I just got The Criterion Collection DVD of Kagemusha. I love the film — it is one of Akira Kurosawa’s most underrated. So it is great to have. Another aspect of the DVD is that it is filled with extras, including a fine commentary by a man who has taught me so much, Stephen Prince. But I found that I disagreed with his overall take on the film.
For those who don’t know the film, it is about a petty thief who happens to look just like Lord Shingen Takeda. So instead of killing the thief, they use him as the lord’s kagemusha — or double. But when the lord is killed by a sniper, the thief has to take over acting as the lord full time. Thus far, this is pretty much the plot of Dave and many other stories. But the critical element here is how the thief really does become the lord. He seems to know intuitively how the lord would act in various situations.
Prince sees the film as a communitarian take on the samurai genre, in contrast to Kurosawa’s previous individualist films. While this is generally true, I take a few exceptions to it. First, much of Kurosawa’s work is about collective action. It doesn’t matter that the collective action isn’t based upon the government. Seven Samurai and Sanjurō are both about collective action. Certainly, Ikiru is about the heroic individual — but even it is in a social context.
My bigger complaint is that Prince seems to want to think of Lord Shingen Takeda as something of a ghost who takes over — or at least guides — the thief as plays the part of the lord. This ruins the entire idea of the film’s communitarian focus. And I take offense to this because it goes against what I see in the world. The basis of communitarianism is not that we are all the same, but that we play different parts. What’s more, it doesn’t too much matter who the “actors” are. The kagemusha acts like the warrior because he knows that it is his job to do so.
So in the broadest sense, what we see is that there was nothing special about the lord. He was playing a part just as much as the thief was. They were both, in effect, kagemusha. And to take it further, we are all kagemusha: we play the parts of husbands and wives and cab drivers and beggars. But as a society, we do not want to believe this. Our entire culture is based on the idea that people deserve their lots in life. This is why we in America cling onto the childish notion of the meritocracy.
In Kagemusha, the thief is eventually uncovered. But he does not go back to his old role. The society may no longer see him as lord, but he does. And this leads to the end where he commits an act of great, but impotent, bravery. Because it is not enough for us to play our parts. We must have a cast to support our roles.