Playing for keeps: Kurosawa’s 1980 “Kagemusha”


“Kagemusha” (1980, also known as “The Shadow Warrior,” though released in the US with its Japanese title) is not as great a movie as Kurosawa’s next movie, “Ran” (1985), but that may be an empty category and I find it easier to like “Kagemusha” than I do “Ran,” great a film as I recognize it to be. Nakadai Tatsuya is in my opinion even better in the Pirandelloish role of thief pretending to be clan leader in “Kagemusha” than as a fully Shakespearean Lear in “Ran.”

The film, set near the end of the warring kingdoms period was settled by Tokugawa (Tokugawa Ieyasu’s) victory (in the Battle of Sekigahara in October of 1600), seems somewhat slow—though this is probably at least in part from my attention span being a casualty to ever-more fragmented jump cuts of postmodern life and art, though some of the scenes of immobile councils seemed overly long even when I saw “Kagemusha” in its theatrical release

“Kagemusha” is particularly interesting to a sociologist as a meditation on coming to believe that one is what people regard one as being (a self-role merger). As the double successfully passes as the warlord, he comes more and more to internalize role expectations and starts unthinkingly to act appropriately for his high station. He rises to the office (I think of Truman, though he had his own style and did not attempt to impersonate FDR). Not just mannerisms but attitudes become “second nature” to the actor who forgets that he is acting.

For me the most riveting moment is when the double is on display, impassively holding his position — embodying the immovability of the leader of the clan, for which the mountain is a symbo). A phalanx of guards, including a page who knows he is protecting an impersonator, take bullets for him. The page is atop the pile of bodies. The in-the-know guard tells him, “Do not move. Consider that you are already crucified. These men have given their lives to protect you.” The “you” is more the status than the (pseudo-)incumbent, but the two of them know that at least the page knew that the man he was shielding with his body was not the real Shingen. Even with no real stake in the clan, and having lived as a violator of laws, the double takes his duty very seriously and identified with the clan that he has pretended to lead, even after his role is done.


Where he has more room for maneuver—as a grandfather—the impersonator establishes a relationship, and he has been performing so well for so long that he is left unsupervised and with the child who idolizes him and accepts him in his role attempts to complete his impersonation (by riding the horse that only Shingen could ride). When the double is thrown, the mistresses notices for the first time that he is lacking Shingen’s scar, and the role is at an end. Only Shingen’s brother, Nobukado (Yamazaki Tsutomu [who went on to star in high-profile Japanese exports “Tampopo” and “Departures,” and is still appearing in movies), who had sometimes himself served as his brother’s double before, has compassion for the strains of having to be someone else full-time. No one else has any sympathy for having to simulate a status so much higher than the thief’s previous one or for the difficulty of an impulsive commoner having to show the gravity and restraint of a stern and stoic warrior leader. Shingen’s son< Katsuyori (Hagiwars Ken’ichi) is particularly unhappy having to show deference to a low-born criminal pretending to be his father.

I love the helmets, the costume design, the eye-popping art direction, all lensed, sometimes expressionistically, by Saito Takeô (who had done “High and Low” and “Sanjor” and would return to work on “Ran” and the final, minor three Kurosawa films) and Ueda Shôji (who walso worked on the last five Kurosawa films). The color cinematography of the last six Kurosawa films (including the Russian one partly shot by Nakai Asazaku, who worked on many Kurosawa films, oing all the way back to “No regret for Our Youth”in 1946, and including “Ran”) is more than remarkable. For me, it’s as good as color cinematography gets, and this was Kurosawa’s painterly eye as well as great cinematographers able to deliver what he envisioned.

(The movie marked the last appearance oonscreen of Shimura Takashi who had been in most Kurosawa films going back to the first in 1943 in “Sugata Sanshiro,” He played a minor courtier in “Kagemusha.” He died in 1982, before “Ran” was made.)


©2016, Stephen O. Murray


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