Review: Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior (1980)

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Akira Kurosawa is one of world cinema’s best-loved directors. Celebrated both in his native Japan and (perhaps especially) overseas, he directed some of cinema’s most enduring and famous stories, and was responsible for bringing Japan’s cinema industry to the world’s attention with 1950’s Rashomon. Fans of action cinema will be (or should be!) familiar with The Seven Samurai, his long but brilliant film tracing the story of a group of samurai hired to protect a village from marauding bandits. He worked with many of Japan’s finest actors and widely ranging source material (from original stories to Shakespeare adaptations, Russian literature and classical Japanese stories) and his back catalogue is definitely worth a viewing now that many of his films are available on DVD in Australia.

Kagemusha is one of Kurosawa’s later works, filmed in 1980. The film was initially knocked back by Toho (the studio financing it) because they claimed it was too expensive to make. Rather unexpectedly, the extra money was provided by 20th Century Fox, who were talked into it by George Lucas — whose sequels to Star Wars were something Fox very much wanted to be involved with. Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas were listed as “international producers”, and shooting went ahead with the original budget.

The story is based on the true story of powerful 16th century Japanese warlord Shingen. Accustomed to doing many things at once, he often used a double to do the menial things — waving for the troops and galloping around on horseback. The beginning of the film shows Shingen and his brother (who currently doubles for Shingen) discussing a petty thief who they have saved from execution and who bears a startling resemblance to the warlord. He is taken into Shingen’s retinue and trained to take the place of the brother, rallying the troops and performing similar tasks in return for his pardon. Things become more interesting, however, when Shingen is fatally injured by a sniper’s bullet during a siege. On his deathbed, he decrees that his death should be kept a secret for three years, in order to maintain the stability of the kingdom he has ruled all his life.

The easiest way to follow the lord’s instruction is for our double to take the warlord’s place, becoming the kagemusha (“shadow warrior”) of the title. Assuming an identity and power that isn’t rightfully your own is difficult, though, and convincing the lord’s extended family and concubines is a daunting prospect. Only a few trusted servants and the lord’s immediate retinue know of the double, and everyone else must be convinced if the warlord’s dying wish is to be fulfilled. To add to the trouble, Shingen’s enemies become suspicious and begin to plot to occupy some of Shingen’s clan’s outlying castles, to see whether the man they suspect is a double reacts as Shingen would — and so, the kagemusha is forced to enter into battle as well!

Both Shingen and the kagemusha are played by Tatsuya Nakadai, who carries so much of this film on his shoulders. Kurosawa concentrates very much on his reactions and development as a character, and Nakadai had to convey much of this silently and through subtle expression -— he said, later, that Kurosawa wouldn’t let him cheat by having the two characters walk differently or have other different external characteristics. He does an outstanding job, and Kurosawa later used him again as the lead in Ran. The double’s development from a frightened, petty thief into a man capable of carrying off an impression of Shingen, and then further into a man who loves a kingdom and people who aren’t even his own, is very well portrayed. The film is shot in rich colour, much like Ran (though not quite as saturated as the latter) and has some beautiful photography in it. Kurosawa went to considerable trouble to be very historically accurate, securing real 16th century armour for some shots and modelling the final battle on historical accounts of the Battle of Nagashino in 1575. Like many of Kurosawa’s works, the story treats the nature of reality and of illusion, but is also an excellent historical piece as well.

Kagemusha is a very good film, and won several awards on its release (including the Palme d’Or at Cannes, which it shared with All That Jazz from the USA). It’s quite a long film, coming in at about three hours, but thoroughly worth watching — especially for people who have seen and enjoyed Ran, to which it bears quite a resemblance in style and substance (and length!). It’s not my favourite of Kurosawa’s works, but it’s definitely up there. See it and see all the others!

9 cavalry charges out of 10.
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