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Playing at the film club: Taking a break

Film Club: Kagemusha (Kurosawa, 1980)

Detail from a Kagemusha drawing
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.


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Ugetsu

Thanks Vili for this introduction, its very comprehensive.

I must admit this is one of the few Kurosawa films I wasn’t particularly impressed by when I first saw it – on a fairly poor version (I can’t remember which one). I just watched it on a 20th Century Fox DVD and the print is fairly good, although the colours are a little odd at times, it could definitely do with a full digital restoration.

I definitely like Kagemusha more on repeat viewings. I struggled initially with the formalism and the lack of flow in the editing and camerawork that is characteristic of earlier AK films, not to mention the very Noh influenced acting. I found the Noh influence more intrusive in this film than in Throne of Blood. I also initially found the screenplay a bit didactic and ponderous, but this seems to me now to be more deliberate, with a focus more on the often brilliant blocking of each scene.

I’m not really sure that it is intended in any way as a deep investigation of the duality of identity or the slipperiness or otherwise of the ‘self’. In many ways I think it is a straightforward piece of storytelling, somewhat marred by a lack of any real character background for either the Lord or the thief. I found it kind of odd that the initial thematic challenge in the film – that someone who stole some coins is a ‘thief’, while someone who stole entire territories is a ‘lord’, having been introduced is then just allowed to fade away as we are invited to mourn the loss of the Clan, despite it having been born in blood and murder. In many ways its a far more simple minded view of traditional Japanese warrior society than Seven Samurai or Ran.

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njean

I saw Kagemusha when it first came out on video. Since I was expecting something like Seven Samurai or Yojimbo, I found it long and boring, and I never went back to it until a week ago. My initial response to the DVD (Criterion Collection, 180 minutes) was lukewarm: a lot of pageantry searching for a story. Exciting action scenes (armies marching, heralds racing, armies fighting, horses galloping) interspersed with very static scenes of men sitting and talking. After a while I felt that the spectacle was the point, that it was what really engaged Kurosawa. The images are thrilling and beautiful, but I kept thinking “Get on with the story.” The trouble is, the story is nowhere near as thrilling and beautiful. I was disappointed.

The next day I watched it again, this time with Stephen Prince’s commentary. It helped a little. He encourages the viewer to think of the film not as entertainment, but as a history play. Kurosawa giving us a quasi-historical slice of life, sort of like a Shakespeare history play. But Shakespeare’s history plays have compelling characters and stories, and I still found Kagemusha rather flat and uninvolving.

Why does the story not grab me? One reason is the portrayal of Shingen. We are told that he is an enormously imposing character (a “mountain”), respected by his rivals and revered by his clan. His very presence apparently radiates authority (?), discipline (?), charisma (?)…..something, such that in the first scene even the thief is cowed by him. The problem is that the viewer has no basis for understanding these reactions to him. We see Shingen only at a distance in that first scene, too far away to discern anything special about his bearing or facial expression. The next time we see him he is in his mountain retreat, reacting with good humor as his main general upbraids him. A short scene. We see him once more after he’s been shot, as he tells the generals to keep his death a secret and not to move for three years. None of these views lets the audience understand why he is such a great man, and it’s therefore difficult to care about what happens or to understand why the thief becomes so impassioned about serving him. I was not emotionally involved. Why would Kurosawa write and stage it this way?

Another reason for non-involvement is that there is no good guys vs bad guys theme. The motive of all the daimyo, including Shingen, is power. Shingen acknowledges to the thief that he has killed many, banished his father, and killed his own son. And that he intends to continue. Fighting will go on, he says, until somebody wins out and puts a stop to it – and it might as well be he. So, why should the viewer care if Shingen gets to Kyoto before Nobunaga or Ieyasu or anybody else? Thus, we lack both a character and a quest to care about, in marked contrast to Kurosawa’s earlier films.

More later.

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njean

One theme that occurs here and in previous Kurosawa films is “becoming.” In ‘Something Like an Autobiography’ he says, “I like unformed characters. This may be because, no matter how old I get, I am still unformed myself; in any case, it is in watching someone unformed enter the path to perfection that my fascination knows no bounds.” (Think Kikuchiyo, Watanabe, Gondo) He continues, “Now when I say I like unformed people, I don’t mean I’m interested in someone who even if polished will not become a jewel.” In Kagemusha we see the vulgar petty thief, who doesn’t even have a name in the film, transform into a believable facsimile of Shingen. To those those not in on the plot, he IS Shingen. To those in the know, he becomes a convincing, even uncanny, likeness. One of the characters says, “It’s as if our late lord has possessed him.” Stephen Prince comments that Shingen has a hold on the thief from beyond the grave, as also on his generals and his clan. Prince points out that in Noh tradition, the spirit of a warrior walks the earth to tell its tale; here the spirit of Shingen reaches out to make its presence felt among the living. This is most graphically suggested in the scene with the double and the concubines. When the double gets up to leave, he is followed by a shadow which looms ever larger as he advances toward the light and the camera.

