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Kagemusha and the Chinese Landscape Painting

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    cocoskyavitch

    I’m one of those odd ones who counts weather and environment and lighting as personal-one who finds the scale of little bitty tiny people swallowed up in a magestic huge landscape in a Northern Song synasty painting to be quite intimate-

    The hugeness of the world and then-seeing the small and fragile beings in the midst of it-and back to the big view-it seems to me that vantage point is similar to that of Kagemusha and that, at the end of the film, as we pan out from the thief’s body to the larger world…all washing away-we move from the reality and consciousness of being enmeshed in the passions of life to letting go and getting a big view of just how small one life is, in relation to the world, to time and space.

    Where are most of the best Song Dynasty paintings? In Beijing? In Xian? Nope, they are in Taiwan and Japan. Taiwan, because the fleeing Kuomintang took the treasures with them, and Japan because Japanese collectors realized the value of Song Dynasty painting. The aesthetic of humility, the Daoist embrace of opposing forces in harmony and balance-these were prized by the Japanese and inform the Japanese aesthetic.

    Rarely, though, do Song Dynasty landscapes express the futility of war or show us distant scenes of battle as we see in Kagemusha-they focus, instead, on the individual’s absorption into a vast panaroma meant to be traveled visually, in stages, unrolling the long scrolls, or travelling up and through as the eye contemplates a journey in the mists and waterfalls of a great mountain. These paintings are largely contemplative in nature, and some are philosophically intended to be used for that purpose.

    Interestingly, there are some European masters that specialize in the “big view” of war and violence at a distance. Albrech Altdorfer’s “Battle of Isis” shows us the “big view”: http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f8/Albrecht_Altdorfer_002.jpg&imgrefurl=http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Albrecht_Altdorfer_002.jpg&h=2976&w=2536&sz=874&tbnid=n5Cxe5U843NZpM:&tbnh=150&tbnw=128&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dalbrecht%2Baltdorfer&hl=en&usg=__nPA4onFLG3bQaUrTnUCWgrv-ieo=&ei=19cnSpXYKoqeMq_11IgF&sa=X&oi=image_result&resnum=4&ct=image

    and Breughel’s “Fall of Icarus” bridges human tragedy and the “big view”: http://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://poetrypages.lemon8.nl/life/musee/icarusbreughel.jpg&imgrefurl=http://poetrypages.lemon8.nl/life/musee/museebeauxarts.htm&usg=___iSNUMlxezF8YQhVje_MPuHI1p4=&h=297&w=450&sz=29&hl=en&start=5&tbnid=_Ybq8Tl-eRVWHM:&tbnh=84&tbnw=127&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dpeter%2Bbreughel%26hl%3Den (I’ve always liked Auden’s take on it.)

    I don’t find Song Dynasty painting, nor the images show above nor Kagemusha distancing. I find them intimate, with the physical taste of mountain air, or the feel of wind, or the scent of salt water, or sounds of distant battle. I find Kagemusha bracing, and deeply meaningful in worldview-in man’s relation to the world-in man’s relationship to other men and the search for meaning in the small pleasures of family, nurturing children, the warmth of the opposite sex, the daily routine of life. One of the saddest scenes in all of Kurosawa’s career is the scene of the shadow warrior-now just a thief-being kicked from the gate of the castle like a dog. I sometimes wonder if this is how Kurosawa felt about himself and his career. I wonder if he felt as if he were inhabiting a role that was hollow-that the true emperor was dead. That circumstance had him looking like the dead emperor-perhaps he could even succeed in fooling many…

    I find the story of inhabiting another man’s life much more interesting and complex than most seem to-and I find man’s relationship to history, war, death, and the vast panorama of life itself to be richly explored in visual terms in this film, and love it very much, although it truly is a sad film.

    The scene that strikes me as most like a Song painting is that of the boat with the funeral urn disappearing into the mists.

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    Vili Maunula

    Thanks for sharing this, Coco! I never thought about it this way — and probably never would have — but now that you brought it up I think I share your view when it comes to the visual “distancing” employed in the film and its effect. It is kind of anti-distancing in the end!

    Although many have lumped Kagemusha together with Ran, Kurosawa himself has on different occasions suggested that while the latter was constructed with the idea of a view-point “external” to our material reality, with Kagemusha he still tried to present the world through the eyes of the film’s main character. (See, for instance, Cardullo 139).

