A+ List: Ikiru; also a Blu-ray review

A bureaucrat, emotionally dead and cut-off from both his job and his family, discovers that he has only months to live. He has scarce time to make his empty life meaningful. He will find that meaning in Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece, Ikiru.

The name translates into English as To Live.

When I started this project of revisiting my all-time favorite films–my A+ list of personal classics–I thought I would quickly skip over Ikiru on the grounds that I discussed it previously in a Kurosawa Diary entry. But then Criterion announced the Blu-ray, just as Ikiru came up on the alphabetical list. Sometimes, the timing works.

For a film to make my A+ list, it must be the perfect embodiment of its genre or, better yet, stand beyond genre. It must be at least 20 years old (so I know that it’s stood the test of time), and I personally must of have known and loved the film for years–preferably decades.

Consider American films about dying of cancer. In The Bucket List, the main characters go skydiving, fly over the North Pole, and eat in a gourmet French restaurant. In Breaking Bad, the hero makes and deals drugs to pay for treatment and help his family. But in Kurasawa’s moral universe, the dying protagonist finds redemption by fighting city hall and getting a park built in a slum.

What’s more, Kurosawa found a unique and original way to structure the story that keeps it from getting preachy or maudlin.

Warning: What you’re about to read has mild spoilers. I don’t think they will ruin your first screening of Ikiru. But if you’re worried, skip down to the First Impression section below.

In what was probably the best role of his career, Takashi Shimura plays Watanabe, the city hall bureaucrat who almost accidentally discovers he has an advanced case of stomach cancer. He stops going to work. A widower, he discovers he can’t make any significant contact with his son and daughter-in-law, even though they live with him.

He tries wine, women, and song; they don’t help. He befriends a former co-worker–a young woman bursting with life. Their friendship is platonic, but his family assumes otherwise. He’s happy when he’s around her, but eventually she pushes him away.

Before his diagnosis, he led a department where everyone pretended to be busy but never did anything meaningful. Now he takes on a crusade: He will get the city to drain an germ-infested sump and replace it with a park.

And just when the story is about to become sentimental, Kurosawa jumps ahead five months and the narrator tells us that Watanabe is dead. (Ikiru uses narration sparingly, but brilliantly. This is the only drama I’ve ever seen where a voice-of-God narrator sounds sarcastic.) In the extended wake scene that follows, the hero’s family and co-workers piece together at least part of what he never told them.

After Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura was the most important actor in Kurosawa’s career. Primarily a character actor, Shimura rarely got starring roles. But he carries this picture beautifully, and you feel his presence even in the wake sequence, where you see him only in flashbacks.

For a film about death, Ikiru can be surprisingly lively. A jazz nightclub scene gives you a taste of Kurosawa’s love for American popular music. Jokes abound, many around the “rakish” hat he acquires in his night of partying.

Aside from the jazz, music plays some important roles here. Twice in the film, Shimura sings a touchingly sad song (Shimura acted in musicals before his Kurosawa years). And the story’s major turning point happens in a restaurant where young people in the background sing “Happy Birthday.”

Class differences play an important part in Ikiru. Look closely, and you’ll see a society where your birth defines your life in often cruel ways.

Few films are as perfect as Ikiru.

First Impression

The Ikiru Blu-ray comes in a standard Criterion case. The cover shows the famous still of Shimura sitting on a swing on a snowy night. Inside, along with the disc, is a printed foldout with two articles: Donald Richie’s “To Live” and Pico Iver’s “Ikiru Many Autumns Later.” The foldout also contains credits for the film and disc, and Criterion’s traditional “About the Transfer” page.

If you own Richie’s classic book, The Films of Akira Kurosawa, you already own the first article on the foldout.

When you inset the disc, the home screen shows a close-up of a very scared Takashi Shimura. There’s no sound. The menu follows Criterion design, with the options on the right.

The only language options are English subtitles–On (default) or Off.

