I recently watched Akira Kurosawa’s film Kagemusha. It is one of his films that gets neglected—at least by me. I think I’ve watched it once since seeing it in the theater when it was first released. But as I was watching it, I got really excited. I thought, “This is the best Kurosawa film!” And then I thought that was just silly. The truth is my favorite Kurosawa film is pretty much always the last one I’ve seen.
I know, I know. I hate how much I like Kurosawa. It seems like such a cliche. But it isn’t like he’s the only director I love or that he’s the only Japanese director I watch. I’m pretty fond of Japanese film generally. I’ve written about Masaki Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion as well as Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy and Vengeance Is Mine (a modern story about a serial killer). But it is true that Kurosawa does stand out as one of the top couple of directors who tend to make me giddy.
I think that Kagemusha may well be the best film to use to introduce people to Kurosawa. Unlike a lot of his films, the story of Kagemusha is very simple. There are three war lords in Japan, fighting over control of the country. One of them dies due to a fluke, and in order to not allow the entire Takeda clan to be destroyed as the other war lords use the chaos of this power vacuum, the other Takeda leaders use the deceased war lord’s kagemusha (impersonator) to play the part full time. That sounds complicated, but really all the film is about is the kagemusha’s evolution from a petty thief to being in a sense, the lord (not “war lord” because of course he doesn’t act in that capacity except as a symbol). This is ultimately, his downfall. The film ends with a tragically beautiful gesture by the kagemusha.
Here is the trailer, which gives you a small idea of how visually stunning the film is, but not much more. And it is cropped. And it doesn’t include what I think is the most stunning scene. And it doesn’t give you much of an idea about what the film is really all about.
The film stars Tatsuya Nakadai as the war lord Takeda Shingen as well as his kagemusha. You may remember him as the villain in Yojimbo, Unosuke who has a pistol. But he is probably best know for his lead role as Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (the King Lear character) in Ran, which was made five years later. I also know him from other non-Kurosawa films like Harakiri and Samurai Rebellion. He’s a great actor, and at 81 years old, he’s still working—a lot! I think he is at his best in Kagemusha because it is a subtle part. Although the film has big and beautiful battle scenes, it is the slow evolution of the kagemusha that we care about.
Despite the film’s epic feel, I noted that there were scenes where Kurosawa was clearly cutting corners. The film had a reasonable budget for the time, but considering the hundreds of extras and the enormous costume and set needs, it’s amazing what he managed to get on film. So if a couple of scene seem notably less inspired, it can be forgiven. And these scenes are only early on, so they probably don’t stick out to a first time viewer. Kurosawa also saved some money by not showing so many battle scenes as just the results of the battles. But I also think this was a choice. After all, the film is not ultimately about the destruction of the Takeda clan, but about how the kagemusha eventually comes to see himself as a member of that clan.
Kagemusha is the only Kurosawa film currently available on Netflix instant watch. And as is quite common, the print is not great and the subtitles are actually on the print and they are of middling quality. I’m looking forward to getting the film on the Criterion Collection DVD, where I’m sure it will look fantastic. Regardless, it is worth checking out. I know that the basic idea of the film is tired—poor man takes the place of the great man, from The Prince and the Pauper to Dave. But Kurosawa does something really different with it. Netflix users gave it an average rating of 3.7 out of 5 stars. But it’s “best guess” for me was 5.0 stars. And it was right, as usual. Kagemusha is a great film.