This month our AK film club will be taking a look at Akira Kurosawa’s 1980 film Kagemusha (影武者).
It is funny how some things turn out. In the mid-1960s, Kurosawa was at the height of his powers and on his way to make it big in Hollywood, only for his entire career to be derailed by two failed attempts at working with American producers. The failures of Runaway Train and Tora! Tora! Tora!, neither of which project Kurosawa was able to finish, damaged Kurosawa enormously, earning him a reputation of being difficult, expensive, wasteful, unreliable and, some argued, downright insane.
Many bridges had been burnt and the 1970s passed with Kurosawa managing to put out only two films, an output incredibly small for a director who, for over twenty years before his Hollywood misadventure, had averaged more than one film per year. Of these, Dodesukaden was independently self-financed and Dersu Uzala entirely made in the Soviet Union.
And it was not like Kurosawa didn’t want to work anymore. He continued to work on screenplays, and once it started to look like they would never be turned into feature films, he began to paint and draw detailed storyboards in order to leave at least some kind of a visual legacy of what his intensions were with the stories. But there simply was no money to be found to take them further. The Japanese film industry was struggling and production scales typical for Kurosawa were out of the question, even for a director who didn’t have Kurosawa’s reputation. And foreign investors definitely still remembered the failed Hollywood productions.
Yet, Kurosawa had not been as absent from silver screens as his output would indicate. His influence on younger filmmakers continued to grow, and the filmgoers of the 1970s witnessed the emergence of a group of American directors who had been paying especially close attention to Kurosawa’s work. These filmmakers had names like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas.
Of these, it was Lucas who had been most visibly enamoured with Kurosawa. So much so that when his enormously successful space opera Star Wars opened in 1977, the more observant audience members could see a number of thematic, stylistic and plot connections with Kurosawa’s work, and especially his 1958 film The Hidden Fortress. The Kurosawa was strong with that one.
Lucas himself was keen to meet his idol, and when he did so he was amazed to hear about Kurosawa’s problems securing financing for new projects. In 1977, Star Wars had amassed almost $200 million in the US box office alone, and the 34-year-old Lucas was looking at a $30 million budget for his planned sequel. And here was a true legend of cinema still keen to create, but unable to do so only because no one was willing to give him a couple of million. This would not do.
Of his planned films, Kurosawa had been working especially hard on three projects. One was a Shakespearean story set in medieval Japan (later filmed as Ran), another a project based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death (which remains unfilmed), and the third an original screenplay titled Kagemusha. All three were period films as Kurosawa saw it impossible to find funding for stories depicting contemporary Japan in the manner that he had done earlier in his career in films such as Stray Dog, Ikiru, Record of a Living Being and High and Low.
Of the three projects, it was the Kagemusha (“shadow warrior”) script that Kurosawa considered the most commercially viable, and he had already been in talks about it with his old film studio Toho. The story certainly seemed interesting: very loosely based on historical characters and events from 16th century Japan, the epic film follows the story of a low-class criminal who, due to his uncanny resemblance of a dying old warlord, is taught to impersonate this noble in order to maintain the illusion of the warlord’s leadership of the clan and to keep both internal and external threats away for as long as possible. The story is a tragedy which ultimately ends in the destruction of the entire clan, and Kurosawa intended it to have contemporary relevance, noting that one of his motivations was to educate the Japanese youth about their historical past. Yet, although Toho had initially showed interest, they had in the end decided to pass due to the film’s estimated budget of $5.5 million, more than five times the cost of an average Japanese film at the time, or the equivalent of about $20 million 2014.
George Lucas, however, was in a position very different from Kurosawa’s. Thanks to some smart business moves, Lucas owned the rights to the Star Wars franchise, effectively giving him unprecedented negotiating power over film studios keen to distribute the film’s sequel. Following a meeting in July 1978 between Kurosawa and Lucas, it was decided that Lucas would help to secure funding for Kagemusha.
