Before making the 1980 film Kagemusha, Akira Kurosawa was in the later end of his career and had trouble financing any film he wanted. Eventually George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola (both describing themselves as Kurosawa fans) stepped in and managed to help bring funds to Kurosawa’s film project. The result is a historical drama of epic proportions.
The film Kagemusha centers on Shingen Takeda (head of the Takeda clan) and the man he chose to use as his double. (Both roles played by Tatsuya Nakadai) The title of the film itself Kagemusha means “shadow warrior”. A very apt title that would later become very relevant once Shingen dies and the double (whose actual name is never said) must assume the role in order to fool enemies of the Takeda clan and Shingen’s own men. The double is a rough and petty man who is pretty much the polar opposite of Shingen, (Specifically since he was a thief who was about to be executed) so he stumbles in every aspect as he tries to impersonate him. How well this kagemusha is able to carry out this act is at the center of the film and it’s ramification on everyone in this world.
I will say a little bit of knowledge of Samurai history makes the film easier to follow, but may not be absolutely necessary. Even though many different aspects of the film (such as the exact time setting) may require familiarity with history, the main events are pretty self explanatory. (Excluding the layers of meaning usually sown into Kurosawa movies.) Such as keeping Shingen’s death a secret for three years. The generals under Shingen’s command argue and discuss the intricacies of how they could be able to use the double to fool everyone. The results of being able to fool friends and enemies, aswell as the films ending, pretty much speak for itself.
The actor Nakadai puts out a good effort in portraying both major roles of Kagemush, and he effectively depicts the sharp contrasts between them. Noticeably is the double’s reaction to seeing corpses and the deaths of soldiers first hand as he sees all this for the first time. These reactions range from having a terrified look on his face to a more subtle expression of his eyes widening during the onset of a battle. In addition to this, the double must interact with Shingen’s grandson (A child who recognizes that it is not his grandfather) and with his concubines. To add to Nakadai’s acting ability, he also portrays the gradual shift of the double from rejecting the loss of his personal identity to becoming enamored with the pride of the Takeda clan and serving the deceased Shingen the best he can.
Reactions are also what are depicted with most of the battle scenes in Kagemusha. Unlike previous Kurosawa films (such as Seven Samurai), we see more of preparation for war and the aftermath than actual combat. Kagemusha seems to be more about the structure of the environment that the characters live in.
Kurosawa makes great use of color in this film. (This one being only third he made in color at this point). We see a muddied messenger contrasted with his background as he runs across a wide variety of different color armored samurai. (Each color represents a different clan under a certain general’s command.) Different colored armor is also used to identify different generals as they walked in the distance .Bright colors are also used to illuminate the background as fires burn in the distance. Kurosawa seemed to want to make use of color while he was making this film.
Kagemusha is a major accomplishment in Kurosawa’s career. This film showcases the further expansion of his creativity. Kagemusha is a massive three hours (Initial Japanese and American theatrical releases were much shorter) and uses the time wisely on character development. This is a definite must see for fans of Kurosawa who might want to see a different take on his usual depictions of Samurai. And a must see for those who want a complex and layered historical drama.