As with all Criterion Blu-rays, when you insert the disc a second time, you’ll get an option to go back to where you left off. Selecting No will bring you to the home screen.

How It Looks

The 4K scan was taken from a fine-grain master positive–the original camera negative is either lost or destroyed. Criterion presents this scan in 1080p AVC.

For the most part, it looks excellent. Ikiru is not a pretty movie, but the details–stacks of papers, peeling wallpaper–play an important role in creating the atmosphere of post-war Tokyo and of useless bureaucracy.

Unfortunately, some of the source material was beyond repair (or beyond Criterion’s budget). Occasionally the image was marred by what appeared to be uneven exposure, with part of the screen bleached out..

How It Sounds

The uncompressed LPCM 1.0 24-bit, 24-bit mono soundtrack did its job. In some of the music scenes, you could hear the early 1950s technology struggling to capture the notes.

But I suspect this is how it sounded when Kurosawa signed off on the mix. I have no complaints.

And the Extras

The suppliments are identical to those on the 2003 two-disc DVD release.

  • Commentary by Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa.
    In a truly excellent commentary, Prince discusses Kurosawa’s techniques, his collaborators, and bits about post-war Japan that helps make this very universal story specifically Japanese.
  • A Message from Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies: 81 minutes, 1080i, but looks like SD. Produced by Kurosawa’s company only two years after his death, this overly-referential, feature-length documentary covers his movie-making techniques from writing to scoring. Much of it is shallow and dull. But occasionally, especially when Kurosawa is on screen talking, it’s interesting and informative.
  • Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create: 42 minutes, 1080i, but looks like SD. In 2002, Japanese television did a documentary series on Kurosawa’s films. This is the Ikira episode. It’s mostly antidotes from people who worked on the film, and for the most part it’s fascinating. Very much worth watching.
  • Trailer

Kurosawa has fun: My Blu-ray review of Hidden Fortress

In Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa used the samurai genre to examine the limits of human knowledge and objectivity. In Seven Samurai, he told an epic story of small-scale war and a feudal system in crisis. In Throne of Blood, he adapted Macbeth to meditate on fate. In The Hidden Fortress, he pretty much just had fun.

The first of three samurai action comedies he would make very close together, Hidden Fortress is easily his most entertaining movie. Some of his basic themes of humanism and charity sneak through, but this is really just a sit-back-and-enjoy popcorn movie. No surprise that it was a major influence on George Lucas’ first Star Wars flick.

Watching The Hidden Fortress again–this time on Blu-ray–I was struck by how conservatively it accepts the Japanese feudal class system–at least on the surface. The most high-ranking character in the story, Princess Yuki, is also the most noble in the positive sense of the word. She’s willing to sacrifice for others, shows tremendous courage and stamina, and can’t bear to see her people suffer.


By comparison, the two comic peasants who bring us into the film and through whom we see much of the story, are petty, greedy, untrustworthy, and usually stupid. The only other significant lower-class character–a peasant girl who comes in about half-way through the movie, is a good and trustworthy person. But she’s totally subservient to her betters. When wounded in a battle, she begs to be left behind because she’s not worth saving.

This is a far cry from the topsy-turvy class system of The Seven Samurai.

Or is it? Princess Yuki ‘s compassion comes off as an exception, not the rule for the ruling class. And she brings out compassion in others, shaming them into being less proper and more caring. This is especially true with the film’s main hero, a loyal general played by the greatest action star of them all, Toshiro Mifune. imageStrong, determined, and graceful as a big cat (and just as deadly), he holds the camera whenever he’s onscreen. He uses his wits more than his sword on this journey–smuggling the princess and a fortune in gold out of enemy territory. But when violence is called for, he’s in complete control. In one sequence he furiously gallops a horse at full speed, with both hands holding his sword aloft for action. In a theater with a good audience, that scene never fails to bring cheers.

Overall, The Hidden Fortress is more suspense than action. The main characters–growing from two to five over the course of the story–must sneak passed checkpoints, disappear into crowds, and go unnoticed by soldiers looking for them…as they contend with their own conflicting motives.

