After having enjoyed two of Akira Kurosawa’s previous films , Redbeard and The Seven Samurai, I was so looking forward to viewing Kagemusha. Not only was it in color but it had been shot on a much larger budget and had shared the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film Festival in 1980. Besides, it was reputedly Kurosawa’s trial run before shooting his acclaimed masterpiece Ran.
Sorry to say, it was a disppointment.
Kagemusha ( The Shadow Warrior ) is set in medieval Japan where three clans are jockeying for supremacy. Shingen, the wily leader of the Takedas, chances upon a thief who bears an amazing resemblance to him. He spares the man from execution so that he can impersonate him . Shortly thereafter, Shingen is mortally wounded during a siege. Before he dies, Shingen tells his followers to conceal the news of his death for three years and use the double to give the impression that he ( Shingen) is still alive. Thus, he hopes to buy time for his successors to re-group. How the fake Shingen performs his task is the basis of the film.
The main problem with Kagemusha is it’s glacial pace. Kurosawa was a master of pacing and earlier films , such as Seven Samurai and Redbeard, never dragged though they were as long or longer. The first half of Kagemusha proceeds so slowly that it seems interminable. The editing could have been much tighter. Another problem is that, though the movie is three hours long, the fake Shingen remains a bit of a mystery. What is the reason for his loyalty to the Lord ? What is he really like ? Perhaps it is not fair to expect such answers since the success of the double depends on completly subsuming his own personality. Again, for all it’s length, the film lacks coherence and makes it difficult for the viewer to figure out what exactly is happening.
Kurosawa’s relative inexperience with color also shows. The landscapes are gorgeous but sometimes garish. This is most true of the ‘nightmare’ sequence , the meaning of which was not clear to me.The battle scenes, except for those of the final battle, are done on the cheap , suggested rather than depicted but are glaringly inadequate in an otherwise opulent production. They are also confusing with riders dashing to and fro and the viewer not any the wiser.The final battle scene is very well done but is spoiled by a ten minute long sequence showing wounded men and horses staggering about. The scene is effective in showing the complete annihilation of an army but it goes on far too long. Seeing it , it was obvious that it was Steven Spielberg’s inspiration for the 40 minute long opening episode of Saving Private Ryan which was meant to bring home the horror of war.
All this is not to suggest that Kagemusha is completely without merit. No Kurosawa film could be like that.Tatsuya Nakeda turns in a marvelous performance playing the roles of both Shingen and his double. In one memorable scene , he assumes the persona of the dead lord so effectively that even Shingen’s retainers, who had been sneering at him moments earlier, are cowed into obedience. It is a magnificent tour-de-force.Throughout the film, there are moments of pure Kurosawa genius. For example, when the double is being driven out of the Shingen stronghold, a retainer escorts him to the doorway holding an umbrella over his head to protect him from the driving rain. Then, the retainer turns back with the umbrella , leaving the Kagemusha at the mercy of the elements , all his worldly possessions clutched under his arm. When he asks for a last glimpse of ‘his’ grandson, they drive him away with a barrage of insults and pelt him with stones. Thus the abrupt change in his fortunes is chillingly brought home to us. For a Japanophile like myself, the costumes and pageantry of the era are fascinating but, ultimately, it is not enough.
One cine fan says that he never likes Kurosawa’s films when he first sees them. It is only when he views them for the second time that he appreciates Kurosawa’s genius. I don’t agree. I think that the greatness of a film should immediately be apparent. A true classic does not need a second viewing.
In any case, I don’t think that I could sit through Kagemusha again.