Watching Akira Kurosawa's three-hour-long epic color film (his third) from 1980, Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior) reminded me of the historical plays of William Shakespeare. While more famed for adapting the dramas of Shakespeare (Ran from King Lear, The Bad Sleep Well from Hamlet, The Hidden Fortress from Macbeth), Kurosawa's long film reminds me more of the detailed histories, where a single character is less important than the whole milieu (as well as being a more epic version of the old The Prince And The Pauper fable). And he succeeds very well at it. While the overall film is a bit too slow paced to be considered great, there is no doubt that it is an intricate work that abounds with astonishing color imagery, and is suffused in details that the screenplay by Kurosawa and Masato Ide slip in very subtly.
The best example of this is that even though the average viewer will know next to nothing of Japanese feudal history (what little I knew came from mostly old Japanese films), specific details are not needed because the themes and characterizations are so universal. It won the Palm D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and was seen as a comeback film for Kurosawa, after a mostly forgettable decade (the 1970s) of sporadic film work.
The actual story of the film is rather simple: the feudal lord of a clan that hopes to unite Japan in 1573, Shingen Takeda (Tatsuya Nakadai), is assassinated by a rival clan. However, since this takes place at night, the wounded lord has his generals prepare a double to take his place, should he die, and orders them to keep up the pretense for three years. We never see the actual shot, only hear it, and then see it in a re-enactment for the warlord, Ieyasu Tokugawa (Masayuki Yui), who ordered the assassination. The double is a thief, Kagemusha, played by the same actor, who during the opening six minutes of the film, before the credits, mocks the feudal lord and his brother as hypocrites for condemning him, a petty thief. He says they are mass murderers. The lord spares his doppelganger, the first of a number of fortuities in this story, loosely based upon real events. Nakadai is splendid in both roles. Usually, such dual roles are phoned in, but one can sense the difference in the two characters, even long after Shingen is dead.
Of course, as in Shakespeare, there is familial turmoil, as Kagemusha can fool most of his subjects, but not Shingen's horse (whose throwing of Kagemusha ultimately reveals the charade), his concubines, or much less the disowned son of Shingen, Lord Katsuyori (Kenichi Hagiwara). Only the real lord's grandson, Takemaru (Kota Yui) —whom the real Shingen made his heir over his son— believed he was his grandfather. Yet, ironically, Kagemusha turns out to be far more beloved a ruler than the real lord, as he treats his family and concubines better. Eventually, the thief is found out, after two years, and sent on his way. Shingen's son takes command of the clan, and leads them to an epic defeat in battle, at the Battle of Nagashino. This defeat would pave the way for a united Japan, but we never see that. The film ends with the outcast Kagemusha watching the battle from afar, as do the generals. We do not see so much bloodshed, as we think we do, when the camera cuts away from the action, then returns with slow motion shots of dead soldiers and fallen, writhing horses (I thought of the song Horse Latitudes, by The Doors: 'mute nostril agony'). Kagemusha, who first mocked the clan, then grew to love his role as its leader, then was rejected by them, makes a futile charge toward the other army, and is shot. He struggles to the sea, falls in, and his body drifts away, over the fallen flag of Shingen's clan, as all things—even great men, their shadows, and their deeds, are no match for the currents of events that surround them. Kurosawa's view is ultimately the antithesis of the Great Man view of history. Externals make the man—who is always a face—be it the real or fake Shingen, not the other way around.
Yet, even though the tale is told fairly straightforwardly, its symbolism is steep. Kagemusha would not be the 'shadow warrior' without the original lord. Yet, once put in a position of power, he makes many better decisions than the original did. When the other clan leaders, Tokugawa and Nobunaga Oda (Daisuke Ryu), launch an attack against the Takeda clans, Katsuyori ignores his father's generals, and is almost defeated, until Kagemusha rallies his men to victory in the Battle of Takatenjin. I've always argued that one could take any bum off the street, have him make corporate decisions based upon common sense, and he would do better than your typical CEO, simply because he had nor vested interests save doing the best and right things.
Thus, the question of the film is whether or not a person is an individual, or the presentation of a series of facts— appearances, quirks memories, that invokes seeming individuation. One might argue that Kagemusha made a better Shingen than Shingen did; thus opening up the query of whether or not superficial gestures can sometimes be the essence of a person. Then there is the case of Shingen's brother, Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki). In that opening scene of the film, we see him literally shadow, or mimic, many of Shingen's gestures. Later in the film, with his brother dead, he even says that he was Shingen's shadow—often doubling for his brother in battle. Yet, he realizes that Kagemusha would make an even better double. Even more dramatically than the brother's shadowing of Shingen is the fact that, in that opening scene, we only see Shingen casting a shadow on the wall. His brother and the thief are shadowless, for shadows cast no shadows—a brilliant bit of foreshadowed symbolism.
The other clan leaders, Tokugawa and Oda, have far less screen time, yet the former comes off as wise and patient (in real life he would be the uniter of Japan) while the latter a reckless warrior. But the film's detailing of the individual vs. the communal desires shows Kurosawa in the un-Kurosawa-like position of defending the holders of power vs. those forces of change; and this displays the notion that a great artist does not have to 'tell the truth' in their art.
The two disk DVD from The Criterion Collection is one of their better offerings, even if it fails to have a dubbed English language version of the film. Since it is in color, the dull white subtitles actually read well, as opposed to Criterion's ridiculous use of them on many black and white films. It comes with a booklet filled with essays and interviews, such as Kagemusha: From Painting To Film Pageantry by film scholar Peter Grilli, and an interview with Kurosawa by film critic Tony Rayns from a 1981 issue of Sight And Sound. Film critic Donald Richie has biographical sketches of Kurosawa and others, and many of Kurosawa's storyboards are reproduced.
The first disk has the in its 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio, and an audio commentary by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema Of Akira Kurosawa. While a serviceable job, Prince spends far too much time explicating the real life histories of the characters in the film, even as he tells us Kurosawa intended not to let the viewer know such things for a purpose. More time spent on the actual technical aspects and artistic history of the film would have been better than a rather dry history lesson, for, after all, details are unneeded if the tale works, especially if historic trivia in a film whose fiction carries the narrative. It also has the American theatrical trailer, plus the Japanese teaser and theatrical trailers. Disk Two has several featurettes: Lucas, Coppola, And Kurosawa, the Kagemusha part of the Toho Masterworks series, Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful To Create. There is also Image: Kurosawa's Continuity that compares the director's color storyboards with dialogue and audio from the film. There is also a gallery of Kurosawa paintings for the film, and a series of Suntory Whiskey television commercials made during the production of the film, and featuring Kurosawa.
All in all, Kagemusha is a very good film, with some great scenes and moments. Unfortunately, its plot drags weigh it down just enough that it falls below some of his true masterpieces, like Seven Samurai, Ikiru, and The Bad Sleep Well. Yet, even if it is not Kurosawa at his best, like Shakespeare in second rate mode, it is still far superior to all but the very best of lesser filmmakers. In Kagemusha, as in few other films of quality, it is the very lack of specificity about its people and events—where such details float behind the presentation, throughout the film, then swiftly come together to make sense late in the work, that allows it to have such a lasting impact, narratively, just as its switch between surrealistic color sets and realistic location shots similarly recapitulates the viewers' disorientation, then realization that something very interesting and different has happened. That simply does not happen in Hollywood films, and rarely occurs in any film, at all. It also shows why critics such as Stephen Prince often do a disservice to the viewers in their commentaries on films, and miss the very elements that make a film work or not. Fortunately, such defects do not affect the great artists whose works are disserviced by such lesser minds.