I Saw It on Nephlix: KAGEMUSHA

(from l. to r.) Akira Kurosawa, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas
(from l. to r.) Akira Kurosawa, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas (1979)

Backstory: Master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa was 70 years old and long out of favor in his native Japan when he filmed  this 1980 release. In fact, he needed the help of  directors slash admirers George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola  to finance and produce it.

Kagemusha -  (In English it translates loosely as "Shadow Warrior")
Kagemusha – (In English it translates loosely as “Shadow Warrior”)

Reel Story : Warring clans fight a turf war in 16th century Japan. The leader of the Takeda clan is such a fearsome presence  his enemies think twice about attacking. So when Shingen Takeda unexpectedly dies his officers hire a double to take his place. Tatsuya Nakadai plays both roles. This is tougher than it sounds. Kagemusha may look the part but as a lowly convicted thief he has no idea on how to act like a fierce warlord.  So he needs constant coaching from his officers.  The plot may sound simple but in  Kurosawa’s hands it takes on an almost Shakespearean grandeur. (And that isn’t the sake talking. Both 1956’s Throne of Blood and 1985’s Ran  are Shakespearean classics retold and adapted to medieval Japanese settings.)

Tatsuyo Nakadai as the ferocious Shingen
Tatsuyo Nakadai as the ferocious Shingen Takeda
Tatsuyo Nakadai (in his other role as Shingen's double)
Tatsuyo Nakadai (in his other role as Shingen’s double)

I Don’t Know Much About Art But …. Some critics have the temerity to unfavorably compare Kagemusha with early Kurosawa classics like  Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. This, to me (warning:cliche alert!)  is like the proverbial comparison between apples and oranges or, to put it in cinematic terms, comparing early Martin Scorsese masterpieces like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver with later successes such as The Departed and Shutter Island. Each film (in my humble opinion)  stands on its own as a separate and distinct work of art.

I Know What I Like …  Kurosawa was also a skilled painter and his use of color is both vivid and surreal, especially in the striking  sequence in which the real Shingen chases his double through a brightly colored dreamscape.

Seeing Double in a Vividly Hued Dream Sequence
Seeing Double in a Vividly Hued Dream Sequence

And as a gourmet action fan I gotta say the battle scenes are breathtaking in scope. This is the kind of epic old school filmmaking we rarely see today. (In one sequence Kurosawa used 5000 extras – and not a digitized warrior in the bunch.) 

A Cast of Thousands (literally)
A Cast of Thousands (literally)

 I Don’t Know Much About Art (2)But I believe that experiencing a work of art is a highly subjective experience. There is no right or wrong answer. It’s up to the individual to decide and (ideally ) to share his opinions. 

Roger Ebert has his own interpretation: “Kurosawa seems to be saying that great human endeavors (in this case, samurai wars) depend entirely on large numbers of men sharing the same fantasies or beliefs. It is entirely unimportant, he seems to be suggesting, whether or not the beliefs are based on reality — all that matters is that men accept them.


So does Eric Henderson (Slant Magazine): “Rather than attempt to understand the kagemusha’s motivations, Kurosawa is more interested in the ambiguities between his role and his psyche.”


Here’s What I Think the Film Is About (If You Get My Meaning):  Kurosawa had the idea for the film for years and may have been inspired by his own experiences as a Japanese citizen living under Emperor Hirohito during WWII.  According to one website ” The conventional wisdom has traditionally been that Emperor Hirohito was a puppet of the military rulers, who ruled Japan from the late 1930s through World War II. He reportedly made no decisions, and was not involved in the running of the government.” http://factsanddetails.com/japan.php?itemid=584&catid=18 

In the film, the double is also a  figurehead  and the military officers are (quite literally) the power behind the throne.

Emperor Hirohito
Emperor Hirohito

(Yes, I know. There are conflicting views as to Hirohito’s real role in Japan’s involvement in World War Two. However, this post is not about rewriting history. I’m just trying to interpret a film here.)

In one battle sequence, cavalry troops repeatedly attack a heavily fortified position even though it is obvious  such an attack is a suicide mission. The doomed charge of the cavalry could be seen as a metaphor for  kamikaze pilots who rammed their planes into Allied warships in the final years of the Second World War.

The aftermath of the final battle in the film
The aftermath of the final battle in the film

A later scene shows the battleground strewn with cavalry corpses, a sombre tableau which could be interpreted as the bodies of Japanese soldiers who died in a losing cause,  and/or the futility of war (any war, after all, the Vietnam War had ended only a few years before, with the fall of Saugon in 1975).

Interestingly enough, Takeda is not only the name of one of the warring clans (Shingen Takeda was an actual historical figure) but the name of Hirohito’s cousin. Prince Tsuneyoshi Takeda was an officer in the Japanese military during WWII.

PS I know I have mentioned this in a previous post but I am watching Netflix courtesy of my nephew who gave me a gift subscription to the service as a present. Thanks Trent!



Author: rixbitz

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