Lucas’s battle plan was elegant in its directness. 20th Century Fox, with whom Kurosawa had had his major falling out during the production of Tora! Tora! Tora!, was also the film studio responsible for distributing the first Star Wars film, and as such was also looking to work on the sequel. Together with Alan Ladd Jr (later founder of The Ladd Company) at Fox, Lucas negotiated a deal whereby Fox would co-finance Kagemusha in exchange for the foreign rights. Fox most probably saw it as an investment on Star Wars, more than anything else. Lucas was also able to attach Francis Ford Coppola to the production, and this calibre of foreign backing was enough to bring Toho back to the project. The Japanese company ultimately ended up spending around $6 million on the film, whose total cost climbed to around $10 million, or about twice the original estimate.
And so, in summer 1979, Kurosawa was back behind the camera, thanks to the same film studio that a decade earlier had fired him from set of Tora! Tora! Tora! and suggested that the director suffered from mental instability, which in no small part contributed to Kurosawa’s difficulties in financing his films for the next ten years. Energised by the financial backing as well as the enormously positive public reaction to the news of a new film from him, Kurosawa set out to deliver his comeback. Yet, if Toho and 20th Century Fox had been hoping for a smooth production, they would soon be disappointed.
Kagemusha‘s lead role, which in fact mandates a single actor to play two roles, had been written specifically with the popular Japanese comic actor Shintaro Katsu in mind, and Kurosawa had indeed been able to secure him for the role. Yet, the personalities of the two men did not mix well and after an already troublesome pre-production period, Katsu ended up leaving the film set on the very first day of shooting. Accounts differ over whether he resigned or was fired, but the outcome was the same: the film that Kurosawa had just started to shoot was now without its leading man. Fortunately, Kurosawa’s name and connections were still enough to deal with emergencies of this scale, and Tatsuya Nakadai who had previously had major roles in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, Sanjuro and High and Low, was soon attached to take over the lead role. The replacement would affect the shooting schedule, but the crisis was thus averted. However, Nakadai’s double performance, which most probably leans less towards the comic than what Katsu’s would have been, is by many considered disappointing, with Donald Richie calling it simply bad and Mitsushiro Yoshimoto criticising it as needlessly exaggerated, while Stephen Prince sees Nakadai’s performance as bland and less powerful than what Toshiro Mifune, who was never considered for the role, could have supplied. To be fair, much of the rest of the cast has also been the target of these critics, whose views it must also be said are not universally shared.
Katsu’s departure would not be the end of production difficulties. While Katsu was trying to drum up press coverage to get back at Kurosawa, the production also had to face a number of other challenges, including a nearby bomb scare, Nakadai being hospitalised after falling off his horse, a typhoon sweeping through the film’s Hokkaido set, the challenges of shooting a period picture in modern Japan littered with power lines and telephone wires, as well as the health-related resignation of Kazuo Miyagawa, the legendary cinematographer who had earlier worked on Rashomon and Yojimbo and who was to be the cinematographer also on Kagemusha. Miyagawa, who remained on board as a consultant, was replaced by the young Shoji Ueda and the earlier Kurosawa regular Takao Saito, both of who would continue to work with Kurosawa until the end of his career.
Another change of key personnel happened in post-production when Kurosawa fell out with composer Masaru Sato. Despite having successfully worked on ten of Kurosawa’s previous films, from Seven Samurai to Red Beard, Sato decided to walk out following Kurosawa’s insistence on controlling the scoring process. Sato was quickly replaced by Shinichiro Ikebe, who had previously scored only four films. Opinions differ over the quality of Ikebe’s score, some such as Stuart Galbraith calling it “awful” while others, such as the undersigned, considering it one of the most memorable and fitting scores of Kurosawa’s long career.
Nakadai, Miyagawa, Saito and Sato were not the only familiar faces on the Kagemusha set. A number of Kurosawa’s regular actors including Takashi Shimura and Kamatari Fujiwara had roles in the film, while Kurosawa’s old friend and collaborator Ishiro Honda, best known for his Godzilla films, worked in the film as a close aide to Kurosawa, and would continue in this role until his death in 1993. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Kurosawa’s trusty right hand woman Teruyo Nogami was once again by his side, as she had been since Rashomon, and is credited as both the script supervisor and assistant producer. Nogami’s later scattered recounts of the production are interesting and something that one should turn to, if interested in reading more about the behind the scenes events.
