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AK Online Film Club #14: Kagemusha

Kagemusha (Polish poster)Welcome to the 14th edition of our very own social experiment dubbed the Akira Kurosawa Online Film Club! For us, fourteen is an excellent number indeed, for it signifies the arrival of Kurosawa’s 1980 opus Kagemusha for discussion.

Written at a time when Kurosawa hadn’t had a major Japanese studio behind him for almost 15 years, Kagemusha ended up marking something of a career rebirth for the director. And this is, famously, thanks to quite a surprising chain of events.

When Kurosawa first presented to Toho his plans for Kagemusha, which he at the time considered the most bankable of his three current projects (the other two being Ran and Masque of the Red Death), the company decided to pass, stating that Kurosawa’s estimated budget of $5.5 million (equivalent to around $18 million in 2009 if adjusted to inflation) was more than the company could give at a time when the Japanese film industry was struggling, and an average Japanese film cost one million US dollars to make.

Enter George Lucas, stage left, who had just a year earlier sculpted 121 minutes worth of solid marketing gold and decided to call it Star Wars. When Lucas, who has made no secret of the degree to which Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress influenced his space opera, learned about the situation, he called Alan Ladd Jr. (future producer of Blade Runner, among other things) who at that point worked at 20th Century Fox. Lucas then used his newly acquired influence over Ladd and Fox to bring the Hollywood studio to the table, suggesting that Fox co-finance Kagemusha in exchange for the foreign rights. Lucas, who in film circles is at least equally well known for his business skills as for his film making, played his cards extremely well there. He knew that Fox would have difficulties saying no to a man who had just given them one of the most successful films of all time and promised at least two more. He also knew that if Fox displayed interest in the film, Toho would find it harder to refuse to finance it. And Lucas was absolutely right.

Toho ultimately ended up spending around $6 million on the project. Luckily for everyone involved, the film proved a big hit, and made double that much in Japan alone. Although Kurosawa would release only one more film in the 1980s, Kagemusha opened new doors and investor models for him, and the next two Kurosawa films would both be at least partly financed by foreign investors.

Another famous piece of trivia about Kagemusha has to do with the lengths to which Kurosawa went in preparing for the shoot. Due to the mentioned difficulties in finding financing, and thinking that he would never be able to film the story, he had started drawing the script, directing it over and over again in his head. By the time Lucas had intervened and Kurosawa suddenly found himself on the director’s chair, the director knew exactly what he wanted, and had a huge number of drawings to illustrate it with. Even with the production being marred by numerous setbacks and changes, including the departures of both the film’s original star and composer, the extreme preparation is quite noticeable on screen, some have even suggested distractingly so.

As always, you can find more background information for Kagemusha and other films from the Kurosawa bibliography. As for the film itself, the Criterion edition is once again the best choice available, at least for the English speaking world. Do note that it is also the only English version of the film with the original Japanese running time of 179 minutes. The other versions are all 17 minutes shorter (the so-called “international cut”, also by Kurosawa), and lack among other things Takashi Shimura’s last appearance in a Kurosawa movie.

And now that we have got the clichés out of the way, the floor is yours. What is your take on Kagemusha? Too much red? Over-acting from Nakadai and some of the extras? Beautifully haunting music? A fascinating discourse on subjectivity, horrors of aggression and the paradoxes of identity? Kurosawa’s ultimate statement of pessimism and bitterness? More entertaining than contemplative? An educational masterpiece? A dress rehearsal for Ran?

Head over to the forums, and let us know!


Discussion

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Jeremy Quintanilla

For those that don’t have this movie in the USA, the TCM channel will be running this on June 11th. I do believe it’s the Criterion release that will be shown.

One of my favorite Kurosawa, I hope to end my absence in the film club with this movie.

And on a side note:
While American films started to explore in a limit fashion the new Japan around the late 1970’s in a more positive light, outside the still prevalent in America, militarist WWII Japan perception. It had little effect in Japan itself, or to the average American. However when the relation of America and Japan on Kagamusha was successful, and later a continuation of American funded Japanese films. The Japanese found it wise to consider investing in American films, largely ones that couldn’t find American funding, most in part due to showing the Japanese in a positive image. (Not to say American studios didn’t want to show Japan as good, they simply thought America didn’t care about the Japanese-which was true in many respects.) So towards the early 1980’s to the mid 1990’s you start to see a abundance of American films featuring Japanese and Japan funded by Japanese. None of this film were of major importance, but collectively it is however arguable, this help change mass American ideals towards the Japanese. The largest of which was the perception that buying Japanese wasn’t going to support the “enemy”. All this helping stabilize the Japanese boom in the late 70’s to late 90’s, to which of course allowed Japan to become the 2nd largest economy, and very close ally to America.

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cocoskyavitch

Jeremy, I will be on the road for the rest of the summer, so this is my last opportunity to read your contributions for a couple of months. I am so happy that you will be on hand for Kagemusha-it is also one of my favorites!

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Vili Maunula

Thanks for that piece of political and economical history, Jeremy! I had no idea about these things.