    Thinking about it now, maybe seeing the characters in the midst of that big wide world in Kagemusha makes you feel more empathy for them, therefore bringing them closer?

    It is interesting though that if you look at the drawings Kurosawa prepared for the film, few if any are truly “landscape” like compositions. Not that I think this in any way invalidates your point Coco, as these drawings had a very particular function and the film itself is, like you say, very much a landscape painting. I just find it an interesting point to note, that’s all.

    Even when considering the above, I must still say that the Kagemusha character in particular remains fairly cold and distant to me. Perhaps I am too used to a more western style narrative, but I constantly wait to be brought closer to the Kagemusha and given more time to observe how he struggles to come to terms with his role and his identity/identities. I feel that this would also tell me more about the Takeda clan, as well as the world depicted. But in the end I never really feel that I can see the world through Kagemusha’s eyes this way.

    In fact, my feeling is that the film doesn’t actually want to deal with questions of identity or reality on the scale available to it. Although I wouldn’t of course deny that these themes are present, I don’t quite see the depth that Richie, for instance, proposes. Instead, the film’s main attention seems to be elsewhere, in the political and military struggle taking place and even more so in preparing for that final battle, the historical reasons behind which so puzzled and intrigued Kurosawa. I would also agree, as I seem to have a habit of doing, with Yoshimoto, who describes Kagemusha as “a virtual catalog of [old] Kurosawa motifs, which, however, are not integrated into a new whole but exist as mere fragments” (352).

    But as I have noted earlier, Kagemusha is one of those Kurosawa films which, together with Seven Samurai and a few others, I am still trying to find my way into. And this insight about landscape painting and Kagemusha has certainly given me a fresh angle from which to approach the work.

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    lawless

    And here I thought Coco and I had helped you see Seven Samurai in a new light!

    Oh well, it’s still my favorite film ever whatever you feel about it.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Hey, lawless, I’m with you on your evaluation-I’m still madly in love with Seven Samurai, no matter how many times I view it. I’m working on my ability to understand that others disagree.

    Vili notes that Kagemusha stays closer to the main characters and has fewer panorama views than Ran.

    with Kagemusha he still tried to present the world through the eyes of the film’s main character.

    That’s probably true. My reference to distance and landscape painting comes from a purely subjective place: I am thinking that the impact of the penultimate scenes-the field of massacre with the dead and dying-all clearly done with a telephoto from a distance-as if one stood far away and viewed with horror the carnage of that day-as the thief does. It’s true that we zoom in close enough to see soldiers crawl, horses struggle..but it feels so far away (I think the sound has something to do with this-I feel that I can see less well!) But, both Ran and Kagemusha have been discussed in light of the “distancing” shots.

    Something that is very interesting to me is that we have absolutely no time as an audience to really “understand” the personality or character of Shingen-he is kept at a distance from us-and we know him by reputation and those that surrounded him-not the lord himself- and that serves very well for the thief’s confusion and lack of understanding-he never “knew” Lord Shingen-he is bound to fail, isn’t he?

    It may be Richard Prince who made me afraid to see late Kurosawa, (I’m not sure-wasn’t if Richard Prince who had this sad sense of decline? I remember crying in reading about late Kurosawa and Mifune! Maybe he was just picking up from where Richie left off, but he seemed to indicate some late, sour, dissatisfied work that was clearly not nearly as brilliant as the earlier work) but, I think that all the reviews from Richie on out are mired in their fin-de-siecle mentalities and have shortchanged what is to me, as stunning a series of late works as those of Titian. (Okay, they don’t call me little miss hyperbole for nothing. Still, check out where this is going…) As the artist matures, there is the broad sweeping gesture and the long view. No picky little details (much as they still delight) as in youth-no need to impress with craftiness and skill-no need to be “lifelike” or “realistic”-all that is well behind the mature artist who has proven his ability, and now can focus on personal musings. Anyway, I think…

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    Vili Maunula

    with Kagemusha he still tried to present the world through the eyes of the film’s main character.

    That’s probably true. My reference to distance and landscape painting comes from a purely subjective place

    Maybe we should make a difference between “distant” and “distancing”. I think the shots in Kagemusha are distant, but not necessarily distancing. As I tried to say earlier, I think that the landscape-like shots, as you have described them, bring us quite close to the characters, despite the fact that they often observe the action from a distance.

