Kagemusha (1980)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Kagemusha
Kagemusha
Starring Tatsuya Nakadai (Shingen Takeda/The double), Tsutomu Yamazaki (Nobukado), Kenichi Hagiwara (Katsuyori), Jinpachi Nezu (Sohachiro), Daisuke Ryu (Nobunaga Oda), Masayuki Yui (Ieyasu Tokugawa), Takashi Shimura (Taguchi), Kamatari Fujiwara (Doctor)
Screenplay by Masato Ide and Akira Kurosawa
Cinematography by Takao Saito and Masaharu Ueda

Toho Company/20th Century Fox, 179 minutes
Color, 1.85:1 widescreen
English-subtitled DVD and Blu-ray: Criterion

Kagemusha marked a return to jidai-geki for Kurosawa for the first time since Sanjuro, with the great director's career having suffered a tragic slump in the intervening 18 years. Kurosawa produced only two films during the 1970s, which were considered flops, and depression led him to attempt suicide. Around this time he conceived of Ran, which he intended to be his jidai-geki comeback. But since he was considered a washed-up relic, Kurosawa found trouble getting studio financing, especially for a project as lavishly ambitious as his King Lear adaptation. So Kurosawa arrived at Kagemusha as a sort of test run for Ran, made possible with the support of his admirers Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas as executive producers of the overseas release.

After Yojimbo spawned the cynical, postmodern chambara that lit up popular Japanese cinema during his long hiatus from historical films, it's easy to figure Kurosawa was determined to go a diferent direction and reinvent jidai-geki once again. So he bypassed the well-plowed territory of rowdy ronin adventures and went back to a more classical form, exploring famed historical figures for the first time. As opposed to the purely fictional characters of his past classics, Kagemusha goes into the legends of the great warlords Shingen Takeda, Nobunaga Oda and Ieyasu Tokugawa who vied for control of Japan in the 16th century. These figures have been portrayed in countless jidai-geki films, and up until this point Kurosawa had always steered clear of them and other stock subject matters like the 47 loyal ronin and the Musashi Miyamoto story, as if that were part of his maverick nature. Perhaps he re-evaluated the value of the old chestnuts in his later years.

The story revolves around a petty thief who bears as striking resemblance to Shingen Takeda. Shingen's brother and advisor Nobukado discovers him just before the thief is set to be executed, thinking the lookalike could be useful. Nobukado himself also resembles Shingen and often plays as his double for security purposes. It turns out that Shingen is mortally wounded by a Tokugawa sniper. Before he dies, the warlord urges his men to keep his death a secret in order to protect the clan's strategies for advancement against its enemies. Thus the lookalike thief, whose name is never given, is brought in to maintain the pretense that Shingen is still alive.

The dual role of Shingen and the imposter was originally intended for Shintaro Katsu, in what would have been the historic first and only collaboration between Kurosawa and the great Zatoichi star. Sadly, there was a massive clash of massive egos, and Kurosawa blew up when Katsu showed up on the first day of filming with his own camera crew to shoot a behind-the-scenes documentary without the Master's permission. Having gone through hell to get the production funded, Kurosawa acted quickly to find a replacement in the ever-dependable Tatsuya Nakadai.

The conventional wisdom on Kagemusha is that Nakadai was horribly miscast and his fill-in performance made the movie a failure. Now, I love Shintaro Katsu as much as any right-minded chambara fan, and I have no doubt that this movie would have been much better with him in it – a total dream come true. But I'm not willing to throw Nakadai under the bus. Critics always harp on Nakadai not having the necessary comedic touch Katsu would have brought to the role, but honestly, Nakadai has the versatility to do just about any kind of acting you can throw at him. Just take a look at Kihachi Okamoto's Kill! to see how brilliantly he has performed comedy. He's no Katsu, but Nakadai clearly does his beat to channel the intended star. Whenever Shingen's double cocks his head back and laughs with a hearty bellow, it's a pitch-perfect impersonation of Katsu-shin. Incidentally, Katsu had previously given an outstanding portrayal of Shingen's nemesis Nobunaga Oda in 1969's The Magoichi Saga by Kenji Misumi.

For all its reputation as a creative misfire, I really think Kagemusha isn't that bad. It's engaging to watch this lowly thief thrust in the position of a great lord – as a variation on theme of the commoner who wants to be a samurai, here we get an average guy given a lordship against his will. When the double's improvisations as Shingen turn out to be convincing and effective, it raises the question of what it means to be an exalted ruler and how easy it is for a figurehead puppet to carry the appearance of power.

Visually, Kagemusha is a sumptuous feast. It pales only in the inevitable comparison to Ran – the later film has similar sorts of epic battle sequences that are more elegant and accomplished, but Kagemusha is undeniably a spectacle on its own terms. Really, it's hard to imagine how this film was approached as the more modest alternative when Ran was too extravagant to get off the ground.

Among the flaws that keep Kagemusha from being a masterpiece, I think one element that's way more out of place than Tatsuya Nakadai is the music. The score by Shinichiro Ikebe is horribly uneven, with a few good passages giving way to clunky, crappy cues that sound like stock movie music instead of an original score. The loud, trumpety fanfares when mounted troops are charging into battle might sound okay in a cheap chambara matinee, but totally disrupt the mood and majesty Kurosawa is trying to acheive here. It's especially shameful compared to the tastefully restrained and exacting musical compositions heard in Ran.

In terms of story, it seems to me that Kagemusha loses its way after the emotional climax when loyal Takeda guards willingly die to protect the Shingen double on the battlefield. We feel the imposter's pain at seeing these good men give their lives for his sake, when he is only a false icon. It makes a powerful commentary on the larger idea of soldiers in war dying for an illusion. After this, the final half hour of the movie is a by-the-numbers expose and expulsion of the Shingen imposter, and a rote depiction of the Takeda clan's downfall that Japanese viewers would see coming. None of this wrap-up seems to pack the dramatic heft that it should, feeling unsatisfying in the end. But despite its shortcomings, Kagemusha deserves recognition for what it achieved, rather than suffering by comparison to what might have been.

The Jidai-Geki Knights
Cinema