Before the epic rancor of Ran, Akira Kurosawa told a more intimate, but no less tragic story with Kagemusha. Also set in feudal Japan, but based on real events, the film tells the tale of a thief set in place to impersonate a dead warlord to prevent the warlord's enemies from gaining control. It's kind of like Dave, but much slower and in Japanese.
The film opens in 16th century Japan. Two warlords, Ieyasu (Masayuki Yui) and Nobunaga (Daisuke Ryu), take on a third, Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai), for control of the country. So far, Shingen has them on the run. But a lucky sniper gets off a round that may or may not have killed the warlord. While his enemies wonder, a wounded Shingen demands that should he die, his passing be kept a secret for three years, lest his rivals be emboldened. When Shingen finally gives up the ghost, it's up to his brother Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki) to come up with a plan to carry out those wishes.
Fortunately, Nobukado has thought ahead. In the gripping first scene, he introduces his brother to Kagemusha (also Tatsuya Nakadai), a thief about to be crucified were it not for his resemblance to Shingen. As the moment unfolds, Kagemusha challenges Shingen, claiming that it is Shingen and not himself who is the criminal. The warlord owns up to that and, impressed by the thief's honesty, agrees to have him trained as a double. It's how Kagemusha's perspective changes once he finally assumes that role that creates the arc of the film.
And what a slow arc it is. Once Shingen dies, the film takes a turn for the inert. Things do happen, but they unfold with all the forward momentum of a Jarmusch flick. It's a difficult pace to get used to, but the viewer is rewarded with some striking visuals. Kurosawa's use of color is radiant. From the deep reds and purples of battle to the soft, golden browns of the Suwa castle where Kagemusha carries out his charade, the film is sumptuous.
The imagery supports the film thematically as well. Kurosawa's visuals emphasize shadows (Kagemusha is a shadow of the dead warlord) and crucifixion without being overbearing. The film builds to some unforgettable images, but even they overstay their welcome after a while. It's as if a 90-minute version of this 180-minute film would have been just right.
There are some advantages, however, to the pace Kurosawa establishes. There's time to see the relationship between Kagemusha and his would-be grandson Takemaru (Kota Yui) develop, making the conclusion all the more heartfelt. We can see the rage in Shingen's son Katsuyori (Kenichi Hagiwara) seethe and grow steadily as the overlooked heir to the throne. But none of this is entertaining for very long. Suffice it to say there are many... long... pauses... and few of them seem worth it.
Nakadai's performance as Kagemusha and Shingen is impressive, creating two distinct characters, one of whom eerily mimics the other. This is particularly impressive from a technical standpoint as in the opening scene he must act opposite himself, all in one shot. Today that might not be impressive, but in 1980 without a computer graphics department it's a little harder to sneeze at.
The battle scenes are epic but lack the energy of Kurosawa's follow up. It almost seems as if the ideas, both thematic and technical, that he mastered in Ran were being worked out here. This makes Kagemusha an interesting blueprint for works to come, but less outstanding on its own merit.
The Criterion DVD includes two discs: The feature incorporates a commentary from a Kurosawa scholar, disc two includes executive producers George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola (!) discussing their involvement with the film, two making-of documentaries, some odd Suntory Whiskey commercials shot on the set, and a 48-page book about the film. Whew!
Aka The Shadow Warrior.