This month, the Akira Kurosawa film club will be taking a look at Kurosawa’s 1980 film Kagemusha (影武者). With it, we continue our journey through the theme of doubles, having earlier watched Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, followed by Ingmar Bergman’s Persona last month.
Kagemusha follows the story of a common criminal who is chosen to impersonate a feudal lord with whom he bears an uncanny resemblance. In some ways, the film is one of Kurosawa’s intellectually most complex works, as it explores a range of questions about roles, identity, reality and reference.
Donald Richie identifies the dichotomy of reality and illusion as the film’s central theme. Richie, who is no stranger to approaching Kurosawa’s works by identifying such dualisms, notes that the film illustrates a clear contrast between reality and illusion as the main character 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, at least on some level, actually 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 sense it is typically compared to Kurosawa’s earlier Throne of Blood. Although Stuar 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 comic actor Shinato Katsu, who was originally chosen to play the double main role but was fired early on in the production, remained as the lead actor instead of the “miscast” Tatsuya Nakadai (213).
In David Desser’s view, the film is more pessimistic than is 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 entire genre, which suggests that in Kagemusha Kurosawa is delivering the message that the samurai film genre “is a mere sham”, much in the same way as Kurosawa’s idol John Ford re-evaluated the western genre in his later works.
Stephen Prince writes more 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 to be lacking the kind of dynamism that had been 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)
As is so often the case, responding to much of the above discussion, Mitsushiro Yoshimoto takes a fairly contrarian view with 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 completely identical to Shingen has previously on occasion stood for him. (350) To this list Marsha Kinder (in Perspectives on Akira Kurosawa) adds a fourth candidate as she notes that of the three characters, only Shingen casts a shadow in this scene.
Yoshimoto further 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: 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 of the film, 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 entire output, Yoshimoto identifies the use of shadows, the significance of dreams, the discord between father and son and the prevalence of noh theatre 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 his 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 iconic, and also the most discussed. The opening scene is the longest single shot in any Kurosawa film, although technically of course it wasn’t one 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 that are unfolding and it thus works as a total reversal of the opening scene, in that we as the audience are not actually witnessing the core action, but are primarily shown various characters’ reactions to it. This time, we are not looking inside. Instead, it is in fact almost as if the characters are looking outside, at us, another common device in Kurosawa’s cinematic repertoire.
There is much more to be said about Kagemusha, a film that is sometimes demoted to the role of a poor man’s double to Kurosawa’s next film, the majestic Ran, for which many see Kagemusha as a mere dress rehearsal. But what is your take on Kagemusha? 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 clever/dated 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 bombastic? Does it feature bland acting or 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. Note that the film comes in two versions, one approximately 20 minutes longer than the other. Which version to watch is a good question.
In any case, the comments and the forum are open, as they always are, and you may also be interested in diving into our earlier Kagemusha discussions.