Kagemusha (Cinema Reserve) Review

Finding it impossible to secure funding for his films in the latter part of his career, the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa was reduced to making his films on paper, not only writing the scripts for Kagemusha and Ran, but also drawing out detailed character and costume designs and paintings that practically storyboarded the entire films. As both these films were clearly costly costume drama epics that Toho was reluctant to produce, it looked like these films would never be lifted off the page. Kurosawa had however turned to foreign support for his previous film - Derzu Usala in 1975, a film that could only be made with the financing of the Russian Mosfilm company - and it would be through a couple of young successful American directors, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, both of whom regarded the Japanese director as a major influence, that Kurosawa was able to finally able to make his first film in five years.

Despite the meticulous preparation that had gone into the film - which was practically finished in Kurosawa’s head and only needed to be filmed – the production was immediately beset with difficulties. Initially intended to have a lighter tone in the confusion between a 16th century Japanese warlord and a thief who is used as his double, the actor Shintaro Katsu, star of the Zatoichi series of films was originally cast for the lead role of Shingen Takeda, but personal differences and a clash of egos resulted in the actor – depending on which side you believe – either being fired or walking off the set very early on in production. The tone of the film would become much darker with the casting of stage actor Tatsuya Nakadai in the dual role of Shingen and his double, or kagemusha.

Set during the turmoil of the Warring States in 16th century Japan, Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai) is waging a war with his rivals of the Nobunaga and Ieyasu clans. Believing that the castle of Kyoto is about to fall to the siege his troops have been laying to it for 20 days, Shingen goes to witness for himself the declining mood in the castle, but he is shot by a sniper. Their lord wounded, the Takeda army is forced to withdraw, but Shingen dies on the journey back. His brother Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki), who has often impersonated Shingen on official duties, knows however that he cannot convincingly take the place of the man who is known as “The Mountain”, but he has found a double, a kagemusha, with an uncanny likeness to Shingen. A petty thief, arrested and about to be executed, the double has no option but to impersonate the dead warlord and lead the Takeda clan. Trained to mimic Shingen’s mannerisms, the double is able to convince and spur on his troops and confuse the enemy spies who cannot tell if the rumours of the Shingen’s death are true or not. Convincing those with a closer connection to the lord is much more difficult.

Often seen as merely a practice run for Ran - even by the director himself - Kagemusha is actually just as dark a film as his late epic masterpiece and touches on a number of personal themes and issues that are evident throughout Kurosawa’s work. Principally, the film examines the disparity between appearances and reality. In the very first scene of the film, Shingen berates the double for being a common petty thief, yet when challenged, he doesn’t deny his own wrongdoing, justifying his criminal war activities where lands are pillaged and thousands are killed as being necessary to unite the land and give it strong leadership. Society, it seems – and as recent war history supports – can be tolerant of the worst of crimes, as long as justification is made for the sake of appearances. When he is forced to take over from Shingen, adopting a false appearance for the sake of a “greater good”, he is able to see just how far and to what dark ends this deception can lead. Kurosawa handles this aspect of the film impressively, if not masterfully, as he would handle a similar feudal wartime situation in Ran, his samurai version of King Lear. The tone of Kagemusha is ponderous, the film long drawn-out, every aspect of the performances and production pushed to exaggerated lengths that heavily underline the premise. Subtle it is not, but certainly an impressive spectacle.

What is much more interesting about the film is only apparent with some background knowledge of the director’s own personal demons and motivations. More than any other of his films, Kagemusha seems to be haunted by two formative experiences in the director’s early life. As a young child, Akira Kurosawa was taken by his older brother to witness the widespread death and devastation inflicted upon Tokyo when it was destroyed by firestorms following the earthquake of September 1923. Kagemusha shows destruction on a similarly epic level, but here it is a destruction that can be brought about by the dark side of humanity. This aspect of Kurosawa’s concern may also have been brought about by the same brother’s suicide at the age of 27. Heigo’s death would have a great impact on Kurosawa and would be the other great formative influence on his cinematic work. In his autobiography he records the comment of a friend that “our appearance was exactly the same, except that my brother had had a kind of dark shadow in his facial expression and that his personality, too, had seemed clouded”. This shadow of darkness preoccupies Kurosawa in a number of his works, but rarely as evidently as in Kagemusha, which is all about living in the shadow of another person and identifying too closely to that darker side of one’s personality.