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NoelCT

I wrote a review of it here if anyone’s interested. For the most part, I thought it was a damn good film. Nakadai (who I didn’t care for much in RAN) was great. The bold, violent color schemes were striking. The story as rich and complex as classic Kurosawa, though it was just a tiny bit looser, which I attribute to the absence of his frequent co-writers.

My only main problems were 1) the so-so score, though the trumpet solo is haunting and very reminiscent of Enni Morricone, and 2) the way he abandoned closeups gave the material a distance that I felt robbed the story of intimacy and kept me from getting pulled in.

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Ryan

Kagemusha is one Kurosawa film I’ve been putting off; not just because of its runtime but because of its similarity to Ran in terms of aesthetic, style and setting. I never did like Ran; I found it an utter bore and unengaging from start to finish. However, I will certainly get around to seeing Kagemusha, and this film club will probably push me to see it sooner than I was expecting.

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Jeremy Quintanilla

I guess you committed me now Coco-way too much pressure! 😯

I found Kagemusha and Ran fantastic, but I can see how someone doesn’t find it appealing. Often the risk of movies that depict a large scale, is that the audience can never find a specfic attachment point. And as the movie grows long, and the audience still unable to find their intimacy like that of smaller films, they simply start to disconnect from the film.
If you think of the popular large scale movies, large scale referring to lots of people and events going on. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings for example, while large they have very obvious and select few characters that a pushed on the audience to that similar of the smaller scale movie. The audience is really part of a small bit, but the character operate in a large world, still while never disconnect from the closeness to the audience. With Kagemusha, and Ran, there is no character for the audience to be a part of, we instead are thrown into a epic unfolding of many events and characters. It can very hard to pull off, or offer the audience an attachment point.

To me Kurosawa got it right, but not everyone is me-however unfortunate that may be for the risk of you. 😉 😛

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Vili Maunula

Also I can fully understand how someone might not enjoy either Ran or Kagemusha.

You may remember my earlier anecdote about Ran. My first contact with the film, from a poor quality VHS tape, turned into a 12 hour Ran marathon where I watched the film three times in a row. I was absolutely mesmerized by it, and to date it remains one of my favourite Kurosawa films — definitely my favourite post-Red Beard.

It was not much later that I had the opportunity to watch Kagemusha. My reaction to it was quite different. To be honest, I didn’t really like it at all — I found it empty, cold, clever but not really all that wise. It seemed technically too calculative and sterile, while the human aspect was something of a mess. The only thing that I really liked was the score, even if I felt that it didn’t quite fit the film. I still absolutely love the score — it’s the Kurosawa soundtrack that I play most in my stereos.

After the negative first contact, I have begun to warm up to the movie on subsequent viewings. I haven’t seen it as often as some other Kurosawa films — maybe half a dozen times or so — but it keeps getting better on each viewing. It’s been a while since I last saw the film, so I am quite looking forward to discovering it again this month.

So, the moral of the story is: I’m a stubborn and whimsical individual who tends to have difficulties accepting new things. But I can change. Maybe one day, I’ll be a Jeremy.

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NoelCT

Yeah, these definitely seem to be the films that divide people.

While I think RAN had a stronger script and a much more colorful supporting cast, I think the reason I slightly prefer KAGEMUSHA is the lead character. My biggest problem with RAN (as with THRONE OF BLOOD) is that Kurosawa had the lead, in this case Nakadai, adopt a much more formal Noh style of acting. It’s not a bad idea, but when the performances surrounding him are much more grounded and naturalistic, it feels out of place for me and makes it much harder for me to relate to him as a person. With KAGEMUSHA, Nakadai’s character was much more naturalistic, so I was thus better able to relate to him and his circumstances.

EDIT: I think my perspective may also come from the fact that I watched all of Kurosawa’s films (all but 2 for the first time) in the order of their release.

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Jeremy Quintanilla

Vili: Maybe one day, I’ll be a Jeremy.

But you’ll risk spelling “risk” instead of “rest”.

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cocoskyavitch

Noel-I read your review of Kagemusha -nicely done!

I’m really a very big fan of both Kagemusha and Ran, and though I had read about Kagemusha before viewing, and read about how distancing and misanthropic Kuroswa’s late works were, I have come to a place where the story and images are quite intimate to me, and not cold at all.

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lawless

I’ll have to try to catch Kagemusha on TMC as my Netflix subscription has expired. I’ve never seen Kagemusha but saw Ran in its original run. I was blown away by it when I saw it, especially the effective use of color in denoting which army was which, but afterwards its much more cynical and nihilistic view of life than my favorite Kurosawa film (favorite film ever, actually, for those keeping track), Seven Samurai, left a bit of a bitter taste. I still think it’s an engaging, thought-provoking, and well-directed and acted film, but it’s being a bit of a downer is probably one reason I haven’t seen it again.

