Kurosawa Centenary: Kagemusha

 

[March 23 1910, legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa was born. To celebrate the centennial of his life, his prolific contributions to the world of cinema, and immense impact on the hearts and minds of those quietly mourning his absence, staffers at Row Three are (rather enthusiastically) taking this opportunity to share their own experiences of the Kurosawa catalogue]

Ksagemusha has the distinction of being the first Kurosawa film I ever saw, and I will forever hold it in high regard and strong affection. The film is a visual, artistic triumph. Though Dodes’ka-den and Dersu Uzala certainly have their merits, Kagemusha seems to me to be the first film in Kurosawa’s colour canon where he fully utilized and exploded the opportunities of the palette, any doubt of which should be immediately quelled Kagemusha’s second sequence – a page running through a seemingly endless forest of different-coloured warriors.

As the legend goes, when Kurosawa could not initially raise the funds to make Kagemusha, he spent his time painting the sequences as he saw them in his mind. The resulting film has a decadent splendour which only Dreams would eventually surmount.

Tatsuya Nakadai takes the lead role, a challenging and entertaining dual performance as a warlord and his “shadow warrior,” the latter a morally vacuous thief plucked from the countryside for his startling physical resemblance to the lord. Nakadai is good in the role, though he does (as in Ran) live under Mifune’s shadow to a degree. Nonetheless, his ascendance to regality and ultimately heroism and sacrifice, bearing the mantle of his dead doppelganger with ever-increasing assuredness, is a terrific feat of physical performance.

Kurosawa, too, has changed in the years since his early chanbara epics; is it fair to say that in Kagemusha, he seems almost grandfatherly? No longer an energetic young filmmaker, the director had, by this point, faced the deterioration of his career and his own attempted suicide. There is a wisdom, maturity, and grace to the story treatment in Kagemusha which makes it feel a more complete human story than the earlier samurai films – a bit slower and less viscerally thrilling than Yojimbo or Seven Samurai, perhaps, but more heartfelt and deeply affecting.

The film’s startling conclusion at the Battle of Nagashino, where Shingen’s outdated armies are obliterated by the terrifying specter of advanced warfare (the flintlock rifle has made its way to Japan), is haunting, and the disgraced kagemusha’s despairing final charge through the carnage and debris of the battlefield, even more so. Trading on more accessible human emotion (and potential for hope) than its counterpart, Ran, Kurosawa’s Kagemusha is the unsung masterpiece of the master’s late period.

Matt Brown
Matt Brown co-hosts the Mamo! podcast and has a weekly column at Twitch Film called Destroy All Monsters. Imagine Thor crossed with an 11-year-old girl.

6 Comments

  1. Mike, yes, "Kagemusha" was released as a double disc Criterion set a few years ago. I've had it for awhile and just popped it in the player for the first time a few days ago (it's sadly not the only DVD that has been sitting awaiting an initial viewing).

    I've only got a half hour through, but it's already great. I'm waiting until I can dedicate a whole slice of time to finish it all in one sitting. Matt's right about that early sequence of the messenger running through the different coloured soldiers – amazing stuff.

    Reply
  2. Oops, I guess I forgot my usual "here's how you can get access to this film" blurb at the end. Yes, the Criterion double-disk is awesome, and I should really upgrade to the blu-ray.

    Reply

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