Genre: Historical Drama
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ken’ichi Hagiwara
This is a movie I’ve been meaning to review for awhile but have been putting it off simply because I knew how difficult or a project it would be. As I’ve said before, Akira Kurosawa is my absolute favorite director of ALL TIME so I often tread cautiously into his domain with a sense of reverence unbecoming of myself. While Kagemusha is not as massive as other Kurosawa epics such as Seven Samurai or Ran, it is still every bit a majestic beast in its own right. The movie is 3 hours long and its $11 million budget shows in every stunning shot. Like the majority of Kurosawa’s great body of work, Kagemusha is a visually striking and beautiful story of humanity set against the violent backdrop of civil war in feudal Japan. Confined to this brief article there is very little I can do to truly show this movie the respect that it deserves – but I will try.
The film opens with a shot of three men who are practically indistinguishable from each other. They are Shingen, his brother Nobukado and a nameless thief whom Nobukado saved from being crucified. Because of this thief’s uncanny resemblance to Shingen it is suggested that he serve as a double for Shingen. This is the basic premise of the movie. The title Kagemusha translates to “shadow warrior” and describes this thief’s role. However, what happens to the double when the original dies?
After the film’s title we are given a little bit of backstory. The setting is 16th century Japan and the country is ravaged with constant civil war. Three separate clans are fighting each other for control of Kyoto and all of Japan. The Takeda clan, led by Shingen, has beseiged a castle belonging to Tokugawa Ieyasu. A sniper, however, happens to get off a lucky shot at Shingen, fatally wounding him so the double is called into service. To prevent his enemies from taking advantage of the situation, Shingen’s dying request is that his clan returns home while the double fill his position. They are to stay where they are for three years. Only then can they announce Shingen’s death and allow his successor to take whatever action he so chooses. After some initial disbelief and confusion, Kagemusha puts on a valiant show in front of his troops and people are quick to accept him as the real Shingen.
One definitely has to give actor Tatsuya Nakadai the credit he deserves for his role in this movie. He plays both Shingen and Kagemusha but that’s not easily noticeable since the two men are such vastly different characters. Kagemusha is able to deceive Shingen’s grandson and concubine and, later, the majority of Shingen’s closest friends. As he settles into the tole of Shingen, Kagemusha begins to adopt more and more of the late lord’s mannerisms and personality. However this transformation does not come without its cost, Kagemusha is plagued by nightmares where Shingen’s ghost pursues him. During a battle Kagemusha is haunted by the loyal soldiers who gave their lives for him – for Shingen. Eventually, Kagemusha attempts to ride Shingen’s horse and is thrown off. When his concubines examine his injuries they realize he doesn’t have the same scars as Shingen – this man is an impostor.
The last act of the film is a series of some of the most emotionally powerful moments I’ve seen in a Kurosawa film. Since Kagemusha has served his role for three years, he is asked to leave and sent on his way with very little recompense. A funeral is finally given for Shingen and his grandson is inaugurated as their new leader. It’s a touching moment as Kagemusha stands with the other peasants, watching this ceremony. He spent three years with that child, developing a relationship with him and he is moved by seeing him again though there is nothing he can do or say about it. Despite having been disinherited, Shingen’s son Katsuyori takes over leadership of the clan and leads an ill-advised assault against their enemy Odo Nobunaga in the climactic Battle of Nagashino. Wave after wave of cavalry and infantry are mowed down by volleys of matchlock fire – putting a complete end to the Takeda clan. Ever valiant and loyal to a cause that was once his own, Kagemusha charges through the fields of the dead only to be shot down like the rest.
Kagemusha is a very slow moving film – but I don’t quite see that as a fault. The film’s conclusion carries the emotional impact because we have spent such a long time with these characters. The long conversations they’ve had, the gaps in their dialogue don’t draw out the running time, they build character. Is a 3 hour running time too long for Kagemusha to tell the story it does – perhaps. However, it would not be the same movie if it was any shorter. Cut down that running time and you end up with a hallow epic that would fail to evoke the response that it does. Kagemusha is long and at times there are scenes that drag tediously but, in the end, it is worth it.
The greatest highlight in this film are the battle sequences, as we see armies marching into war. These long shots have the same majestic scope found in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films only without the CGI. There is a greater beauty to the fact that every one of these soldiers, every person on every horse is an actual, living and breathing human being. What’s stunning isn’t the size of the army these clan leaders have mustered – it is the size of the cast and amount of extras Kurosawa was able to gather and put together to make these visually stunning shots. Even better than this is the way Kurosawa chose to sequence the Battle of Nagashino. The Takeda generals make it very clear that they’re going to lose this battle – that this will be the end of the Takeda clan. As we see the infantry march to their deaths and the cavalry ride heedlessly into battle – all we ever see is the line of rifles firing and the reaction of the Takeda generals as they watch this bloody spectacle. Kurosawa never shows us the soldiers themselves until the battle is over. All we see then is an endless field of the dead and dying – humans and animals alike. This method more appropriately serves to illustrate the statement Kurosawa makes about the futility of this battle when we only see the aftermath and none of the glorious combat.
Kagemusha is, for the most part, based on actual fact. These battles actually happened and these people really existed. As for Shingen’s faked death and a double taking his place – that is all legend with not a lot of historical fact to back it up. It could have happened, but there’s no way to know for sure. The Battle of Nagashino is actually a very significant battle in the history of warfare because it was a turning point in how battles were carried out. Firearms were a new concept to battle during the 16th century and were not in widespread use. With Nobunaga’s decisive use of wooden stockades and rotating volleys of fire many cite this has being the first “modern” Japanese battle. This battle has been recreated in several video games, predominately Koei’s Kessen III and Samurai Warriors. It is also recreated in Shogun 2: Total War where the player can take control of Nobunaga’s forces and achieve victory by copying the same historical strategy.
Admittedly, Kagemusha is not for every audience. It is a very slow moving piece and it does have a rather uneven balance between character and spectacle. It does take a good deal of patience to stick with the movie. That patience is well rewarded, of course, but its a style of filmmaking that just doesn’t suit everyone’s palette. I happen to enjoy it and have always found delight and solace in the films of Kurosawa. Some people though find his style rather boring and unnecessarily slow. I would highly recommend Kagemusha however people would know if they’re going to like this film or not. It’s one of those films you either really love or don’t like at all. That doesn’t mean that the people who aren’t impressed by this film “don’t get it.” Kurosawa films appeal to a specific taste that just doesn’t suit everybody. I happen to hate the films of Michael Bay while other people enjoy them. I may not see eye to eye with them but that’s their opinion. In conclusion – if you enjoy Kurosawa then you would love this movie. If you’re not familiar with Kurosawa I wouldn’t recommend starting with this film – try Rashoman or Ikiru instead.