Kagemusha was the first Kurosawa movie I had seen. It was also the first samurai film I had seen. I don’t recall many other movies that so impressed me visually. A petty thief is rescued from crucifixion because he looks so much like the leader of the Takeda clan, Shingen. When Shingen is killed by a sniper, the thief steps into the clan head’s role in order to prevent attack by aggressive enemies. As the thief struggles to identify with that of the deceased warlord, the impatience of Shingen’s son Katsuyori leads to devastation for the Takeda’s at the Battle of Nagashino, and propels Japan toward political unification.
Released in 1980, Kagemusha marked a return to filmmaking for Japanese Filmmaker Akira Kurosawa who, by that time, was a living legend. As the film evolves, it becomes a meditation on the nature of power and of leaders while at the same time moving forward with a tragic, inexorable determination. Still, like all of Kurosawa´s sporadic late work, I find something a bit sterile and mechanical about it, qualities that weren’t present in the great films of his most productive period. It’s difficult to argue that the first half of this three-hour epic isn’t slowly paced and a bit difficult to get through, but once the film turns the corner, the rewards are endless.
One doesn’t need to watch Kagemusha all that closely to recognize Kurosawa had Shakespeare on the brain when he made it. His scheme to transport King Lear to feudal Japan, which would eventually become Ran, predated the scripting and extensive storyboarding for Kagemusha. Kurosawa was only in his 20’s when his brother Heigo committed suicide and his life suddenly took an unusual turn, quite similar to that of Kagemusha. Though I may be far off the mark, it felt to me as though Kurosawa himself were the thief, living in the shadow of the man he used to be.
The blind man of Ran may be a more universal image of despair, but it at least gives man’s struggle a poetic grandeur. Kagemusha rips away even that. The thief’s death has been a final meaningless sacrifice in a pointless battle. If you are looking for battle action, this film is not the way to go. Kurosawa’s warrior films have always been about the characters and their strategy rather than the action, but I believe this film shows a minimal amount of fighting even by his standards. If you have enjoyed the other movies I have reviewed by this director, you should defientely check out Kagemusha. You will not be let down.