Despite the well-oiled machinery provided by the Kurosawa regulars, the various setbacks and personnel changes resulted in the production falling behind the schedule, although perhaps by less than what Toho or 20th Century Fox had at times feared. Following a six month shoot and a frantic and energetic post-production period, Kagemusha finally opened on April 27, 1980, just two weeks after its originally intended opening date.
Kurosawa, however, was not finished with the film and took it back to the editing room. The result was a new cut about 20 minutes shorter than the 179 minute one that premiered in Japan. The exact reasons for this shorter cut are unclear, some suggesting that the original cut, finalised in just three weeks, was rushed out to make the opening date and the later shorter version was Kurosawa’s preferred edit, while others see the shorter cut as an alternative version made solely for the foreign market (see here; also, see here for the differences between the two versions). Whatever the reasons are for the two cuts, the shorter cut is the one that was shown abroad and continues to be released outside of Japan, while the Japanese releases continue to be the longer edition. A notable exception to this is the Criterion release of Kagemusha, which despite being an American release is in fact the original longer cut.
There was plenty of anxiety preceding the film’s release. Toho had ended up investing five to six times more money into Kagemusha than for an average production, and Kurosawa himself had his reputation very much on the line. Surely, if the film flopped it would mark the end of the now 70-year-old flimmaker’s career.
Luckily for everyone, the film did not flop. In fact, it turned out to be a big commercial hit both domestically and abroad, ending up not only profitable but in fact more than doubling the studios’ investment into it. Kurosawa had succeeded in making his comeback, and although he would not be returning to his pre-1965 rate of putting out a film every year, he was now able to create again. Kagemusha opened Kurosawa new doors to alternative investor models, and just like Kagemusha, his next two films would be partially financed by foreign investors.
Critical reaction to Kagemusha was and has been positive overall, with the majority of contemporary critics seeing it as an excellent comeback from a director whom they had missed. The views of some later writers have been coloured by the need to see Kagemusha as some kind of a dress rehearsal for Ran, the film that Kurosawa would go on to make next. And it certainly is true that Kurosawa himself was quoted at the time of making Ran as saying that he had been wanting to make Ran all along, but had decided to practice first with Kagemusha, a film similar in production scale and type. However, approaching Kagemusha solely as a companion piece to Ran does of course not do either film any justice.
When Kagemusha is considered purely on its own terms, the discussion typically turns to its problematization of identity and reference. Donald Richie notes the dichotomy between reality and illusion to be the film’s central theme. Richie, whose interpretations of Kurosawa’s works typically begin with the identification of such a dualism, argues that the film deals with reality and illusion through the main character, who during the course of the film gradually assumes the role of the dying warlord Takeda Shingen. In Richie’s view the film ends with a statement that reality and illusion are in this case one and the same, as the thief-turned-impersonator ultimately loses his own identity and becomes Shingen. (209-210)
This is a view largely shared also by David Desser, who calls Kagemusha “a tragedy of signification” where the tragedy “arises within the nexus of an individual confronting a series of signs, of signifying practices, and then losing sight of their (and his) nature. … There are two planes in which the process of signification is examined in Kagemusha: the manner in which signs influence others and the manner in which signs influence the conception of the self. A single figure, that of the kagemusha, the shadow warrior, becomes intimately connected with both processes as he becomes a sign used to affect the actions and perceptions of others and as he himself, in the process of becoming such a sign, is reinterpreted.” (116) Ultimately, writes Desser, by taking the role of the pretender the thief loses his own true self.
