Five years after the highly memorable Dersu Uzala, director Akira Kurosawa returned to an environment that he knew well. But this time, the lavish production of Kagemusha became so expensive to Toho Studios that Twentieth Century Fox ended up paying the shortfall after a bit of persuasion from Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas who became co-executive producers. After all, they owed a debt of gratitude to Kurosawa for inspiring parts of The Godfather and Star Wars. Kagemusha was completed and showed audiences all over the world that this aging filmmaker was still worth financing.
The story is based not on real events, but actual circumstances. There was indeed a powerful warlord in feudal Japan called Shingen Takeda (1521-1573) as well as a Battle of Nagashino fought in 1575 between the Takeda clan and two other warlords, Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga. There are many myths surrounding Shingen’s death, one of which is depicted in the film where he’s shot by a sniper. However, Kurosawa and his co-writer Masato Ide came up with a new twist.
As the film begins Shingen is still alive and his brother Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki) introduces him to a man who is the lord’s spitting image. The only problem is that the double is a simple thief rescued from crucifixion. Shingen has doubts, but agrees to hiring the man. When the warlord is later mortally wounded on the battlefield, he tells his brother and closest men to keep his death a secret for three years, using the double as his replacement. After Shingen dies, the thief is ordered to assume the part. Now he has to convince the world that he is Shingen Takeda…
Back to 16th century Japan
Fans of the director will recognize many of the ingredients and settings. Once again we’re transported back to 16th century Japan where earnest-looking warlords fight over property while lower-ranking individuals get a chance to influence events even as they’re manipulated by their masters. There is plenty of cynicism at work, counterbalanced by Kurosawa’s humanistic portrayal of the thief who becomes a “kagemusha”, a shadow warrior. Tatsuya Nakadai (who plays both Shingen and his double) is excellent as a person who behaves perhaps just as you and I would in the same situation – thankful for being rescued from death, fearing the challenges of his new, unusual task, eventually accepting it with enthusiasm and then getting drawn into the game to the degree that he’s identifying himself with the man he’s playing.
Kurosawa turns a rather simple (but good) story into a majestic epic, elevated by the art direction and those incredibly colorful costumes that make the warriors stand out in the battlefield. Shinichirô Ikebe’s music score has a very Western feel to it, like it or not, but it works very well for an audience of that type. The battle scenes are imaginatively staged, some of them as shadow games where the troops look like puppets. Perhaps the reason for this idea springs purely out of financial concerns… but sometimes thrift is the mother of creativity.
Still, all those epic ingredients would have served the film even better if the story had been told in two hours. Sometimes, that’s all you should need.
Kagemusha 1980-Japan. 159 min. Color. Produced and directed by Akira Kurosawa. Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa, Masato Ide. Cinematography: Takao Saitô, Shoji Ueda. Music: Shinichirô Ikebe. Art Direction: Yoshirô Muraki. Costume Design: Seiichiro Momosawa. Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai (Shingen Takeda/Kagemusha), Tsutomu Yamazaki (Nobukado Takeda), Kenichi Hagiwara (Katsuyori Takeda), Jinpachi Nezu, Shuji Otaki.
Trivia: Alternative version runs 179 min. Alternative title: Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior).
BAFTA: Best Direction, Costume Design. Cannes: Palme d’Or.