For more on The Hidden Fortress, see Kurosawa Diary, Part 15: The Hidden Fortress.

First Impression

imageCriterion packages The Hidden Fortress in the company’s standard-sized transparent plastic box, with an illustration of Princess Yuki on the cover.

Inside, on the left, you’ll find a small booklet, taken up mostly with an article by Catherine Russell called “Three Good Men and a Princess.” The booklet also includes a few paragraphs on the transfer, and other information on the Blu-ray release.

On the right side, a Blu-ray disc and DVD are stacked together. You have to remove the Blu-ray to get to the DVD. Within the limits of the format, they contain the same content.

How It Looks

The Hidden Fortress was the first of six consecutive films Kurosawa shot in Toho Studio’s Cinemascope clone, TohoScope. (These six were also his last black and white films.) Kurosawa and cinematographer Ichio Yamazeki were clearly having fun with the new, wide frame. They place the two arguing peasants on opposite sides of the screen. Or they line all four or five main characters together. They’re enjoying the new toy and binging us in for the fun.

But they’re also using it to tell the story and create location. the wide screen emphasizes the setting, and The Hidden Fortress used it to bring us the deserts, forests, and river crossings that make the story so compelling. Apparently, no one told them that shooting deep focus was impossible with the anamorphic scope lens, so they went ahead and did it over and over.


Criterion’s 2K transfer is very good, but not exceptional. Details are sharp and clear most of the time, but occasionally they’re soft. Contrast is acceptable.

How It Sounds

The Hidden Fortress was originally released in Perspecta Stereo–sometimes called Perspecta Sound because it wasn’t real stereo. It was a standard mono optical soundtrack with sub-audio cues that could turn each of the three front speakers on and off. In other words, you could have different sounds coming out of different speakers at different times, but not different sounds coming out of different speakers at the same time.

Most theatrical audiences, in Japan, the US, and elsewhere, have only heard it in mono.

This release contains both mono and restored Perspecta versions. On the Blu-ray, the mono version is presented in uncompressed PCM; the Perspecta in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. I listened to the opening credits music in both versions, and preferred the Perspecta, which sounded fuller and more impressive.

As near as I can tell, Kurosawa used the Perspecta’s fake stereo twice. In both cases, it was for an important sound effect off to the side.

Overall, the sound was very good for a Japanese film of this era.

And the Extras

  • Commentary by Stephen Prince: One of Prince’s best commentaries. He goes into depth about widescreen, Kurosawa’s use of short lenses as well as the long ones he’s associated with, the film’s influence on not only George Lucas but also Sergio Leone, John Ford’s influence on the film, and the themes and moral view of what’s clearly Kurosawa’s least moralistic movie. This is a new commentary recorded in 2013.
  • Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create: 40 minutes. Just about every Criterion Kurosawa release has the appropriate episode from this 2003 Japanese documentary mini-series. This episode has little about the story and the use of widescreen. But it has some amusing stories about horses.
  • George Lucas on Akira Kurosawa: 8 minutes. The creator of Star Wars, who turned the two comic peasants of The Hidden Fortress into C3PO and R2D2, talks about how he discovered Kurosawa in college, his use of the camera, and, of course, the influence on his work. From the earlier DVD release.
  • Trailer

The Hidden Fortress Blu-ray goes on sale today.

Kurosawa Diary, Part 30: Madadayo

And so I come to Akira Kurosawa’s last film, made five years before he died. When I watched Madadayo last night at the Pacific Film Archive, I completed my journey through all of Kurosawa’s works in (mostly) chronological order. That same screening also ended the PFA’s own, non-chronological retrospective of the same 30 films.

Madadayo never received a regular theatrical release in the United States. I saw it on DVD about 10 years ago. Last night was my second viewing of it, and my first theatrically.

