Akira Kurosawa: Kagemusha (1980) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Akira Kurosawa: Kagemusha (1980)

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1AndrewCommentaryBannerI'm not sure I actually watched Kagemusha the first time I had it on.  Sure, it was playing, the images moved, I'm sure I heard sound every so often, but putting the film in again convinced me that I had a moment of ignorance and wasn't paying enough attention.  After the film was over I felt ashamed.  For someone who has spent almost three years cataloging my film opinions for consumption, here was a film I watched with all the same attentiveness I give to my hand when I'm passing a debit card over after a purchase.

Kagemusha was almost revelatory for me this time around.  I know some of it has to do with context.  After a long and brutal primary where seemingly different people fought each other for the right to wage an even more brutal campaign against our President I was a lot more receptive to the idea that no man means more than the ideal.  But as one after another lost the fallen participants fall in-line, praising their new would-be leader, and continue on.  The face is irrelevant so long as the mass has their prop to hold up and ascribe some kind of meaning to.

No, our Presidential election this year does not have as pat paralells to the Sengoku period of Kagemusha, but I've gotten a bit complacent in terms of how the context of each viewing morphs my perception of it.  I was gripped from the opening scene, a hallucinatory and standard-setting moment where two nearly identical brothers talk about how a pathetic thief could serve as a double at a moment's notice.  Akira Kurosawa had different actors playing the lord (Tatsuya Nakadai) and his brother (Tsutomu Yamazaki), but the same actor as the lord is also the thief.2This scoundrel, also played by Nakadai, is so different from the composed manners of the lord and his brother.  He snarls and laughs while growling like a lost performance of Toshiro Mifune, so different from the lord who just wants to listen to the flute.  But when tragedy strikes and the lord needs his double it doesn't take long for the thief to completely change his worldview.  Two people, barely on the same side of the conflict between territories, and once the weight of ideology comes crushing down the differing viewpoint is able to change so easily.

Which brings me to what I find absolutely fascinating and also unfortunate about Kagemusha.  Identity is now as fluid as morals were in Rashomon.  With the right combination of genetics someone could stand in for you tomorrow and not even your loved one's would bat an eye.  Yes, Kurosawa stretches this by having an actor play in both the fully converted and violently resisting roles, but taken on the philosophical bent the implications are terrifying.  It's gorgeous looking at the elaborate costumes and banners of the lord's army as he goes out but they are all under an ideology instead of a true leader.  Unfortunately, Kurosawa is unable to get this idea out without straining a conversion scene from the thief where, even after revisiting the movie, I can't quite fully grasp why he's so suddenly willing to work for people who would basically keep him as a slave.

There are a large number of beautiful sequences and images in this movie that the common descriptor of Kagemusha, a trial-run for Ran, feels terribly out of line.  I'd love to get to some of those, but after I undersold the movie somewhat last week I want to get your first-time impression.3Kyle Commentary BannerKagemusha was probably the third Kurosawa film I ever saw—right behind Yojimbo and Ikiru. I had a slightly stronger reaction to it than you the first time and a slightly weaker one this second viewing. I don't dislike it, but a few great moments stand out in a series of events of which, thinking back on them now, I can't possibly understand having filled the near 3-hour running time. All of this is laid over a framework of ideas regarding identity, loyalty, and (as you mentioned) politics that works a bit better for me on paper. I imagine an architect lauding wonderfully drawn blueprints over the perfectly functional finished house.

Before seeing this again, I remembered a vague impression of a visually stimulating film that, as you mentioned, was eclipsed by Ran only for the unfair reason that they are Kurosawa's more modern, color-drenched feudal Japan movies. Revisiting it this time, its main flaw is clear to me: in setting up the plot and thief-posing-as-lord situation, he neglects to create any emotional attachment to these characters for something like the first hour of the movie. You mentioned the problem of the thief's sudden conversion to the cause, pledging utter and complete devotion to impersonating the dead lord for reasons that are murky at best (he's moved by the real lord's small, secret funeral?)—this and the lack of characterization on part of the thief make it difficult to invest in the clan's efforts to convince everyone else that the he is who they say he is on any level other than that of a con movie (will they pull it off? Will an old friend or the lord's grandson figure them out?)

For me, the audience's interest is then almost completely academic. We're interested in the things Kurosawa has to say about the importance (or lack thereof) of identity, the reasons groups follow individuals so loyally and selflessly, and the vain and silly reasons people have for war, but we follow these thoughts at a distance, as if what's unfolding onscreen are well-done illustrations of philosophical points rather than an evolving story.

