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  Kagemusha Double Or Quits
Year: 1980
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ken'ichi Hagiwara, Jinpachi Nezu, Hideji Otaki, Daisuke Ryu, Masayuki Yui, Kaori Momoi, Mitsuko Baisho, Hideo Murota, Takayuki Shiho, Koji Shimizu, Noburo Shimizu, Sen Yamamoto, Shuhei Sugimori, Kota Yui
Genre: War, HistoricalBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 1 vote)
Review: Lord Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai) is the leader of the Takeda Clan, and as such in sixteenth century Japan, must go to great lengths to protect himself and his power. To that end, he employs a double to stand in for him and divert attention, but none of them have looked quite so much like him as this man who sits before him in private audience today. He is a petty thief who was due to be crucified until Shingen's brother Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki) suggested he be spared, for it is not every day that the dead spit of the ruling clan emerges from such lowly origins. But if they want him to double, he will have some tutoring to go through...

Not to mention they will have to speed through any such tutoring as Shingen is not a well man, and is actually dying, which would spell catastrophe for his clan with no strong centre to hold it together, for his son is a weak leader under his father's shadow, and his grandson is too young to be any good with leadership. Thus this partly historical epic progressed to follow the journey of the thief, known as Kagemusha, as he is drawn into this web of deception against his will for the alternative would be his death. He makes his feelings clear about his master in that opening scene: he is not impressed, regarding him as a mass murderer, but Shingen has wisdom too, and says the world needs scoundrels.

Scoundrels to keep the status quo, to prevent power vacuums that could potentially be far more damaging were there no dictators (or ruthless leaders, anyway) to keep the forces of chaos in line. But for the next three hours, the film enquires, was he right? This was director Akira Kurosawa's comeback movie (at seventy years of age!) for he had spent the latter half of the nineteen-seventies struggling with depression, including a suicide attempt, thanks to a career that had faltered badly. It was ironic that his previous film Dersu Uzala, his only work between the end of 1970 and 1979, had won him an Oscar, highlighting the esteem he was held in the West that did not translate to respect in his native Japan.

American directors George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola were not having that, and set out to fund a pet project Kurosawa had been planning for some time but had never had the backing, and Kagemusha was the result. For his fans, it was as if he had never been away and they lauded it as one of his classics, though there were naysayers who complained it was too long and shallow for them and its ambitions. Long it assuredly was, but shallow, not so much, as Kurosawa took a few leaves out of Shakespeare's book to fashion a tale that included royalty and doubles and mistaken identity, and finally, tragedy as the all-too human failings of the supposed great and good wind up sabotaging any plans they had to improve the world. Shingen dies in the first hour, and the thief is left in a tricky position.

That is, as Kurt Vonnegut pointed out in his novel Mother Night, we must be careful who we pretend to be, for we are who we pretend to be. This persona was foisted on the thief, but he gets to like at least being a figurehead, especially since it gives him a family he never had, connecting with Shingen's little grandson in sentimental ways, and the privilege of being the chief obviously has its advantages even if the advisors who are in on the subterfuge are taking all the decisions. For a medium that relies on actors, film has always liked the stories of those who pretend, and this was one of the best since the stakes were so high: other clan leaders try to catch the Takeda out, and the traps all around both hidden and in plain sight make us fear for the imposter. Yet this was a war film too, and the sheer futility of a world where power is decided on who does the most killing was not lost on it, leading to a finale that denies the audience the excitement of seeing a battle of thousands, but crucially not its horrendous aftermath. Many will prefer Ran, Kurosawa's next epic, but do not dismiss Kagemusha. Music by Shinichiro Ikebe.

[This is released on Blu-ray by Criterion with the following features:

Restored high-definition digital transfer, with DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 soundtrack on Blu-ray edition
Audio commentary by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince
Lucas, Coppola, and Kurosawa, an interview piece from 2005 in which directors George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola discuss Kurosawa and Kagemusha
Documentary from 2003 on the making of the film
Image: Kurosawa's Continuity, a piece from 1993 reconstructing Kagemusha through Kurosawa's paintings and sketches
Suntory Whisky commercials made on the set of Kagemusha
Gallery of storyboards painted by Kurosawa and images of their realization on-screen
Theatrical trailers and teasers
Plus: An essay by scholar Peter Grilli (DVD and Blu-ray), and an interview with Kurosawa by renowned critic Tony Rayns (Blu-ray only)
Cover painting by Akira Kurosawa]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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Akira Kurosawa  (1910 - 1998)

Japanese director and writer, and one of the most important figures in 20th century cinema. Kurosawa was greatly influenced by Hollywood - John Ford being his idol - but more than any other film-maker was responsible for introducing Japanese films to West. He originally trained as an artist and worked as a studio scriptwriter, before directing his first film in 1943, the martial arts drama Judo Saga. Kurosawa's next few films were made during World War II and had to adhere to strict state guidelines; it was 1948's gangster movie Drunken Angel that first saw the director's emerging personal vision, and was his first film to star regular leading man ToshirĂ´ Mifune.

Rashomon was the film that brought Kurosawa acclaim in the West, winning top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, and a string of classics followed - Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Seven Samurai - all set in Feudal Japan and combining incredible cinematography and thrilling action with humour, sadness and deep insights into human behaviour. The director also turned in some superb non-period film around this time too, such as the thrillers The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low.

The following decade proved a frustrating one for Kurosawa, as he struggled to get projects off the ground, culminating with the box office failure of Dodesukaden and a suicide attempt in 1970. The director's fortunes turned when 1975's Russian epic Dersu Uzala won the Best Foreign Language Oscar, while his next two films were among his very best - the beautifully shot Kagemusha and 1985's spectacular, hugely successful King Lear adaptation, Ran. Kurosawa's final films were smaller and more personal - Dreams, Rhapsody in August and Not Yet. He died of a stroke in 1998, aged 88.

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