A few days ago, I described Kurosawa’s penultimate film, Rhapsody in August, as “pleasant.” But compared to its successor, it’s more like King Lear (or Ran). Madadayo is so relentlessly  upbeat it seldom rises above the banal. The story (and that’s way too strong a word to describe what unfolds onscreen) concerns a beloved professor who retires early to pursue a writing career. He turns 60 not long after his retirement in 1943, and the movie ends on his 77th birthday. Despite being bombed out of his home, his life between these events are extraordinarily uneventful.

Much of the film involves social calls from former students, especially four madadayo particularly close ones who appear to devote their lives to their old professor’s happiness (his wife is equally devoted). They organize annual banquets in his honor. They buy undeveloped land adjoining his house to make sure that nothing blocks the sunlight. They take time off work to help him find his cat.

Yes, Madadayo is so bereft of conflict that it devotes a full half hour to a search for a missing cat. Everyone–local schoolchildren, shop owners, the cop on the beat—get involved with the search. After all, what could be more important than finding this old couple’s cat? And the whole cat sequence ends on an anti-climax.

When they aren’t looking for missing cats, the former students enjoy their old professor’s witty comments and his clever/cute ways of discouraging miscreants. These often are witty and clever, but they never justify the oversized belly laughs of the characters onscreen. Kurosawa seems obliged to tell the audience “This is really, really funny” when something is, in fact, only mildly amusing.

It’s easy to view Madadayo as being indirectly autobiographical. Kurosawa was an old artist, beloved by much of the world, when he made this movie about an old professor, beloved by his former students. (The film is based on the memoirs of professor-turned-author Hyakken Uchida.) The protagonist is a ripe 77 when the movie ends; this was the third film Kurosawa completed after turning that age.

One wants a great artistic career to end with a masterpiece, but they seldom do. Akira Kurosawa made an astonishing number of masterpieces and near-masterpieces in his 50 years of filmmaking. But he ended his career with a movie as bland as unseasoned white rice.

Kurosawa Diary, Part 29: Rhapsody in August

Little actually happens in Akira Kurosawa’s 29th and penultimate film, Rhapsody in August, and nothing really bad. Something horrendous happened 45 years earlier (the atom bombing of Nagasaki), but that’s ancient history. It’s time for Japan and America to forgive and, if not forget, then to honor the memory together. Six years after the devastatingly pessimistic Ran, Kurosawa made an optimistic movie that can best be described as “pleasant.”

I first saw Rhapsody during it’s American first run. I saw it for the second time last night at the Pacific Film Archive. Yes, this was another screening in the PFA’s Akira Kurosawa Centennial series, and part of my personal project of watching all of his films in chronological order.

Rhapsody came out in 1991. That’s significant because his previous film, Dreams, came out in 1990. The last time Kurosawa released new films in consecutive years (a once common occurrence)  had been Sanjuro and High and Low in 1962/63.

Perhaps he got this one done quickly because his modest intentions made it easier to finance and shoot the picture. It’s a chamber piece, set in the present day, with a small cast and few settings. The photography—so beautiful in his last four films—here seldom rises above functional. The picture runs only 98 minutes—extremely short for Kurosawa.

But modest intentions bring modest results. Rhapsody in August is a fine motion rhapsodyaugust picture that does everything Kurosawa probably wanted it to do. It makes its points about familial love, healing, forgiveness, and the horrors of war without ever feeling didactic. Watching it is a sweet and enjoyable experience. But no one should mistake it for a masterpiece.

The story focuses on four teenagers—all siblings and first cousins—spending the summer with their grandmother in her rural home near Nagasaki. Long ago, her husband (the kids’ grandfather) had been incinerated in the blast. The kids’ parents are in Hawaii, visiting a uncle who immigrated long ago, made a fortune in the pineapple business, married a Caucasian, and became an American.

The first half simply observes the teenagers and their loving-but-teasing relationships with each other and their grandmother. It includes a tour of important Nagasaki sites—a way to introduce us to a modern city with memorials to one horrific event within living memory.

