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Kagemusha: How to Begin an Epic

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    Vili Maunula

    Those who have followed my ramblings here over the years have probably noticed that I am quite fixated with the way Kurosawa begins his film. In my opinion, one of his greatest skills was knowing how to kick off a film, and I don’t think that there is anyone who surpasses him in this area.

    And Kagemusha is no exception. In the first six minutes, not only is the basic thesis of the film given, but we are also given a good introduction to the three main characters, as well as to the world in which they live. Once again, Kurosawa’s first scene has laid out a solid foundation on which it is easy for us the audience to build our subsequent experience of the story.

    But what is even more interesting is the way Kurosawa does this. With a new epic that was marketed as Kurosawa’s return to the samurai film genre and all that, you probably had and still have audiences expecting something very dynamic, like Seven Samurai, Yojimbo or The Hidden Fortress, when they start watching the movie. And what does the director give them? A six minute long static, continuous single camera scene! I wonder if he was actually consciously playing with the audience’s expectations there.

    I guess that another reason for the static first scene is the overall technical limitations that the split screen filming of Nakadai as both Shingen and the Kagemusha dictated back then. But even then, surely more than one angle and one composition could have been used.

    Actually, I think that while playing with the audience and following technical limitations may well both have been in Kurosawa’s mind, I think that what is more important is the effect that the static first six minutes have on our understanding of the story. First of all, this is the longest time we have with Shingen, and therefore instrumental to our understanding of him. Considering that he is later on described as the Mountain, an immovable and stable entity, it is perhaps not surprising that we have an immovable and stable camera to introduce him with.

    At the same time, the static nature of the shot has the effect of making us, or at least me, somewhat uneasy. Perhaps a little like what the Kagemusha is feeling in the scene. He is confined by those tied ropes to one place, just like we are confined by the four walls of the picture.

    But these are just my late-night ramblings — I’m an hour past my bed-time now, and there’s a long work day ahead tomorrow. If you have anything to add, and I’m sure you all do, let me know how you see the first scene, and tell me what you think was the motivation behind those six minutes of static cinema, which constitute the longest unedited (unless you consider the split screen) single camera take in Kurosawa’s whole body of work, if I’m not mistaken.

    (By the way, is Kurosawa perhaps winking at us with the first line of the film? After all, it reads “I deliver perfection” (at least in my subtitles).)

    Edit: Forget that bit about “delivering perfection”. It seems that the subtitle file that I had for reference does not actually correspond with either the “International” or the “full-length” version of the film. I’ll have to be more careful in the future with these things.



    A resplendent consumption of the introduction.

    I was briefly obsessed in finding this “I deliver perfection”, the sentence and possible usage was very intriguing.



    Initial scene, Kurosawa, compostion, color shadow and unknowing:

    Sunglasses, sensitive eyes, light too strong, Kurosawa famously lights everything overly bright-brilliant lights, candles blown to bits by the spots, blown-out whites, hotspots on the reflective wood panelling, the symbol of the Takeda clan heavy-wooden flower above the heads of all, shadow towers as Shingen leaves.

    Central, distant, three men and we need to know which is which but get no identifiers… we do not get close. If forced to pick one from the other out of a lineup, we could, perhaps, choose the thief-he is closest to us, but probably not! Warm, rich color compositon, with cool layers-favorite photoshop tool-highlights gilded, lower values cooled to blue-giving a rainbow of color traveling through the roundness-the roundness of color and the flatness of the composition-composed in two layers-picture plane and back wall-livened by light, shadow and round color.

    We are outside all three-and our space is not unlike a stage space, below the footlights. Off stage, in the chairs in the theatre-just pull back and we will see the lights and cords, maybe there’s an orchestra pit, even.

    I believe that the roles men play is partly about what the film will communicate-and that a stage set is appropriate for understanding this.



    Perfect summation, coco.

    I just watched it for the first time in a long time over the weekend. When I saw it previously it was on a quite poor quality screen – now I know what I missed! It helps that I have the Criterium version too.



    You are kindly indulgent, Ugetsu. Although Vili states that his post is “rambling” he is always more cogent than I, and my attempts to put forth logical thought (in the rare case that I make the attempt) is quite an effort for me, since I think messily, like an expressionist painter. For some reason in the above post, I indulged my stream-of-consciousness natural manner. Thanks for being kind.

    It occurred to me when watching Kagemusha that Kurosawa thought like a painter, too. (Well, duh). His images have an internal logic that is often quite difficult to “translate” into language-and, as we know-images and symbols are notoriously slippery things, and pinning absolute meaning to them is a loser’s game. New eyes see new things-and that’s valid.

    I wonder if Kurosawa’s reticence to speak about film theory has something to do with two big things in his character-one of them is his love of leading an “army” (he seems to have felt that he was marshalling forces when shooting a film, and even his dinner parties had him standing, using a chopstick as a baton, and leading singing rounds according to Teruyo Nogami) and considerable energy and passion was fed into this endeavor.

    Secondly, he reserved the major part of his energies for creating rather than critiquing. Sometimes I wonder if I am using my short time on this earth well. I deeply admire folks who DO-those who take life and make something. Kurosawa sets the standard, sets the bar for me of visual thinking in action. I find myself having my admiration constantly refreshed by his example.

    Ugetsu, did you look at the Criterion Kagemusha‘s color? Isn’t it quite amazing? It is only Kurosawa’s third color film! Imagine that! Still beating to a pulp modern filmmakers with his understanding of color in cinema! Wouldn’t a modern filmmaker fgo for “sepia-tone” to make things look “historical”? Some cheesy brown gravy mess with murky dead shadows, not the living shadows that sparkle with intense color in Kurosawa’s film! Kurosawa is truly the master!

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