Made five years after his Oscar-winning Soviet Union co-production “Dersu Uzala” and ten after his beautiful but poorly received “Dodes’ka-den,” Akira Kurosawa’s “Kagemusha” marks the filmmaker’s rather triumphant return to the genre in which he made some of his greatest films: the samurai epic. Despite his legendary reputation and comeback from personal and professional crisis, he still required outside assistance for the production, leading to Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas serving as executive producers and a series of Suntory whiskey commercials Kurosawa shot on the set with Coppola (which inspired one narrative strand in Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation”). Yet it all paid off, resulting in yet another impressive artistic accomplishment for the master.
“Kagemusha” begins with a surreal image: three men, identical in appearance, occupying the same long shot. One of them is the powerful Lord Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai); another is his brother Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki), who often serves as his double. The third man (also Nakadai) is Kagemusha, a thief who was rescued from execution at the last minute because of his uncanny resemblance to the lord. He begins to undergo training as a brand new double for Shingen – a role he must suddenly inherit completely after the lord is wounded by a sniper’s bullet and dies soon afterwards. Suspicions abound regarding whether Shingen is truly alive or dead, and Kagemusha and his lords and counselors encounter many challenges as he tries to convincingly uphold his role before his court, family, mistresses and enemies.
Continuing the same streak of experimentation and freedom that he embarked upon with “Dodes’ka-den,” his first color film, Kurosawa provides a marvelous visual feast. Several scenes stand out simply for their stunning images: a line of soldiers passing in front of a radiant orange sun, the many shots of a sky lit in shades of red and blue, a rainbow appearing over an army of men and horses on a beach, Masayuki Yui’s soft-spoken Lord Ieyasu mourning Shingen’s death within his snowfall-enshrouded castle. Kurosawa partially intended “Kagemusha” to be a warm-up run for his incredible “Ran,” and indeed there are many images that would be echoed in the later film: rows of marching troops carrying different-colored banners, elaborately costumed lords and warriors attending to the business of war, deserted battlefields filled with the dead and dying. One standout sequence is the dream the thief has in which he is haunted by the armor-clad ghost of the late lord, presented in a hallucinatory manner with slow motion, bright colors, a painted sky backdrop and a darkly atmospheric score.
Just as remarkable as his painter’s eye is Kurosawa’s ever-sharp talent for storytelling. He and his team expertly weave a tale that is part “The Prince and the Pauper,” part historical drama. Nakadai turns in yet another excellent performance as both the proud Shingen and Kagemusha, who walks a tightrope of deception that is tested at every turn – most interestingly by Katsuyori (Kenichi Hagiwara), the lord’s jealous son who was overlooked for succession. The story also very much addresses the nature of identity through both Nobukado and Kagemusha, who lend theirs to Shingen, essentially becoming mere shadows of him (significantly, the film’s longer title is “Kagemusha the Shadow Warrior”). Kurosawa also uses more minor characters wisely, some of which include three snooping peasants who investigate the authenticity of the lord’s death and, early in the film, an attention-grabbing, mud-splattered messenger whose swift passage amongst scores of resting troops is highlighted by a spirited, Western-influenced score.
While it covers terrain previously covered in “Seven Samurai,” “Throne of Blood” and “The Hidden Fortress,” “Kagemusha” is a very different kind of film than those earlier classics. Like “Ran,” its bold use of color and cooler, more distanced perspective indicate the level of maturity and control that Kurosawa had reached by that point. And while many may unfairly label it as “the prototype “Ran,”” it easily fits alongside the Emperor’s other renowned masterpieces.