In the second half, the parents return, bringing generational conflict with them. Their interest in long-lost relatives are mercenary—they hope the connection will lead to better jobs. And they’re terrified of offending their American cousins with any reminder of the war and especially the atom bomb. These attitudes offend both the teenagers and the grandmother.

The parents come as close to villains as does anyone in Rhapsody, which means they’re not villains, at all. They learn from and apologize for their mistakes. One thing I noticed on this second viewing: The parents are dressed in formal business attire when we meet them. They dress more casually as the story progresses, until they end up in tee-shirts and jeans like their kids.

Near the end, the Hawaiian uncle’s half-white son turns up for a visit. He’s played by Richard Gere—the only time Kurosawa ever used an American movie star (if you don’t count Martin Scorsese in Dreams). The make-up department did little or nothing to make Gere look half-Japanese. I think I noticed the slightest alternation in the shape of his eyes. But even in close-ups, and with me in the second row, I can’t be certain. He certainly looked whiter than any of the half-white/half-Asian people I’ve known.

His character, of course, is a very nice guy. Everyone in this movie is very nice.

In his classic period, Kurosawa showed us a world full of cruelty and indifference, and celebrated those who fought it with kindness and charity. In later works, especially Ran, the world is just as bad, but kindness and charity no longer help. But in Rhapsody, bad things happened long ago, but kindness and charity are bringing us together.

Maybe he was getting optimistic in his old age. Or maybe just senile. But at the age of 81, he could still make a good movie.

Kurosawa Diary, Part 28: Dreams

Warner Brothers called this film Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams when they released it in 1990. The name is appropriate, and not only because Kurosawa wrote and directed the film. The eight vignettes that make up his only anthology feature are, allegedly, based on Kurosawa’s own dreams.

I was recovering from a herniated disc, and under doctor’s orders to avoid sitting, throughout Dreams’ short theatrical run in 1990. I therefore first saw it on Laserdisc, soon after its video release. I watched it for the second time, on a rented DVD, last night as part of my project to watch all of Kurosawa’s films in the order they were made. I’ve never seen it theatrically.

Anthology films—features that lack a narrative drive and tell multiple stories one after the other—usually suffer from inconsistencies. Some sections may be good, and some bad. In Dreams, however, the bad far outweigh the good. I mean that in two ways: It contains more bad sequences than good ones, and while the worst parts are truly wretched, the best are merely pretty good.

It starts with a pretty good one, “Sunshine Through the Rain,” about a boy who sneaks into the woods and watches a fox wedding—something forbidden to humans. Hedreams then must face the consequences. But the story cuts off way too soon, like a movie with the last two reels missing. The best sequence, “Mount Fuji in Red,” starts like a Godzilla movie, with terrified crowds fleeing special effects. A nuclear power plant has exploded, and all of Japan will soon die of radiation poisoning. A businessman, a mother clinging to her child, and the young-man Kurosawa alter ego who’s basically the film’s star discuss what to do as death approaches.

The remaining six stories range from the agonizingly boring to the annoyingly preachy to the unintentionally funny. Leading that last category is “Crows.” The sight and sound of Martin Scorsese as Vincent Van Gogh, complete with red wig and beard, but speaking English in his own New York accent, deserves the Mystery Science Theater treatment.

I said earlier that these films are “allegedly” based on Kurosawa’s dreams. Dreams can be a lot of things, but they’re seldom preachy. Most of the stories here are didactic little message pictures that tell you exactly what you should think and feel about the subject at hand. With one exception (the anti-war “The Tunnel”), they all examine humanity’s relationship with nature. That’s an important subject, but preaching doesn’t help.

This was the first film since The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail that Kurosawa wrote and directed all by himself. He was one of several screenwriters on each of the 23 films made in-between, which include all of his masterpieces. Maybe he needed other people’s contributions at that early stage to avoid his worst excesses.