Desser suggests that “Kagemusha is structured by a series of situations in which the operation and importance of signs is both implicitly and explicitly acknowledged”. (119) Desser refers to instances where signs influence the action in the film, such as the bamboo flute during the siege segment, the various banners during the battles, the significance of costumes and dress, the appearance of the rainbow before the final battle, the onlookers’ unmasking of the thief when they find out that he has no battle scar on his shoulder and therefore cannot be the warlord, and of course the initial discovery of the thief who in his external appearance is almost identical to the old warlord that he later comes to stand for, although only after he has learnt the warlord’s various mannerisms, including his signature twirling of his moustache and his position within the clan as “the mountain”. Desser also points out that this main character is never given a name, and is therefore identified only through his actions. (122)
For a film arguably so deeply guided by signs and signifiers, it is perhaps not surprising that one typical criticism launched towards Kagemusha has to do with its formalism, in which it is typically compared to Kurosawa’s earlier Throne of Blood. Although Stuart Galbraith IV congratulates the film as a “masterpiece of form and style”, he writes that Kagemusha “is crushed under the weight of its intractable formality. … Every idea is so carefully controlled that the humanity is lost and the film can’t escape a mechanical quality. Kurosawa here seems to be self-consciously making an exhaustively structured Kurosawa film.” (558) The film’s heavy reliance on structural constructs to deliver its message is also discussed by Richie, who likens it to an opera and notes that the film is not only exclusively about its theme, “it is the theme”, even more than it is the story that it depicts. (210-211)
Richie also calls the film Kurosawa’s most pessimistic and ends his essay half wondering whether the coldness of the film would have been averted and more human warmth been present had the original comic actor Shinato Katsu remained as the lead actor instead of the “miscast” Nakadai (213), although David Desser has noted that while not a comic actor of Katsu’s standing, Tatsuya Nakadai certainly was no stranger to comedy himself. (122) Also in Desser’s view the film is more pessimistic than typical of Kurosawa, but probably also intended as such, and in his view this darker and bleaker take on the samurai film represents Kurosawa’s re-evaluation of the whole genre, which suggests that in Kagemusha Kurosawa is delivering the message that ultimately the samurai film “is a mere sham”, much in the same way as Kurosawa’s idol John Ford re-evaluated the western genre in his later works, and most notably in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Stephen Prince writes on the film’s technical side, arguing that “the visual structure of the film is sedate in the manner of Kurosawa’s late works. As a sign of this diminishing formal aggressiveness, wipes, once the favourite transitional device, may not be found in Kagemusha. … Kurosawa keeps cutting to a minimum and concentrates on creating pictorial effects within the frame. Composition stresses balance and a centering of the human figure rather than fragmentation and asymmetry.” (278) All in all, Prince considers Kagemusha as lacking the dynamism present in Kurosawa’s earlier work and sees it as announcing a new, more pessimistic direction in Kurosawa’s cinema where an individual is no longer capable of directing the course of events, and is instead “but the epiphenomenon of a ruthless and bloody temporal process, ground to dust beneath the weight and force of history”. (280)
Responding to much of the above discussion, Mitsushiro Yoshimoto takes a fairly contrarian view to Kagemusha and its place in Kurosawa’s oeuvre. Yoshimoto refutes both the idea of Kagemusha marking the beginning of a new pessimistic stage in Kurosawa’s career, or that the self and its relationship with the world is in some way markedly different in Kagemusha than it is in Kurosawa’s earlier work. He argues that Kurosawa’s whole post-war oeuvre has been marked by similar darkness that gives the films their power and poignancy, and that especially in the immediate post-war works, the “status of the individual self is [already] intensely questioned”. (349)
Yoshimoto also refutes the idea of approaching Kagemusha as a straightforward dichotomy of reality and illusion, arguing that the film in fact consistently problematizes this dualism and seeks to offer tertiary options. As an example, Yoshimoto notes that the opening scene does not introduce us to two but three related characters, signifying the original (lord Takeda Shingen), the copy (the thief), as well as the intermediate, Shingen’s brother Nobukado who although not visually identical to Shingen has previously on occasion stood for him. (350) To this list Marsha Kinder (in Perspectives on Akira Kurosawa) adds a fourth: of the three characters, only Shingen casts a shadow.