More than its rather limited and drawn-out storyline, more than the tremendous spectacle it offers, it’s in seeing the dark demons that have fuelled Kurosawa’s intimate smaller scale films let loose onto the screen on an epic scale that makes Kagemusha fascinating viewing. Having tested it out in this film, it’s this aspect also that Kurosawa would much more effectively draw on for his next film, the dark, brooding and powerful Ran.

Kagemusha is released in the UK by 20th Century Fox as part of their Cinema Reserve collection. It is released as a 2-disc set in a tin case. The film is presented in PAL format and the DVD is encoded for Region 2 and 4. Incredibly, despite the elaborate repackaging and addition of bonus features and commentary, Fox have just recycled the same low-definition transfer that was inadequate the first time around on the original R2 release. This also means that despite drawing all the extra features from the Criterion Collection edition, they haven’t given us the full 179-minute version of the film that is included there. UK viewers have to make do here with the truncated 152-minute international cut. Having never seen the full version of the film, I can’t say what difference this makes to the film.

The quality of the transfer is variable, but for the most part it is soft and grainy, lacking detail and colour definition with reds in particular having a tendency to bloom. The image flickers throughout and the print is speckled with dirt and scratches. It’s not totally unwatchable – some parts are just about acceptable quality - but others, like the opening scene of the film, are shockingly bad. Night-time scenes are particularly murky. It’s really no better than VHS quality. It’s even more inadequate when we know that this film can look so much better, and is presented as such in its full form on the Criterion Collection edition.

The audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 4.0, making use of the original 4-track audio mix for the film. Stereo separation can be heard occasionally on the music score and battle scenes, but it’s not widely used elsewhere. The soundtrack is relatively clear and audible, with reasonable resonance and tone and no real signs of background noise or hiss, but its limitations are evident whenever there is any louder noises or loudly spoken dialogue, when it crackles badly.

English subtitles are provided, in a clear white font and are optional. Subtitles in English are also included for all extra features, including the English commentary track.

Commentary by Stephen Prince
Introducing his commentary, Prince states that he regards Kagemusha as a "history play" and is thus going to focus principally on the background historical aspects of the story. I couldn't disagree more with this kind of reading of the film, which I think is much more personal than that to Kurosawa. Like Prince's commentary for Ran then, those looking for erudite detail on the historical and cultural aspects of the story will find plenty of interest here. Personally, I couldn't endure more than half an hour of this.

Lucas, Coppola and Kurosawa (18:34)
In new interviews, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola look back at how they had the opportunity to work with a director who was a huge influence on them, the experience of watching him work on the film and give their thoughts on the film itself.

Akira Kurosawa: It’s Wonderful To Create (50:00)
This particular episode of the Japanese TV series focuses obviously on Kagemusha. Despite the contributions of many of the original cast and crew and interviews with Kurosawa himself, it’s rather superficial, but invaluable nonetheless for the behind-the-scenes footage.

Image: Kurosawa’s Continuity (41:54)
The original storyboards painted by Kurosawa are put in sequence and set to dialogue and music score to create a mini version of the film. This works quite well, giving the viewer the opportunity to see just how close the film came to Kurosawa’s original vision.

A Vision Realised
25 or so of Kurosawa’s paintings are shown side-by-side with stills from their equivalent scenes in the film.

Three trailers are included, the US Trailer (1:12), a Japanese Trailer (3:12) and a Japanese Trailer (3:18), all of them showing the remarkable visuals of a unique film.

Kagemusha is perhaps not the best Akira Kurosawa film - not even of his latter period - but there are some typically fine Kurosawa humanistic and anti-war themes that can be drawn from it, as well as some intriguing insights into the motivations that would drive the director to make his films. As a colourful, spectacular and powerful samurai costume drama, the film is only rivalled by the director’s late masterpiece, Ran. The film consequently deserves much better than this truncated and poorly presented UK edition that no amount of extra features can improve. Thankfully, for anyone really wanting to see this film properly, the Criterion Collection edition provides just that.

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