Directed by Akira Kurosawa
The famous final 90 seconds of Kagemusha, the sweeping rifles-and-samurais saga that marked the start of Kurosawa's late career mini-comeback, are as astounding as you may have heard. The camera surveys, in quick snapshots, a ravaged battlefield in combat's aftermath: dazed soldiers, bathed in blood-red paint, stumble through the decimation while injured horses flail like fish out of water. It's an enormously scaled tragic finale — with a vague anti-war suggestion about where our leaders' arrogance leads, maybe? — that affirms Kurosawa's standing as an Old Master; and it's desperately needed proof to refute the messy 10,000 seconds that come before, which call into question the director's reputation. Kurosawa once famously remarked, "In all my films, there's three or maybe four minutes of real cinema." Though an obvious, self-deprecating exaggeration, the observation comes close to describing Kagemusha.
Some historians consider it a dress rehearsal for the agreed-upon masterpiece Ran, released five years later in 1985. (Kurosawa also felt this way, apparently.) The draft certainly is rough; inconsistent and conspicuously imperfect, the movie boasts a jumbled patchwork of stunning spectacle — featuring elaborate costuming and thousands of extras — and chatty stasis; that is, for every lovely small moment (servants chided while sweeping the gravel free of hoofprints before the warlord arrives) and lavish set piece (an impossibly colored Don Giovanni-esque nightmare) there is another slogging scene of inert conversation. Though Japanese, this ambitious historical evokes some of its American epic-failure forbears like The Great Escape or, more noticeably, The Bridge on the River Kwai. Like that three-hour, go-nowhere bore, Kurosawa's 160-minute herky-jerker is stuffed with stillborn scenes of strategy and exposition; at least he and cinematographers Takao Saitô and Shoji Ueda punctuate these drudgeries with a few gorgeous images, though: vast seas of colorfully armored soldiers; marching men filtering a rising sun, bathing in shadows the dust-cloud-covered foreground. But these artful moments are too few and far between.
Set in 16th Century Japan, in the midst of widespread civil war, Kagemusha concerns a low-class, to-be-crucified thief (the title character) whose remarkable resemblance to a prominent warlord, Shingen — naturally, as Tatsuya Nakadai plays both roles — saves him from the cross and lands him a job; first, it's as a Saddam-esque body triple (Shingen's brother, Nobukado, played by Tsutomu Yamazaki, is the double) and then, when the daimyo dies, as the warlord himself, for public appearances that perpetuate the appearance of strength to Shingen's enemies, even his own subjects. Kurosawa, with screenwriter Masato Ide, tells the story in three distinct acts, each with its own central theme. The first plays like subversive revisionism, exposing the Great Men of History — many of the characters are based on real figures — as frauds and impostors: petty, uncultured and insolent crooks. The second settles into a study of the logistics of impersonation: will the children, concubines and animals notice that the new Shingen lookalike is an impostor? But this section also serves as an exploration into the life of the actor — perhaps the artist, the reproducer, in general. "A double means something only when there is an original," Nobukado laments after his brother's passing.
Because of its epic scope, Kagemusha is thematically cluttered; among other ideas, something about sons resentful of living in their fathers' shadows is crammed in there, too. All manners of shadows, in fact, are explored in the film, whose title translates as something like "Shadow Warrior"; it transliterates as something more like "impostor," though, which brings us to Act III, in which the thief's fraud is exposed and he's exiled from the clan. After 1965's Red Beard, Kurosawa's output slowed from a movie a year to one every five. Following the box-office flop of 1970's Dodes'ka-den, the director attempted suicide, slitting his throat and wrists multiple times. (Conflicting reports cite anywhere from 12 to 30 slashes.) Though his fortunes were looking up five years later, when his Soviet co-production Dersu Uzala took the Best Foreign Film Oscar, it's still feasible to read the shadow warrior as a stand-in for the director. Some critics have interpreted the film as a meditation on the sweep of historical forces and their fate-shaping powers, but it also feels specific and deeply personal. Kagemusha the impostor, a pitiable man just trying to help and do his best, is Kurosawa the impostor, the suicidal commercial failure who couldn't even finish this film without the intervention of young and upcoming Hollywood royals George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who used their respective Star Wars and Jaws clout to convince Fox to shell out some dough when the production ran out of money. (They get executive producer credits in the "international version".) Those final 90 seconds, then, might be less a representation of the brutality of history and war than a wild expression of an aging director's messy failures. The horses in that ugly place lay down their bones: Kurosawa must wear his.
July 17-23 at BAM