This review is nine months in the making. I bought Kagemusha on Blu Ray in February. It took a long time to find three hours to watch it, but we finally got around to it in May. But then, every attempt to watch it was thwarted by my PS3. And now, in late November, after replacing my Blu Ray, getting my Playstation repaired, and buying a brand new damn Blu Ray player, I bring you, with great relief, my review of Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha.
Kagemusha is a sprawling samurai epic, set in the 1500s, following the Takeda clan, led by the feared and respected warlord Shingen. The film opens with a long, uninterrupted shot of what appears to be three Shingens having a conversation. In actuality, one is Shingen, one is his nearly-but-not-quite identical brother, Nobukado, who acts as his decoy (or Kagemusha). The third is a lowly bandit that Nobukado has discovered and saved from execution because of his uncanny resemblance to Shingen. He believes that this bandit could serve as Kagemusha better than he can.
His belief is soon put to the test, when Takeda Shingen is shot by a sniper and dies. If their enemies were to find out Shingen is dead, the clan would be done for, so the Kagemusha is made to replace Shingen. He must fool Shingen's clan, his family, and his enemies. Inspired by the kindness Shingen showed him, the double soon begins to carry on the ruse by choice, out of loyalty to the clan.
The legendary Tatsuya Nakadai plays the dual role of Shingen and his decoy. You may remember him as the gun-wielding gangster in Yojimbo, or maybe as the cold hearted protagonist/villain in Sword of Doom. He couldn't be more different in his roles here. Shingen is a smaller role, but must cast a huge shadow on the rest of the film. The decoy, stripped of any identity before the start of the movie, is never given a name. Where Shingen is regal and stoic, the decoy is crude and low born. It's kind of a The Prince and the Pauper situation.
Kagemusha is actually pretty delightful for the first couple of hours, before taking a dark turn, culminating in the true historical event of the Battle of Nagashino. Watching the decoy having to learn how to be another man, winning the love of Shingen's grandson, charming Shingen's mistresses, and ultimately earning the loyalty of Shingen's clan was really enjoyable and quite funny at times. The double is surrounded by many characters, and though they are not as colorful as those in Seven Samurai or some of Kurosawa's other early masterpieces, they are still interesting.
The pacing is slow and deliberate. There are many scenes played out in a long sustained single shot. Kurosawa also puts a heavy focus on the nonverbal interplay between his characters. It amazed me that sometimes he'd have like 10 different characters in a shot and you could just look at all of their faces and body language and feel like you could read them all. Pretty complex stuff.
Visually, Kagemusha is gorgeous and rich with detail. This is the first color Kurosawa film I've seen. I could tell from his earlier work that he composed every one of his shots like a painter would a painting. It turns out he paints them like a painting too. The colors are so vivid in Kagemusha, the reds and greens just leap off the screen.
I'm not sure if I would recommend Kagemusha to just anyone, however. It's probably not so much for the uninitiated. If somebody I knew hadn't seen any Kurosawa films, I'd certainly point them towards Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Yojimbo, etc. and if they were still coming back for more, then I would show them the less accessible Kagemusha. Still, it's another great film from possibly the greatest director.