One thing Dreams has going for it: Like the three films that preceded it, it’s visually beautiful. Takao Saitô’s and Shôji Ueda’s photography, much of it of an enhanced version of the natural world, is just stunning to look at. And it’s complimented by Industrial Light and Magic’s special effects, done at the height of that company’s pre-digital golden age.

But all that beauty is at the service of an uneven, preachy film.

Kurosawa Diary, Part 27: Ran

I doubt anyone else ever made a movie as sad, as tragic, as despairing of the human condition, and yet so beautiful as Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. To give yourself over to it is to experience, in your gut, that many people are capable of unspeakable evil, that these people tend to come out on top, and that while these people inevitably pay the price for their ambitions, so do countless innocents. And kindness and charity—those all-important themes from Kurosawa’s classic period—are futile.

I first saw Ran when it opened in Bay Area theaters in 1985 or 86. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it, since. I own the DVD. Yet when I watched a beautiful new print at the Pacific Film Archive last night (part of its mammoth Akira Kurosawa Centennial series), I felt like I was watching it for the first time. I attending the screening, of course, as part of my project to see all of Kurosawa’s films in the order he made them.

Like it’s predecessor, Kagemusha, Ran is a big, expensive, visually stunning epic, filled with pageantry, action (considerably more than Kagemusha), gruesome violence, and some of the most beautiful images ever caught on film. But unlike ramKagemusha, Ran makes you care about the people in its story—even the ones (and there are plenty) guilty of horrific crimes.

Kurosawa based Ran loosely on King Lear—easily Shakespeare’s saddest play. An aging warlord (Tatsuya Nakadai) attempts to retire, intending to divide his domains amongst his three sons. But when the younger son gives him good advice instead of flattery, the old man disinherits him. The results are disastrous. (The word Ran loosely translates into English as chaos.)

Although Kurosawa changed the heirs’ genders, he echos Lear’s daughters in the warlord’s daughters-in-law. His eldest son’s wife is as evil as Goneril and Regan put together (with Lady Macbeth thrown in), and makes for one of the greatest villainesses ever. The middle son’s wife, a religious Buddhist, is as loving and forgiving as Cordelia, despite having considerably more to forgive. Both wives come from families that were slaughtered by the now-retiring warlord back when he wasn’t looking for retirement, but for ways to conquer and massacre  his neighbors.

Here Kurosawa truly transcends Shakespeare. We’re told nothing about how Lear ruled Britain; his tragic flaw is simply an old man’s weakness for flattery. But Nakadai’s warlord has a history of aggression and deceit so cruel that even the evil daughter-in-law’s actions seem understandable if not justified. Before the film is over, the Lear character will come face-to-face with his horrible past in a devastating realization.

Midway through Ran, Kurosawa gives us one of the biggest, most powerful battle scenes ever filmed. Massive in scale and shocking in its brutality, it is neither fun, suspenseful, nor exciting. But its images–including one of a soldier, in shock, holding his severed arm with the one still attached to his body–are not easy to forget.

Kurosawa’s humanism, which disappeared in Kagemusha, comes back full-force with Ran. But it’s the humanism of despair. People suffer, and whether they deserve it or not, we must share their pain and extend our empathy. But nothing—nothing at all—can relieve that suffering.

Akira Kurosawa in 75 years old when Ran opened. It was only his fourth film in 20 years. One can’t help wondering if the experience of those years—rejection from the Japanese film industry he’d once conquered, spending more time trying to raise money and less making films—effected his world view. Like Lear, he’d lost what he had once ruled.

Ran was his last epic, his last big-budget film, and his last samurai movie set in pre-modern Japan. In my opinion, and in many others’, it was also his last masterpiece. He would make three other films, but they would be modest works in budget, ambition, and quality.

Note: This post was corrected on 9/7/10. My thanks to Art Rothstein for pointing out that I had misspelled Kagemusha.

Kurosawa Diary, Part 26: Kagemusha

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 kagamushaalmost 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.