    The scene with the funeral urn disappearing into the mist, a beautiful image as you pointed out, is on many levels a brilliant example of this. It is shot from a distance, but when watching it we are put into the place of the Kagemusha, as well as the generals and the spies, who are all watching the proceedings from a distance. I can of course only guess what effect this scene has on other people, but as for myself it really brings me closer to the observers, and especially Kagemusha. I feel like I am, for a moment, really experiencing the world through his eyes.

    Furthermore, note how the film is neatly summarised by that single scene. Everyone’s attention is fixed on Shingen, but he is distant, monolithic and untouchable by any of the observers. Observing him from a distance, there are the generals who mourn his death and wonder how to carry on without him. There are the spies, representing the Tokugawa and Oda clans, who have their suspicions and want to uncover the truth. And finally, there is the Kagemusha who, perhaps more than anyone else, has a deep respect and desire to understand Shingen, but who at the same time is not only a complete outsider to all this, but also the only one who is truly alone.

    The funeral urn scene is, of course, only one way how the distant shots work in bringing us (or me) closer to the characters. The other type is the kind where we observe characters, especially the Kagemusha, from a distance. This time, as I already said before, at least I feel empathy towards that lonely character who has been dropped into that huge landscape — and so, even if he is distant, he feels close.

    I suppose that just like the Kagemusha is observing Shingen from a great distance, we are observing the Kagemusha in much the same way. This rolls nicely into another thing you wrote:

    Something that is very interesting to me is that we have absolutely no time as an audience to really “understand” the personality or character of Shingen-he is kept at a distance from us-and we know him by reputation and those that surrounded him-not the lord himself- and that serves very well for the thief’s confusion and lack of understanding-he never “knew” Lord Shingen-he is bound to fail, isn’t he?

    That’s very true. Also, I guess that on some level it is himself that he is really trying to find, but without success. At the very beginning, the film makes an important point about the similarity between Shingen and the Kagemusha — not only do the two look exactly alike, but they are both thieves and murderers. The only thing separating them is that Shingen is in a position where those actions are justified, or so the daimyo himself sees it.

    But I don’t think that the Kagemusha ever really manages to become Shingen, or find himself. We never even learn his real name, so suppressed his own identity is.

    You compared the Kagemusha to a dog being kicked when no more needed. I think that this is an excellent way of describing the character — he is there to do tricks, to follow his masters’ commands, to serve but not to have any say on matters. Once no more useful, this “man’s best friend” is thrown out without remorse. Yet, like any dog in this situation, he doesn’t go away, but keeps following his former masters, observing from a distance.

    It may be Richard Prince who made me afraid to see late Kurosawa, (I’m not sure-wasn’t if Richard Prince who had this sad sense of decline?)

    Unless I am missing something, I guess you are referring to Stephen Prince here? Although, I don’t think that he sees Kurosawa’s last films so much as a decline, but rather applauds them as a brilliant and rare example of a fully realised artist’s “late period”. Of course, Prince is interesting (and I think has a good point) in only considering the last three films as belonging to the “late period”, and seeing Kagemusha and Ran as rather belonging to an artistic period which began with Dodesukaden. (While it is, of course, silly to group things into periods, I think that there is some validity to this.)

    It is Richie, I think, who loses interest after Red Beard. Even the chapters in his book on Dodesukaden and Dersu Uzala were written by Joan Mellen, not by Richie himself. Also Yoshimoto seems quite indifferent to the late films, giving them only a few pages each.

    Personally, I am quite a big fan of the late works. I think Prince is absolutely right about the fact that we have here a unique and rare example of a late period from an artistic genius. And while Kurosawa’s last works may not be among his very greatest (except for Ran, if you ask me), the truly interesting thing is how different they actually are to his earlier works. After all, how many other artists out there have not only continued working well beyond their 80th birthday, but also gone to reinvent themselves? Well, you mentioned Titian, there’s perhaps one example.

    Coco: it’s sad to hear that you’ll have to leave us for a while this summer. But when you do, have fun with your summer students — I’m sure that they will!

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    cocoskyavitch

    Stephen Prince…”Doh”! Thanks, Vili.

