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Kagemusha: The Criterion Collection

Riding high on his international status as one of cinema's greatest directors, in the late 1970s Akira Kurosawa was nonetheless having trouble getting financing in his home country. Following box-office failures — most notably 1970's Dodes'ka-den , which was scathingly denounced by critics to the point that the director attempted suicide — Kurosawa was considered so unbankable that he made 1974's Dersu Urzala in Soviet Russia. Figuring he might never be able to tell the story of Kagemusha (1980) on film, he then picked up a brush and, using his skilled talents as an artist, told the tale through a series of paintings. Partly on the basis of these works, the 70-year-old Kurosawa secured two financial backers who knew a little something about the difficulties of producing epic movies — longtime Kurosawa fans Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. However, in typical Hollywood fashion, once their idol had completed his film, the two American directors then told Kurosawa that he had to cut 20 minutes, claiming that Western audiences would find it too unwieldy. Kagemusha turned out to be a commercial success — although that was only of limited help to the director, who still had to go to French investors to fund his next picture, Ran.

In Kagemusha, the director returned to feudal Japan in the late 1500s and the world of the samurai, telling the story of a powerful warlord, Shingen, head of the Takeda clan, who's killed in battle. His dying wish is that his dynasty and his drive to unify Japan continue — so a thief (Tatsuya Nakadai) who bears a remarkable resemblance to the warlord is brought in to impersonate him. The "kagemusha" — his "double" or "shadow" — will serve as Shingen's stand-in for three years, much to the displeasure of the warlord's son, Katsuyori (Hagiwara Kenichi). After fulfilling his role intermittently, the kagemusha learns of the warlord's death and refuses to go on with the ruse, saying that his promise was only to Shingen, not to his retainers. But, after some thought, he changes his mind — and slowly becomes the man he's impersonating, leading his clan against their enemies and eventually fulfilling his, and his lord's, destiny.

Having been so painstakingly imagined in paintings years earlier, Kagemusha is gloriously, meticulously shot, with a highly stylized visual sense that makes the film seem almost to be a dress rehearsal for Ran. Battle scenes are enormous, colorful, and awe-inspiring in their scope, while the more intimate, personal scenes are occasionally claustrophobic in their intensity — as with Ran, Kurosawa's King Lear adaptation, there's a Shakespearean element to the complex drawing-room political machinations behind the scenes. Having made samurai pictures for much of his career, it's an older, wiser Kurosawa who returns to the theme in Kagemusha, exploring the validity of the samurai code and the belief systems that drive men to seek power and go to war. The power of Shingen's dynasty can only be held together by an illusion; if the kagemusha fails in his task and is unmasked, then all will become chaos. But is a man standing in for a warlord, fulfilling the warlord's wishes, the same thing? At 70, unable to gain respect in his home country and having once tried to kill himself, it's possible that the film's cynical view of power and illusion reflects Kurosawa's feelings about his own career at that point — but despite any concerns he may have had about the public's reception to it, the director's love of filmmaking is still apparent here. Kagemusha is an epic work with breathtaking cinematography, gorgeous art direction, and huge, exciting battles. Although perhaps not quite as magnificent as Ran, it's still one of the master's finest works.

*          *          *

Finally presented to Western audiences in its complete, three-hour running time, the Criterion Collection's two-disc Kagemusha DVD release is stunning. Presented in a solid anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), the new, restored high-def digital transfer is virtually flawless — sharp, amazingly clean, with rich, bright colors and seemingly perfect contrast. It looks phenomenal, even better than many new releases of current films. The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio (in Japanese, with newly translated English subtitles) is equally good, whether capturing the quiet tones of hushed conversation or the thundering hoofbeats of riders on horseback. Disc One features an interesting, info-packed commentary track by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince, which offers a wealth of information on the making of the film and observations on Kurosawa's entire body of work, plus the American and Japanese theatrical trailers. Disc Two offers three featurettes — "Helping a Master: Coppola, Lucas, and Kagemusha," which is a new video interview with Lucas and Coppola (19 min.); "Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful To Create," a "making-of" television documentary from the Toho Masterworks Series focusing primarily on Kurosawa's later films (41 min.); and "Image: Kurosawa's Continuity," a fascinating video showing the process that brought Kurosawa's paintings and sketches to the screen (43 min.). There's also a storyboard-to-film feature, three commercials shot for Suntory Whiskey on the Kagemusha set featuring Kurosawa and Coppola, and an extensive booklet featuring paintings from the film plus essays by Darrell Davis and Peter Grilli. Dual-DVD keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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