When I started my project of watching every Kurosawa film in the order they were made, the first question I asked myself was “Even Kagemusha?” It wasn’t that his big Coppola-and-Lucas spectacle was his worst film (it isn’t). But unlike the other bad ones I’d seen, I had revisited this one on DVD—seeing the full cut for the first time—only a few years ago. The boredom remained in my memory.
Like most young men in the spring of 1980, I eagerly awaited the release of The Empire Strikes Back. But I awaited the release of Kagemusha even more. Empire didn’t disappoint, but Kagemusha did. I caught it at a revival screening a couple of years later to see if I had missed something. I hadn’t. More than 20 years later, I rented the Criterion DVD, hoping that Kurosawa’s full cut of the film would improve it. (The original American release had about 20 minutes cut out.) It didn’t. I watched it again last night, on a rented Blu-ray disc. I still don’t like it.
So what’s the problem with this film? After all, it’s visually gorgeous, filled with one beautiful image after another. It’s a vast historical epic (a favorite genre of mine) dramatizing a major turning point in Japanese history. Its story of a common thief masquerading as a great warlord, at the bidding of the deceased warlord’s family, offers plenty of opportunity for Kurosawa’s sense of tragedy, comedy, and humanism.
But , Kagemusha is dead at its core. Kurosawa’s great humanism has disappeared almost entirely, replaced instead with pageantry and spectacle. Yes, Throne of Blood has a similar flaw, but nowhere near to this degree. And the earlier film’s fast pace, dynamic action, and strong underlying story hold it together. Not this time. Kagemusha is Kurosawa’s first really bad film since The Idiot, made 29 years beforehand. And even his weakest films from those 29 years (including Throne of Blood) had been very, very good.
Kurosawa focused on the wrong part of Kagemusha’s story. Instead of staying with this commoner forced to behave like a king, he keeps his camera on the real aristocrats—high-borne members of the warlord’s family, plus those leading the clans at war with his. He gives us three groups of cruelly ambitious men with massive entitlement issues, and we’re supposed to care about which side wins?
This is easily Kurosawa’s most conservative post-war film (during the war he had contend with fascist censors). The clan leaders can kill as many innocent people as they like because that is their right. Commoners are there to serve. The film’s point-of-view never questions or criticizes these assumptions.
Which brings us to the thief. In the first scene, he expresses a very reasonable view—that his crimes pale compared to those of the warlord. But later, after he has been set free, he comes back on his own to serve his dead lord. Where did that loyalty come from? Nothing has indicated that as part of his character. Nor can it be called story convenience; the nobles could easily have forced his cooperation. It appears to come only from Kurosawa’s celebration—in this film only—of respect for manor-borne authority figures.
Much has been said about the casting of the lead role. Kurosawa originally cast Shintaro Katsu, best known as the original Zatoichi, but fired him on the first day of shooting. Tatsuya Nakadai was a last-minute replacement in the dual role of the warlord and the thief. Perhaps Katsu, or Toshiro Mifune, would have been a better choice than Nakadai—a talented actor but one with little warmth or humor.
But another lead would not have saved Kagemusha. Kurosawa made a three-hour film fixated on military pageantry and aristocrat worship. Somehow, he left out most of the humanity.
Three other points of interest:
With all of his samurai films, this was the second (after The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail) and last to deal with major, Japanese historical figures. The three warring lords at the center of Kagemusha really existed, and in the late 16th century really fought for control of the splintered country. The eventual victor, Ieyasu Tokugawa, would create a dynasty that ruled Japan for nearly three centures.
This was Kurosawa’s first film financed and released (outside of Japan) by a major American studio [correction made 8/25; I originally said only rather than first]. 20th Century Fox took on this responsibility because George Lucas and Francis Coppola agreed to put their names on it as executive producers. The discussion that led to this deal started at a 1978 party put together by the Pacific Film Archive. I was volunteering that summer at the PFA, and I wrote the press release announcing the agreement.
My favorite regular Kurosawa actor, Takashi Shimura, turns up in a brief part. It was his first appearance in a Kurosawa film since Red Beard, 15 years earlier. (Of course, Kurosawa only made two other films in those 15 years, and one wasn’t Japanese.) Thye actor didn’t live long enough to appear in Kurosawa’s next film, Ran.
Note: This post was corrected on 9/7/10. My thanks to Art Rothstein for pointing out that I had misspelled Kagemusha.