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    Ugetsu

    I’m a bit late catching up with my reading and watching of Kagemusha, but I must admit I’m very attracted to Princes notion of the film being an allegory for the importance of art and illusion as central to the construction of any state – the Takeda clan survive by maintaining the myth of Shengens life and only collapses when the deception is revealed. All the military strategies in the world are worthless when the central mystique of power is lost. Hopefully I’ll get some time to do more reading on this – a critic here in Ireland called Fintan O’Toole has written quite eloquently in the past about the importance of the world of art – especially theater and literature – in creating national myths which become central a nations sense of self. I do think that if there is a ‘key’ to be found in understanding Kagemusha, it is in this idea.

    Vili:

    Personally, I am quite a big fan of the late works. I think Prince is absolutely right about the fact that we have here a unique and rare example of a late period from an artistic genius. And while Kurosawa’s last works may not be among his very greatest (except for Ran, if you ask me), the truly interesting thing is how different they actually are to his earlier works. After all, how many other artists out there have not only continued working well beyond their 80th birthday, but also gone to reinvent themselves? Well, you mentioned Titian, there’s perhaps one example.

    This is something I’m only just trying to get my head about, maybe sometime in the future we can have a good discussion about this. I think like a lot of fans I’ve found his later works to be a little too austere, too difficult to penetrate, so its tempting to fall back on the notion that they are inferior to his great works of the 1950’s. But i find that even more than his earlier films they repay repeated viewings and all of them grow on me over time, including Madadayo, which initially I didn’t like at all. I like the quote from the New York Times Vincent Canby in relation to Ran that:

    It’s also meant as praise when I say that ”Ran” is very much an old man’s movie – Kurosawa is 75 years old. (Hideo Oguni and Masato Ide, who collaborated with Kurosawa on the screenplay, are, respectively, 81 and 65.) Here is a film by a man whose art now stands outside time and fashion.

    I think describing the films from Kagemusha to Madadayo as ‘outside time and fashion’ pretty much nails it for me. Kurosawa had gone beyond any sense of making films to satisfy the audience or critics. They seem to me to be entirely single minded in conception, totally dedicated to his vision of cinema and art. This is what makes them so foreboding, but also so rewarding.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Art and Age might well be worth looking at. I remember once reading in an article (relevant to the career arc of aged painters) that something happened in the later career-the artist’s late work exhibited a kind of acquiesence to the universal. It wasn’t phrased that way in the article (oh brain cells, where are you when I need you?) but the sentiment was similar-

    stating that a kind of “big view’ was achieved, and a “letting go” of details of personality and specificity in favor of an overarching “feel” or “mood”.

    Ugetsu said,

    They seem to me to be entirely single minded in conception, totally dedicated to his vision of cinema and art.

    Yup.

    Like you, Ugetsu, the late works get better and better for me with each viewing. I think they are not immediately as engaging on a personal, close sense, but get richer and deeper and more intimate with repeated viewing. I begin to think extremely highly of Kagemusha– each viewing raises it a bit, in my estimation.

    Little side note: I kept being haunted by the figure of Shingen in the urn-and specifically, by his green color, like wet jade-and here’s the thing-

    It’s not at all a fabrication, I have seen it! In the Eastern Qing tombs, I believe it is the tomb of the Qianlong Emperor, deep under the earth, with a carved lintel then huge guardian figures of the directions carved into the walls behind-the one to the righthand going in, goggle-eyed with a pipa and armor-the chain links each glowing brilliant deep green in the subterranean light-the face dyed the same color, the hands, the pipa-all the color of wet jade. It is this tomb and that image that comes to mind, and the interior chamber with the massive stone sarcophagus and the buddhist symbols carved on the barrel vaulting side walls.

    Yes, it is real.

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    cocoskyavitch

    UGESTU! Your quote :

    …national myths which become central to a nation’s sense of self

    is so friggin’ right on. I hate to bring up Luigi Barzini again, but he is a big believer in that phenomenon of national character formed by these foundation myths…and, it was a useful idea with which to arm myself for thinking about national identities.

    Image plays a big role. We cannot think of the Pope without also thinking of his robes, or St. Peter’s. I always get a vision of the mitre and crozier. Images=power and authority, and dress and monuments are symbols that convery meaning. Most righteous thinking, Ugetsu! I have a friend who teaches a course, “Power, Place and Image in Florence and Rome”-and you can just guess what that’s about eh?

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    Jeremy

    I’ve been meaning to say something smart, so to impress everyone with my superior intellect ­čśŤ

    But, since that isn’t working out too well. I’ll just say: I really like what you wrote Coco, even if I lack the comprehension to respond.

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