In the second half of Kagemusha, we start to see the consequences of the thief's own emotional investment in his role, and these scenes stick with me more than any others. As he's escorted out of the castle and begs to see his (now as everyone knows, fake) grandson, the scenes of him watching a royal procession from behind a fence and calling out to the young boy, and the sequence at the end where he watches in horror from some tall grass as his former troops and comrades are massacred in a battle foolishly sought out by the new lord—these moments make Kurosawa's points every bit as well as some that occur earlier on in the movie, but they are backed and strengthened because we can attach some emotion to them. The reason the film is so strangely flawed, for me, is that it takes so long to get to this point.4AndrewCommentaryBannerEven if I don't agree with your analogy of blueprint to house, I still absolutely love the way you put it.  I disagree because it goes back to what I was saying about the legacy of Kagemusha being a dry run for Ran.  Granted, it's been a long time since I've seen Ran, and very much look forward to it after seeing Kagemusha so recently, but I believe the shadow politics of Kagemusha just appealed to me more than you.

I agree that there is a way in which this seems to be a purely academic exercise but I find the film more interesting because of it.  This is in how Kurosawa applies the lesson of Rashomon directly to history.  Takeda Shingen is the first character that Kurosawa has pulled directly from Japan's past and is toying around with what happened to him.  Jacob told me that Takeda Shingen is something of a local hero of the town that he used to live in during his stay in Japan.  Considering the film was his triumphant return to Japanese cinema after his depression and exile post-Dodes'ka-den it's intriguing seeing him take on such a large figure in his first film back.  The exact cause of Takeda's historical death is unknown, but I love the idea of Kurosawa asking the audience to really look at the hero they revered and ask if all those deeds were really his.

Invented history is something I love to see in fiction, it drove one of my favorite books (I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem) and favorite films of this year (Django Unchained) because I find something sweetly nihilistic about an unspoken voice gaining a foothold in history through art.  The person who could have been the recipient is long dead, in this case the possibly fictionalized thief, and as such we can never really know the true history.  So Kurosawa's use of it here works on that academic level very well in addition to playing into a level of intrigue aimed at a specific audience.  Yes, it's academic, but given the wider political ramifications of the story I love what he did.5Abandoning history and academic considerations, this is an absolutely gorgeous nightmare of a film.  The recent controversy over the frames per second (FPS) used in the first Hobbit film could be settled by looking at the nightmare scene in this one.  No matter how many FPS you decide to shoot that scene in, the artificiality of the set has to be maintained.  I love how Kurosawa painted the walls of the set to resemble a vast desert that the thief decides not to test because he can't go anywhere, and I also adore the deadened colors of Takeda's bloated corpse taking over the landscape.  It's all wonderfully fake and the artificiality would be heightened more if the FPS was higher, removing that sensation of being trapped with the dead along with the thief.

Pet FPS issues aside, there are so many moments of colorful glory in Kagemusha.  My favorite is when you see the assembled army of Takeda with each squad adorned with their own colorful armor and standard.  That image is beautifully inverted at the end when it's the monochrome horses, uniform amongst the deadly rainbow, kicking and trying to run away from the carnage.  Then the thief, finally purified and sincere in his desire to help, running back to foolishly give his life to a cause now thoroughly destroyed.

He tempered the extreme color personalities of Dodes'ka-den to a different, not better, purpose and had the story to back it up.  Who knows, maybe I'll come back in a frothing rage after watching Ran next week?

Feel free to put me down like a rabid dog if that ends up being the case.6Kyle Commentary BannerThe fact that audiences more familiar with Shingen would bring a whole array of myths, associations, stories, and preconceived notions of a person to the story before Kurosawa even starts is something I completely overlooked initially. I can't say exactly how—because I am not familiar with the real man—but I imagine the movie would take on some very different dimensions and a kind of built-in emotional investment that would address the issues I had with it.

If the movie started off with a character the mythic version of which was already fully established in my mind and entrenched in the culture I'm familiar with, I suppose the thief's lack of development early on wouldn't matter, because the audience could project themselves onto him, encountering vicariously a major figure of history. The disintegration of the illusion that the thief is the lord would then also have a bit different of an effect (though the scene you mentioned, probably the best in the movie, where he runs through a sunset painted landscape works so well on its own that I can't imagine it being much improved).

Perhaps I'll do some reading and research, and revisit this one when we're done. I still can't get too excited about it on an immediate level, but I don't disagree with anything you're saying, and it's likely I'm simply approaching the movie from the wrong standpoint.7

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