The double has to do more than simply look like Shingen. He has to act like him as well. This ranges from chatting with the concubines, to playing with the beloved grandson, to presiding over a clan conference where he improvises a Shingen-like answer to a direct question, and to remaining immobile during a battle while his guards are being killed around him. How far he has come from the coarse being we saw in the first scene of the film! In his own mind, he seems actually to have become Shingen, so much so that he makes the fatal mistake of trying to ride Shingen’s horse.

He wasn’t always so dedicated. About 45 minutes into the film, he tries to steal treasure and escape, only to discover Shingen’s preserved body in the large jar that he supposed contained treasure. He is discovered and tied up. He says I can’t do this anymore, it’s too hard. Several of the generals try to persuade him to continue. He says I could do this while he was alive, but now that he’s dead it’s SO STUPID! One of the generals says, “When you think about it, why should he care one whit about the Takeda clan? It is selfish of us to force him to solve our problems. This role is for someone who is willing to die for the Takeda clan.” They decide the game is up, they’ll have to announce Shingen’s death, and they let the double go. The whole scene has taken place in the presence of the large jar, and the double stares at it as he is being released.

The next day the large jar containing Shingen’s remains is buried in the lake. Spies watch, conclude the jar must contain Shingen’s body, and race away to notify their lords. The double has overheard them and rushes to alert the generals. And he has changed his mind. “Make use of me! I want to be of use to him! Use me! Please let me help!” Why this complete change of heart? It is unexplained. It simply happened. Just as Gondo (in High and Low) adamantly and repeatedly refuses to pay the ransom until, with no explanation, he suddenly gives in, so the double abruptly reverses course. It is as though at some point on Kurosawa’s “path to perfection,” the hero finally realizes what the right thing is, what his duty is, and he does it.

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njean

Shingen, Nobunaga, and Ieyasu are historical figures about whom much is known. I was curious about the historical accuracy of the details portrayed in Kagemusha. Here is what I found.

Shingen’s forces did indeed besiege Ieyasu’s Noda Castle. The nighttime flute playing is part of tradition that’s been handed down. The castle’s occupants were on the verge of surrender when, inexplicably, Shingen’s forces withdrew. But was he shot? Maybe, but there are other stories. Something happened that caused him to cut short the campaign, but it’s not clear what. He did die soon thereafter. Stephen Prince says that Shingen did apparently tell the generals not to move from the home domain. He also did use doubles, including his brother Nobukado, from time to time. But the whole story of the thief as double for an extended period, while Shingen’s death is kept secret, is evidently Kurosawa’s invention.

Shingen did indeed pass over his son Katsuyori in favor of his grandson as future head of the clan. Years earlier, Shingen engineered the marriage of one of his sisters to the warlord of a neighboring province. They produced a daughter. The time eventually came when Shingen conquered that warlord and took the daughter (now in her teens) back with him and married her. The clan was uneasy with the union (kill brother-in-law and marry niece), and Shingen’s obsession with his wife was feared to be a case of witchcraft. Their offspring, Katsuyori, was thought to bring bad luck and was therefore disinherited.

I was very taken with the film’s portrayal of Nobunaga. Vigorous, energetic, authoritative. It’s known that he was a devotee of the tea ceremony and of Noh theater (as was Shingen). Nobunaga was known to recite passages from Noh dramas, as the film shows. Luis Froh, a Portuguese Jesuit priest, who knew Nobunaga quite well, had this to say about him in 1569:

“This king of Owari would be about 37 years old, tall, thin, sparsely bearded, extremely war-like and much given to military exercises, inclined to works of justice and mercy, sensitive about his honor, reticent about his plans, an expert in military strategy, unwilling to receive advice from subordinates, highly esteemed and venerated by everyone, does not drink wine and rarely offers it to others, brusque in his manner, despises all other Japanese kings and princes and speaks to them over his shoulder in a loud voice as if they were lowly servants, obeyed by all as the absolute lord, has good understanding and good judgment……His father was merely the lord of Owari, but by his immense energy over the past four years Nobunaga has seized control of 17 to 18 provinces.”

Except for the wine, I think that’s the picture we got of Nobunaga in the film. In contrast, the young Ieyasu seems a bit soft in the film. He was no match for Nobunaga at this stage in their careers, but he was, or at least he became, a very tough cookie. The actor who portrayed him was a complete amateur who went on to play the part of Tango in Ran. The actor who played Nobunaga went on to play Saburo in Ran.

As for Shingen, I think Nakadai gave his all in what was for him an impossible task. He simply doesn’t fit the role, physically or temperamentally. In paintings from the time, Shingen is a big, even burly, man. Woodblock prints from later times, as well as Kurosawa’s storyboards, show him as huge, with a broad, ferocious face – a mountain – nothing like Nakadai’s image in the film.

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chomei

Thanks Vili, njean, and Ugetsu for your comments, they are great.

I believe this is the only AK movie with a scene before the credits and wonder if anyone has a thought on what that might mean. Also, does anyone know from what Noh drama Nobunaga recited?

Have only seen the longer version of this film, and the color at times did seem a bit “odd”, but on the whole I really enjoyed watching it again. There are times the film seems to bog down a bit, but the action and sheer beauty of the pagentry more than makes up for its shortcomings. Especially enjoyed the endless descent of the warrior into the fortress at the beginning; after the static opening shot, it takes the breath away.

One wonders what Mifune would have done in this film.

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