985), not with Kagemusha. As in Throne of Blood (1957) and The Bad Sleep Well (1960) it is the presence of Shakespeare which provides the intellectual rigor which the present film so obviously lacks.
I wouldn't be so harsh on the film if it hadn't have been made by Kurosawa. It's just that with such a great director anything less than his formidable best comes as a disappointment. Nevertheless, obviously those interested in him shouldn't hesitate to snap this DVD up. It may be low quality Kurosawa, but most lesser directors would die to make something as good as this.