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!