Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Starring Tatsuya Nakadai, Kenichi Hagiwara, Tsutomu Yamazaki
“I only stole a few coins. A petty thief. But you’ve killed hundreds and robbed whole domains. Who is wicked, you or I?”
Tatsuya Nakadai as Shingen Takeda/Kagemusha
Life doesn’t get any better than to slip into the DVD player Kagemusha, directed the legendary Akira Kurosawa and produced by none other than George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. Kagemusha was recently released by Criterion.
The film opens in the year 1573. Japan is divided into regions and the different regions are ruled by warlords and samurais. The leader of the Takeda clan is Shingen, portrayed by Tatsuya Nakadai. As Shingen cannot be everywhere at once, his brother Nobukado, played by Tsutomu Yamazaki, steps in from time to time to act as a “double”. Shingen feels that Nobukado portrayal of him leaves something to be desired.
Shingen happens upon a thief who bears an uncanny resemblance to himself. The thief known as Kagemusha, also played by Tatsuya Hakadai, is soon employed by the Takeda clan and trained to become the official “double” for Shingen.
Soon after, the actual Shingen is wounded and killed in battle. He has expressed that his people are not to know of his death for several years. Kagemusha now must step forward and give his best performance as Shingen. A performance that must be so convincing that it must not only convince the people of his region, but also Shingen’s soldiers, mistresses and family members.
Right away Kagemusha encounters problems with his new responsibilities. The horse that Shingen rode exclusively rejects Kagemusha fiercely. The grandson seems to notice a difference and states “Battle must have changed you Grandfather. You don’t seem as scary”. Shingen’s top level men decide that the mistresses are to be told that Shingen has been seriously wounded in battle and must now have any “physical” strain.
While the true Shingen was a powerful and staid man, Kagemusha suffers from bouts of insecurity, low self esteem and a pretty significant tendency to be somewhat cowardly.
The main story arc of Kagemusha is Kagemusha transition from lowly thief to stately, powerful and brave Shingen.
Through research I learned that much of the film recounts actual historical events, including Shingen’s death and the two-year secret, and the climactic Battle of Nagashino in 1575. Those scenes are also modeled closely on detailed accounts of the battle. Akira Kurosawa reenacts battles and this period of Japanese history with confidence and finesse. Kurosawa’s eye for stunning scene composition is on display here in every single frame.
The battle sequences are spectacular. The striking images that Kurosawa creates of the battlefield will be indelibly etched in your mind after viewing this masterful film. Without giving too much away, one of the final scenes that portray the aftermath after a huge battle gave me chills and is one of the most powerful images of the affects of war that I think I have ever witnessed on film.
Tatsuya Nakadai turns in a masterful performance as both Shingen and Kagemusha. The name Tatsuya Nakadai is very familiar to Japanese cinema fans as he starred in Zatoichi Goes to the Fire Festival, Ran and Harakiri, just to name a few from his illustrious career.
Kagemusha is an impressive film from Kurosawa and it is easy for the viewer to see the seeds of imagery in this film that the director would later use in Ran in 1985 and Yume or Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams in 1990. This film belongs on the shelf on any true Kurosawa fan, right next to The Seven Samurai, Ikiru and Rashomon.
Kagemusha is presented in widescreen format. The overall image is impressive and Akira Kurosawa’s vibrant color palette is impeccably preserved. The image is pristine and I did not notice any instances of grain or artifacts. Kagemusha is presented with the respect and care the film deserves.
Kagemusha is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. The dialogue is impressively clear and the chaos of the battlefield is nicely presented.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
Kagemusha is a two disc release in a standard amaray case with swinging hinge for disc one. The artwork is suitably striking, understated and refined for this majestic film.
An abundance of bonus features await the viewer on this release. There are several trailers available to view, both the original Japanese trailer and two created for the American film market.
Stephen Prince provides an interesting commentary track for the film. He gives a large amount of information about the history and influence of the Noh art form on Kurosawa. Noh is one of the oldest forms of Japanese theater in which actors portray characters using masks and elaborate costumes. Prince also offers his opinion as the film’s subtext and why 20 minutes were cut out of the original released but is thankfully restored in this release of the film.
Lucas, Coppola and Kurosawa is a 20 minute featurette that interviews George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola on their experiences in film school and how they were both influenced greatly by Kurosawa. I was surprised to learn that Shintaro Katsu, famous for his portrayal of Zatoichi in several films was initially cast as the role of Shingen/Kagemusha but Kurosawa considered him too much of a loose cannon and recast the role with Tatsuya Nakadai. Both Lucas and Coppola reflect on the casting change and talk about what it was like to work with one of their cinematic heroes. A thoroughly enjoyable and informative featurette.
Another installment of the documentary series Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create is included here and clocks in at over 40 minutes. This installment concerns the production of Kagemusha and interviews several members of the cast and discusses Lucas’s and Coppola’s assistance in getting financing for Kurosawa to make the film.
Image: Kurosawa’s Continuity comes in a over 40 minutes and is essentially condenses the story Kagemusha, utilizes audio from the film and tells the story of the film using storyboards drawn and painted by Kurosawa himself. It is a fascinating featurette.
A Vision Realized is a side by side comparison of 24 storyboards with shots from the final film.
The inclusion of 5 television ads for Suntory Whiskey that starred Kurosawa and were shot on the set of Kagemusha is an excellent inclusion. Coppola himself starred in a few of these ads and they are a must see for Kurosawa fans as they show him in action on the set of the film and sipping whiskey to boot.
If all of this wasn’t enough, there is also a 48-page booklet featuring a new essay by scholar Peter Grilli, a reprinted 1981 interview with Kurosawa by renowned critic Tony Rayns, and biographical sketches by Japanese film historian Donald Richie.
Overall, an absolutely first rate presentation of a classic film.
Overall (Not An Average) 10/10
The Movie 9.5/10
The Video 9/10
The Audio 8/10
The Packaging and Bonus Features 10/10
Overall (Not An Average) 9.5/10