Yoshimoto also points out that the thief’s identity is not lost in his attempt to become Shingen, but that he has already been removed of it when the film begins since, in order to become Shingen, he has been rescued from public execution and therefore symbolically no longer exists. (351) In a somewhat related manner, James Goodwin has noted that even at the beginning the two characters are more alike than one might at first realise: as the killer of his own son and the banisher of his father, Shingen is no better than the common criminal who stands as his double. (194)
In Yoshimoto’s view, “what are mentioned as the unique features that distinguish Kagesmusha from Kurosawa’s earlier works are not particularly new”. (351) In addition to the double, which is a prevailing motif in Kurosawa’s whole output, Yoshimoto identifies the use of shadows, the significance of dreams, the discord between father and son and the prevalence of Noh related imagery as features which Kagemusha shares with many of Kurosawa’s earlier works. “The problem with Kagemusha“, writes Yoshimoto, “is not that it marks a radical turning point in Kurosawa’s career but that it resembles Kurosawa’s earlier works too much” and that those motifs “are not integrated into a new whole but exist as mere fragments. … Kagemusha looks like a pastiche, rather than a critical appropriation, of this own films.” (352) Yoshimoto also criticises the film’s colour palette, suggesting that the finished film in fact ironically “looks like a ‘remake’ or a ‘double'” of the paintings and drawings which Kurosawa meticulously prepared while originally working on the screenplay. (354)
Of the film’s individual scenes, it is the already mentioned six minute opening scene as well as the final battle scene which are the most memorable, and also the most discussed. The opening scene is the longest single shot in any Kurosawa film, although technically of course it wasn’t a single shot as it features Tatsuya Nakadai simultaneously in two roles. This fairly unusual static and quiet single camera scene not only immediately introduces us to the three major characters of the film and the world that they inhabit, but, as Kurosawa often does with his first scenes, also puts forward the work’s central thesis. In its composition, the scene is very theatrical, and we as the audience are looking inside, into what is going on.
In contrast, the final major scene of the film is set in a battle field and is presented as a largely dynamic montage. Again, it is an unusual way of depicting the events and works as a total reversal to the opening scene, in that we as the audience are not actually witnessing the core action, but are primarily shown the various characters’ reactions to it. This time, we are not looking inside, for it is in fact almost as if the characters are looking outside, at us, another common device in Kurosawa’s cinematic repertoire.
And so, with this somewhat lengthy introduction, we come to September 2014, when our very own Akira Kurosawa online film club will be discussing Kagemusha. So, what is your own take on the film? Is it a fascinating discourse on subjectivity, horrors of aggression and the paradoxes of identity? An entertaining if a little boring action flick? Kurosawa’s ultimate statement of pessimism and bitterness? A new beginning or a collection of earlier motifs? An exercise in didactic filmmaking? A dress rehearsal for Ran? Too red (do tell us which print you are watching) or too sonically too bombastic? Bland acting or featuring a brilliant Tatsuya Nakadai? Something else?
The home video availability of Kagemusha is very good, with more information available from the DVD and Blu-ray pages. Meanwhile, the comments and forums are open, as always, and you may also find some inspiration from our earlier Kagemusha discussions, including the following:
- The previous time we had Kagemusha on the film club
- Kagemusha’s Shingen as Comedian
- Is Kagemusha Kurosawa’s most reactionary film?
- Kagemusha and the Chinese Landscape Painting
- Kagemusha: How to Begin an Epic
- Fire Wihout Smoke (or: How to End an Epic)
- The Dream in Kagemusha
- About the Intended Length of Kagemusha
- Differences Between the Two Versions of Kagemusha
In October after Kagemusha, our film club will be taking a look at something a little different, namely Shohei Imamura’s 1983 film The Ballad of Narayama. And discussion is of course still also welcome for our previous entries, including last month’s film, Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. For information about their home video availability and the full film club schedule, turn to the film club page.