#11 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.
Dersu Uzala got Kurosawa back to work, but it was Star Wars that brought him back to the top of the cinematic world. George Lucas, heavily inspired by Kurosawa in his space opera, used his newfound power in Hollywood to, alongside Francis Ford Coppola, to convince 20th Century Fox to purchase the international rights to Kurosawa’s next film which secured the necessary funding when combined with Japanese sources to start filming on his dress rehearsal for his next film, Ran. That has always felt like a rather dismissive way to refer to Kagemusha for this film is well worth it on its own. It is a complex and subtle epic centered on a great performance by Tatsuya Nakadai.
The daimyo Lord Shingen (Nakadi) is a vicious and imposing force in 16th century Japan, and his life is in constant danger. His younger brother Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki) often doubles for him in certain situations that don’t involve the high counselors who can tell the difference. Nobukado, though, has discovered a perfect double, a petty thief without a name who was about to be crucified for his crimes, given a second chance at life if he were to take the proposition of becoming Shingen’s double. He’s an uncouth and rough man of lower birth, but the resemblance is so complete that Shingen laughs away the double’s eccentricities and has him trained.
In the warring times of the era, Shingen is besieging a castle Tokugawa Ieyasu (Masayuki Yui), and he decides that he is going to come out from hiding to witness whether a lone flute player in the castle will play the night after his troops cut off the water supply. In the dark, he’s shot by a sniper, and he lingers for a few days before dying in his palanquin back home. He has forced his generals to hide his death for three years, and so the use of the double becomes of the ultimate importance. All of this takes about an hour to play out, and it represents a marked shift in Kurosawa’s filmmaking. Thinking back to Seven Samurai, the situation was established quickly, allowing for a much greater effort on a focus of character. Here, the basic situation of the double being forced to live another man’s life is established early, but the film takes its time getting us to the point where he actually has to take over as the public face of the clan (though, of course, he holds no real power that the generals don’t give him). The filmmaking is also much slower in pace, with lots of long shots film from a tripod on the floor as people have conversations, recalling the filmmaking of Yoshujiro Ozu, but combined with Kurosawa’s very intentional use of color.
The next hour is the shadow learning his place through meetings with his retainers, bodyguards, and Shingen’s son Katsuyori (Kenichi Hagiwara), all of whom know his true identity, as well as his grandson Takemaru (Kota Yui), who, with the eyes of a child, instantly sees through the deception and declares that the shadow is not his grandfather. He’s not scary anymore. The shadow improvises well, smoothing over the incident, but it shows how easily all of it can fall apart. There’s more worry regarding Shingen’s mistresses and, perhaps most importantly, Shingen’s horse, a nearly wild creature who won’t allow anyone to mount him other than Shingen.
On the opposite side are Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga (Daisuke Ryu), trying to reconcile the signs that Shingen is dead, namely Shingen’s withdrawal from battle after they are assured he was shot, and the news from a trio of spies that yes, Shingen is still alive and healthy. If he is alive or dead is not just an academic question to them. Shingen’s clan is in a strong position, so strong that he had taken the nicknamed of the Mountain to imply his great strength where he was. If he is dead, then they should be able to move against him and potentially wipe out the Takeda clan forever. If he’s alive, then the move would lead to assured destruction.
Complicating all of this is Katsuyori, embittered already because Shingen had decided to skip of him to be his heir in favor of Takemaru. He sees no glory for himself, all of his great feats in battle being attributed to his father in public, and he can’t rid himself of the idea that his father’s shadow, not the actual man being his shadow but a metaphorical one, looms over him. That he has to bow to a man who isn’t even his father is intolerable as well. He strikes out with his own men against an enemy position, but Shingen’s generals must act as well. If they don’t, it looks like Katsuyori is acting without Shingen’s approval, which is something he would never do if Shingen were alive.
In the middle of all of this is the shadow himself. Developing a loving relationship with Takemaru and settling into his place as a figurehead with increasing comfort over a year and a half, he is essentially becoming Shingen reborn. Even his retainers notes that it is as though Shingen’s spirit has possessed the shadow. He has no life of his own, though, and this leads to the most surrealistic sequence in Kurosawa’s body of work. The shadow dreams one night of being pursued by the ghostly image of Shingen, bursting from his coffin, and chasing him across a barren, strange landscape with a multi-colored sky. Eventually, Shingen falls away, leaving the shadow himself, alone. When he wakes up, he explains to his bodyguards that he dreamed of being surrounded by many enemies. It’s, of course, what Shingen would probably dream about, but ultimately he’s not Shingen. The shadow dreamed of being alone and in constant fear of the ghost of the man who’s place he had taken.
When the shadow leads his troops in support of Katsuyori, he’s concerned not with the movement of battle, but of the bodies of the men killed in the action. When two of his bodyguards are hit by snipers, he can’t take his eyes of the men who knew who he really was but still willing gave their lives for him. I think the implication of all of this is that the shadow was not only becoming Shingen to a certain degree, but he also seemed to be bringing a level of humanity to the role that the original never did. It’s possible that this thief could have become a better leader than Shingen.
It all comes crashing down when the shadow becomes too convinced that he is Shingen, decides to ride Shingen’s horse, and gets immediately thrown from it. His mistresses pick up him only to discover that a key scar on Shingen’s back is not there. It all happens in public, and the retainers have no choice but to end the charade and hand over the clan to Katsuyori as regent for Takemaru. The shadow must be cast out, and Katsuyori leads the clan to ruin, the retainers’ sense of honor leading them to pointless charges that only end with death.
After his banishment, the shadow lingers on, and as the film moves into its final stages, he becomes increasingly ghostlike in appearance, further cementing the idea that he is the ghost of Shingen, returned to earth to witness the fall of his clan because of his own arrogance and mistreatment of his son. That it is combined with the shadow’s real emotions at the sight of the dying men, all for nothing, and you’ve got quite the complex little way to end a movie.
This is a wonderfully rich epic of a film. We get our battle scenes, none of which directly involve any of our characters in direct combat, but the emotion of the action is never in doubt because of the marvelous central performance by Tatsuya Nakadai. Seemingly channeling Toshiro Mifune to the point where he kind of sounds like him, Nakadai plays both Shingen and the shadow markedly differently, all while providing the shadow great sense of danger, fear, and compassion. When the soldiers refuse to let him say goodbye to his pseudo-grandson, it’s heartbreaking because you know that his paternal love for the boy is real.
This is much more than a dress rehearsal for Ran. This is a wonderful vision of an elder filmmaker finding the kind of access to production he hadn’t seen in decades.