A Month of Kurosawa: Kagemusha (1980)

To celebrate the upcoming release of my book, Akira Kurosawa: A Viewer’s Guide, due out Dec. 15 from Rowman & Littlefield — preorder here! — I’ll be doing capsule reviews all month covering every single Kurosawa film and posting (very) brief excerpts. These will be short impressions and recommendations, nothing more. For a full, detailed analysis of each, grab the book!

Kagemusha (1980)

KAGEMUSHA, Tatsuya Nakadai, 1980. (c) Toho Company.

The supposed return to form for Akira Kurosawa that Kagemusha represents is a bit unfair to the works that came before it, such as the greatly overlooked Dersu Uzala, but that’s a rant for another time, I suppose. Kagemusha’s story is well known almost as much for what isn’t on the screen as for what is, thanks to funding for the film being secured by none other than George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. The story of its making often overshadows the film itself.

The film itself is a fine one, though it may be slow-paced for viewers expecting another samurai romp or an epic on the scale of Ran. Here, the great Lord Shingen Takeda, played by Tatsuya Nakadai — you know him as the villains from Yojimbo and Sanjuro, and as the detective in High and Low — drafts a thief who looks remarkably like him (also played by Nakadai) to be his double. When Takeda dies, an attempt is made to continue passing off the double as the real thing, lest the kingdom’s enemies take advantage of the lord’s death. Plenty of intrigue ensues, ending in a huge battle.

More than anything, this is a film about identity. This is especially appropriate, given where the director was in his career. From the book:

During a time when Kurosawa himself was reinventing who he was and how the public saw him – he had historically been reluctant to put himself in the public eye and rarely gave interviews, but by 1980 had begun to embrace being a public figure – he created a movie that in many ways is both a rebellion against and a gesture towards the ideas, themes, images, and stories he had told throughout the previous four decades.

Kagemusha is often compared to the film that follows it, the remarkable Ran, in no small part because even Kurosawa himself kind of saw this as a test run for that even more ambitious epic. Taken on its own merits, though, this is a film loaded with vivid visuals, beautiful images, and a deep meditation on the idea that we are not always who we think we are. It’s a slow burn — don’t be fooled by the swords and warriors — but a worthwhile one reflective of where Kuroasawa was himself at this point in life. Essential for all Kurosawa fans, and recommended for casual fans as well.

Check out my upcoming book for a full analysis exploring this film’s ideas, themes, good points, and bad

You can get the movie in this excellent release by the Criterion Collection.