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Kagemusha: Is it his most reactionary film?

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    For some odd reason, the last time I watched Kagemusha the film it most reminded me of was the Edward Zwik/Tom Cruise effort The Last Samurai. Yes, I know, not exactly in the same class. I was trying to work out what they have in common (apart from the obvious period setting) that reminded me, and it occurred to me that it was the quite reactionary politics – the notion that the older samurai clans were in some sense morally superior to the more westernised forces against them. Shingen is portrayed as a great man, worthy of undying respect and loyalty from his men, and of course he even earns it from his own double, a man who we see in the very first scene accusing him of being a mass murderer.

    This seems a very different view of traditional clan lords from other AK films. In Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood and Ran, among others, there is never any ambiguity in the portrayal of warlords. They may be fine warriors, and noble in their own narrow worldview, but they are invariably shown as self deluding (as in Ran) or glorified gangsters (ToB, etc). From what I can see of his character, apart from a deeper level of self knowledge compared to other Kurosawa warlords, there is little real difference between him and the others. But in complete contrast to all other AK films I can think of, he is portrayed, even in death, as a sympathetic character, someone deserving of absolute respect.

    Prince writes about this, but he seems to attribute this to Kurosawa’s emphasis on the allegorical elements of the film – the need to portray Shingen as a man worthy of his followers devotion for narrative purposes.

    I have to say I’m not completely convinced by Princes explanation – there seems to be something in the film that is very different and contradictory to the overall thrust of AK’s film. For the first time we see him sympathizing with men of power, even the more ruthless aspects of the use and abuse of power.

    So am I right in seeing Kagemusha as something of a political outlier in his work – when for whatever reason he grew more conservative and nationalistic in his outlook? Perhaps his fascination with the period and the story for once overtook his more humanistic concerns?




    Ugestu says,

    …quite reactionary politics – the notion that the older samurai clans were in some sense morally superior to the more westernised forces against them.

    I don’t think there’s anything East/West about it all, actually. I think it’s all about symbols.

    …the notion that the older samurai clans were in some sense morally superior


    Isn’t Kurosawa almost always on about this? He’s usually quite a throwback kinda guy about how “in the old days we used to have to walk ten miles in the snow without shoes one way, and you liked it”. (Just kidding-little SNL joke, there). But, seriously, he really is about how the individual with a strong personal code of morality is a superior being to those without. I think we can call this character the samurai character, even in modern society. And, I would dare to trace this back to Kurosawa’s dad. Yep. I said it!

    The redemption of Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai is that he admired the moral code of the samurai, and he died acting as a samurai- And, hey, the only warlords that show up in Kurosawa are the ronin bandits or the admirable ones in Kagemusha, or those who fell from grace via lust or some twisted reason. Oh, I get it…people think Ran is a better film than Kagemusha because the corruption of the samurai ideals via the central character bring his entire family to ruin. Ah, wait- does this story also play in Kagemusha? Shingen cannot promote his son because of who the mother is…so promotes the gransdson instead, and causes a rift that ultimately causes the clan’s destruction-the mass leap into the arms of death at the end…? Kagemusha as dry run for Ran, indeed.

    Kurosawa never did a film like Harakiri, for example, that criticized the samurai way scathingly-at its root and soul as a bad thing-a sick institution with horrible outcomes. Kobayashi was really unflinching!

    Kurosawa seems, instead, to always think that the true samurai way was good. Perhaps I am wrong, but perhaps a “samurai” is a state of moral rectitude-even if you are a guy in the ladie’s shoe business, or a guy who was a thief, ready for the cross until you were hired as a double. Or maybe you were even a farmer, or an alcoholic doctor, or a doctor with syphillis, or a red bearded doctor, or a ronin who takes the name Sanjuro, or a woman with not regrets for her youth, who chooses a man of high morals-despite the consequences, or an old woman who honors the loss and the devastation of the atom bomb, or even a woodcutter who adopts a foundling child, but “samurai” is a place you learn to get to, once you can clearly see your choices, and developmentally learn to make the morally “straight” choice…and, since this is about a learning process, in large part, the samurai-in-training makes many poor choices, and is set many trials until he/she can prove his/her worth.

    All Kurosawa films are samurai films. That’s why I like them!

    Wait, Ugetsu, what was the question? I seem to have gotten into some frenetic typing/thinking tangent.



    I think what we see is the new double coming to the realization that ruthlessness is only seen by the timid, Men that bear no responsibilities for others, men that make no stand, men that have no scars, tend to see those that hold to beliefs, or purpose as cruel, abusive. And so the double in this case refers to Shingen simply a mass murder.

    It’s not until the double, feels the burden and understands his importance in maintaining the livelihood of his clan, not until the double starts to be fond of his people, and Shingen’s grandson. That he begins to change, he begins to see the vital importance of being strong in a purpose for the betterment of those he oversees. The double starts to see the respect worthiness of a man, that acts ruthlessly not specifically for self gain, but for the gain, peace and continuation of those he rules over. For any man that would act timidly upon those that wish to destruct the people he oversees, has only gone to commit a great crime upon the people, as such acts have always ensured destruction.

