Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior)
out of ****
director has their dream project that they spend most of their
lives trying to complete. David Lean had Nostromo, which
grinded to a halt during its pre-production stages when he was
too ill and frail to carry on. Orson Welles had Don Quixote,
which he never found the funds to finish (it was finally completed,
none too well, by Jesse Franco). Klaus Kinski obsessed over the
creation of a film about the life of Paganini, which was ultimately
incoherent and jumbled.
not all dream projects have such tragic endings. Akira Kurosawa’s
Kagemusha, his self-proclaimed dream project, might be
the best film of his career, and it is certainly one of the greatest
cinematic experiences of all time. Not to say that the fates didn’t
try to stop this production: After years of being in pre-production
stages and having had various investors back out, Kurosawa attempted
suicide before American producers George Lucas and Francis Ford
Coppola stepped in to give the Japanese director the funds that
he needed to complete the film once and for all. Both men have
directed dream projects themselves, so they must have sympathized
with Kurosawa’s struggles. Cinema is the better for it:
Kagemusha is the type of film that inspires us film critics
to want to write about movies, and I mean this in the best way
is a film about such a man who never quite knows what to expect,
a man whose loyalties and perspectives shift until the final moments
when he makes his final, triumphant stand for a cause that seems
to surprise even him. Along the way, he seems to be living in
routines, unsure of his next step, or even if a next step is an
option. He learns along the way as he comes to both appreciate
and fear his position on the earth. So do we.
man is a kagemusha, which means “shadow warrior.”
The film speculates on historical events, in which a great warlord/king
during sixteenth century Japan (Tatsuya Nakadai, who plays both
the leader and his double) is killed in battle. For three years,
his officials kept his secret using a body double, so that their
soldiers would not lose heart at the fall of their beloved leader.
After all, there were still battles to be won.
idea by itself would make for an interesting movie, but Kurosawa
isn’t interested in the story of this warlord and his people
so much as he is interesting in the poor thief who doubles him
for such a long period of time. This is quite an interesting,
internal approach that chronicles the history of an entire people
through the eyes of one, terrified man. I am reminded of a one-man
stage play I once saw about David and Goliath. It was told through
the eyes of a completely overlooked character: The Bible speaks
of Goliath’s shield bearer, who was the only other person
on the field, witnessing the action firsthand when David slew
the giant. One wonders how the poor shield carrier must have felt
as he gripped an instrument bigger than he was and watched helplessly
as a little boy chopped off his master’s head. In essence,
Kagemusha is concerned with this very question.
the first scene, we are introduced to both the prince and the
pauper, who are almost identical in features. In one long, nearly
extreme shot, the thief is brought in by the king’s brother
(Tsutomu Yamazaki), who rescued the man from crucifixion when
he noticed the resemblance. The king, Shingen, is astonished that
this beggar bears such an uncanny likeness, and he quickly absolves
to make the thief his double. Still, Shingen is worried that despite
their similar faces, no one would believe that this “wicked
scoundrel” could convince anyone that he is really a king.
The thief snaps back, “I only stole a few coins. A petty
thief. But you've killed hundreds and robbed whole domains. Who
is wicked, you or I?”
include this quote because it is the basis on which the rest of
the movie rests. Flash forward a few years, and we find that Shingen
has died in battle, but his final order is that no one know of
his death for three years, so that the war with their neighboring
enemies will find completion. If his men realize that he is dead,
then they will be too brokenhearted to fight. Shingen has a son
who will assume the throne, but the king does not believe that
he is ready. Better for the war to be over first, so that his
son can slip into the kingly role with ease. As a result of this
order, the thief is thrust into the role of the king’s double,
where he is guided by Shingen’s brother and a small circle
of officials who alone know the truth. Very soon, the thief comes
to realize the weight of his role, as men die on the battlefield
for the sake of their king. If he believes that Shingen “killed
hundreds and robbed whole domains,” he comes to understand
that it is quite a man who can inspire legions of soldiers to
die for such a cause.
more standard film would have taken a Rocky approach
by turning this “nobody” into a noble leader who rallies
the people to war and fully embraces his role as king’s
shadow. Kurosawa, of course, never made a standard film, and there
is no “go for it” approach to be found here. Instead,
Kurosawa emphasizes realism and honestly contemplates human fear,
arrogance, and admiration. Throughout his career as Shingen’s
shadow, the thief never finds his footing in the role. He remains
careless, clueless, and always a pawn of the king’s advisers,
who control nearly his every movement.
the thief’s ingenuity proves to be very effective—there
are several moments in which he manages to convince people who
were close to Shingen that he is actually the king, simply by
thinking on his feet. In a very powerful moment, Kurosawa rests
the camera on the thief as he impersonates the late Shingen, and
his advisors marvel at the resemblance. Despite these fleeting
moments, the shadow never truly understands the role that he is
shadowing, and he is always looking to his left and right during
moments of action, seeking out visual gestures of advice from
Shingen’s inner circle.
Nakadai creates a very effective character in these scenes, keenly
aware that at any moment, this charade could end by one, simple
slip. Despite this fear, he constantly tries to save face and
keep up his appearance. It must have been a difficult role to
juggle, but Nakadai pulls it off by carefully balancing the thief’s
fear with his wits and calculation.
inner circle itself consists of people who never fully trust the
thief, and their appreciation for his services is limited at best.
When they final release him after three years, they do so in such
a tactless and cold manner that we question whether or not they
felt they really needed his services at all, or if they simply
used him to honor the wishes of a stubborn, dying man.
working on several different levels here. He is, of course, showcasing
the importance of maintaining heroes—even when they are
gone, their “shadow” remains and continues to influence
whole nations. As he did in Seven Samurai, he also comments
on class systems and the results when the rich combine forces
with the poor for a cause greater than wealth. And Kagemusha
is also a strapping adventure story, filled with exciting images
of war, as well as a historical drama depicting the fall of a
most intriguing aspect in Akira Kurosawa's films is his ability
to cover a multitude of themes and ideas, even though he never
makes any direct statement about any of them. His films are
like real life that way: Things happen; it might be fate,
it might be luck. We might learn something, we might not.
It is in the celebration of never knowing where life finds
it profoundness, but finding it nonetheless, even though it
often cannot be defined. Kagemusha
demonstrates such an involving approach, and Kurosawa has tells
a story here alive with human emotion. It is one of his best
Tatsuya Nakadai: Shingen Takeda/Kagemusha
Tsutomu Yamazaki: Nobukado Takeda
Jinpachi Nezu: Sohachiro Tsuchiya
Kenichi Hagiwara: Katsuyori Takeda
Hideji Otaki: Masakage Yamagata
20th Century Fox presents a film by Kurosawa Production Co Ltd.
Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Written by Kurosawa and Masato Ide.
Rated PG, for thematic battle sequences. Running time: 160 minutes.
Original Japanese theatrical release date: April 26, 1980. Japanese,
with English subtitles.