By the way, NoelCT, my recollection this many years out is not of Nakadai/Lear/whatever his character’s name is in the movie being all Noh and stylized and sticking out but of the actor who played the fool (Peter – was that the actor’s name or the character’s?) being a bit Noh-ish. But then again that worked for that character. I thought the fool was played brilliantly. Perhaps any stylization by Nakadai sailed right over my head because the Lear character goes quite gloriously mad.

I wouldn’t mention it except Ran always gets mentioned in a discussion of Kagemusha, it seems. I look forward to seeing this month’s movie – the plot actually strikes me as more interesting, more human, and more apt to pull one in than the plot of Ran.

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NoelCT

Vili: I’m really a very big fan of both Kagemusha and Ran, and though I had read about Kagemusha before viewing, and read about how distancing and misanthropic Kuroswa’s late works were, I have come to a place where the story and images are quite intimate to me, and not cold at all.

I find that claim to be a bit exaggerated, as well, but I just felt there was a certain something missing in KAGEMUSHA, as though his fascination with telephoto lenses kept pulling him back further and further from the scene. I think it’s an extreme he overcame, though, because he comes in a bit closer in RAN and finds a nice balance in his last three.

Just to clarify, that review (I’ve actually reviewed all of his films except SANSHIRO SUGATA 2 on my blog) is a gut reaction from my initial viewing. Only time will tell how my views will change as I see them again over the years.

lawless: By the way, NoelCT, my recollection this many years out is not of Nakadai/Lear/whatever his character’s name is in the movie being all Noh and stylized and sticking out but of the actor who played the fool (Peter – was that the actor’s name or the character’s?) being a bit Noh-ish. But then again that worked for that character. I thought the fool was played brilliantly. Perhaps any stylization by Nakadai sailed right over my head because the Lear character goes quite gloriously mad.

The Fool as played by Peter is actually one of my favorite characters from a Kurosawa film. The only real Noh bits I saw were when he performed for the court. When he slipped out of his job, particularly in the last half of the film, you got to see the real person beneath. Nakadai was hard to warm up to because his heavily made-up face was always fixed in these mask-like expressions. I just couldn’t help but find it false.

lawless: I wouldn’t mention it except Ran always gets mentioned in a discussion of Kagemusha, it seems. I look forward to seeing this month’s movie – the plot actually strikes me as more interesting, more human, and more apt to pull one in than the plot of Ran.

Yeah, the two seem destined to be eternally linked. Kurosawa himself joked that KAGEMUSHA was a test-run for RAN, so it’s hard to think of one without considering the other.

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Ryan

So I saw this a few days ago (the full cut; not the international release) and I was surprised at how engrossed I was. As I’ve previously stated, not only did I dislike Ran, I absolutely couldn’t stand it; it bored me to tears and felt distant. I also didn’t like the overacting (which I understand is intentional; taking from Noh plays), the pacing, the plot itself and the general look of it, especially the bright, lavish clothing of the characters; it felt like something out of a children’s book. The only thing I did like was the cinematography.

As for Kagemusha, I don’t consider it a dress rehearsal for Ran at all as I find it to be a far superior film. The plot was engaging and interesting and the theme of illusion vs. reality has never come off so clearly in a Kurosawa picture. I’m also one of the few that enjoyed Tatsuya Nakadai as the main character and didn’t find him to be overacting at all; including at the end whereby he’s a destroyed man; I don’t think that part can be overacted. The cinematography was, as is typical in a Kurosawa picture, exceptional.

However, I did have some problems with Kagemusha. One that comes to mind is the final battle sequence whereby the camera shows all the dead bodies and dead horses. This scene went on for far too long. This, in turn, made it less memorable than it could have been were it minutes shorter. I also found the music to be very “Hollywood” if you know what I mean. It seemed very Western and movie-like. I also didn’t like the lack of close-ups; I think Kagemusha is a film that would have benefited had we, the audience, had close-ups of the main characters, especially Tatsuya Nakadai, in so that we can relate to them more. As Kagemusha is about illusion vs. reality, and the search for identity, it is something we can all relate to in some way or another, and so the focus on long shots detracted from any identification and subsequent empathy from being felt. The fake bright lighting during the battle sequences was also a deterrent; again pulling us away from feeling empathy as the realism from the picture seems to have been removed in favour of dream-like aesthetics. Unlike in Throne of Blood where we are treated as a theatrical audience who laughs at the displeasure of these despicable human beings, our views enforced by such distant and stagey camera angles, this does not work nearly as well in Kagemusha. If Kagemusha had been made into a comedy as it was originally intended, then I believe this would have worked to great effect, as again, like Throne of Blood, we would be spectators laughing at foolish human behaviour.

Nevertheless, and perhaps this is hypocritical of me due to what I have stated previously, I actually liked most of the aesthetics of the film, including the dream scene that Tatsuya Nakadai has. Yes, it’s irrelevant to the film, but the colour palette and slow motion somehow appealed to me. I also found the pacing, on the whole, to be gradual and effective, especially for a film of its runtime; essentially an epic. The screenplay itself is perhaps the most genius part of Kagemusha and it is primarily for that reason that, should it be compared to Ran, it should be compared most favourably.

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