    So the double, slowly changes his perception of Shingen, from mass murder, to highly respected, up to the end where the double becomes so fond of Shingen, he becomes him.

    I’m not so sure Kurosawa really change attitudes, but simply ended the movie at a different point then others.

    We do see the mass killing of the clan, for ultimately pointless purposes. And Kurosawa often points to the ultimate pointlessness of war and violence in the end. All Kurosawa is doing here, is reflecting that although war and violence is pointless in the end, perhaps even self-defeating. There is honor in those that are willing to bear the burden of war for the sake of great purpose and duty, both regardless of it pointless in the grand scale.

    All I see is Kurosawa paying a bit of respect to great man, without getting blinded into the political aspects of it all. And why fault a man, that is holds firm to himself through right or wrong, good or bad, to the point in which he is fondly referred to as a mountain.



    And speaking of Kobayashi, I dont think him much different then Kurosawa other then approach. In Harakiri(haven’t seen in a while, hope I got the right movie in mind)Kobayahsi is pointing to the stupidity of blind obedience, often seen in samurai, to which he uses to reflect the same effect the Japanese people had during WWII militaristic Japan. Both Kurosawa and Kobayashi, point out that humans should contain the ability to not fall into tragic events, but rise above them.

    The difference is perhaps that Kobayashi thought that fighting for peace, is not peace but continuation of violence, while Kurosawa points that although often self-defeating, fighting for peace is the only way to ensure it.

    This may reflect that Kobayashi wasn’t fond of Japan entering WWII, nor America uneven infliction of violence to solve the issue, thus making America perhaps worse then Japan. Kurosawa however, seem to be somewhat neutral in how America went about solving the issue of WWII.

    I’ve confused myself now, if anything make sense, it’s by pure accident.



    Maybe you are right…Jeremy, Kobayashi did do The Human Condition trilogy (I’ve not seen it, but hope to).



    When I was referring to Prince, I was thinking of his book, but I’ve just finished watching his commentary on the Criterion version, and it explains his view much better. I find his interpretation pretty convincing and really interesting – I had no idea how much of the film was based on historic fact. And he has a lot of interesting things to say about the battle scenes too.

    But while I don’t disagree with what Coco and Jeremy say, I still feel a little taken aback at the almost mystic level of respect given to Shengen in the story. What I admire so much in AK’s films is that in nearly every film he uses is exploring his own beliefs, he is never (or at least, rarely) preaching at us, the viewer. But I find Kagemusha oddly lacking in this interior dialogue.



    I would approach Shingen’s place in the film from a slightly different angle. While it is true that he is revered in the film by both his political enemies and those closest to him, note that the film doesn’t have any villains as such. There is no antagonist to Shingen’s protagonist. For a film that is “distanced” and “cold”, Kagemusha actually has a surprisingly total lack of unlikeable characters.

    You could even call it a very warm and optimistic film in this sense. The world may be complicated, chaotic and insecure, but the characters inhabiting it are all portrayed as very humane and respectful of one another. Shingen’s son is probably the least likeable character, but even there the film makes it possible for us to understand his feelings and even accept his actions.

    And while Shingen may be the most highly regarded of the characters in the story, I think that this is not so much because of what he is or was, but more so because he is dead, and it is his clan’s tragedy that we are witnessing. Narratively, the story needs him to be the central piece around which everything else revolves, and also to be something that we can believe in, or otherwise the whole thing would collapse.

    But I think that Kagemusha also makes it possible for us to understand that Shingen was not all saintly. He himself acknowledges that he expelled his own father, took his place by force and caused the deaths of many. We feel, I think, the grief and regret that Shingen’s son has for never quite being treated as a proper son. But the point is, like Jeremy said, that these things had to be done, for whatever reason.

    The way I currently see it, Kagemusha celebrates the positive forces in us — things like respect, honour, compassion — while showing that we are all flawed, simply because the world in which we live is flawed. I hesitate to call the world of Kagemusha deterministic, although you could make a case for it considering Shingen’s fulfilled prophecy about the destruction of the clan, but what I’m trying to say is that there is something like a role everyone plays to a certain extent, forced on us by the environment. Maybe what you do is not as important as how you do it.

    And this is why the destruction of the Takeda clan at the end makes me sad, but it doesn’t make me angry. Just like the three generals, I accept that this is where it has come to. There may have been other alternatives at some point, but the fact is that those alternatives did not materialise. The role of the Takeda is to perish. The role of the others is to carry on.

    So, to answer the question posed in the title of this thread: No, I don’t think of Kagemusha as reactionary.



    I’m here only to say that Coco’s post about the nature of samurai and their role in Kurosawa’s films of a few days ago is awesome. Great post, Coco, and I agree with you wholeheartedly.

    Then again, we’re both huge Seven Samurai fangirls, so it figures.

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