(Kagemusha the Shadow Warrior, Japan/USA - 1980)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kenichi Hagiwara, Kota Yui
Genre: War/Drama
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Masato Ide & Akira Kurosawa
Cinematography: Shoji Ueda, Masaharu Ueda, & Takao Saito
Composer: Shinichiro Ikebe
Runtime: 179 minutes

"Act naturally… Like him" - Nobukado Takeda

The opening shot lasts for six minutes and has so little movement it can be hard to discern which character is talking. Almost as if we were watching a play from an elevated seat, sitting center stage in front of us is the powerful warlord Shingen Takeda (Tatsuya Nakadai). His right hand man, brother Nobukado Takeda (Tsutomu Yamazaki), is right where you'd expect him to be, while an unnamed thief is foregrounded because he doesn't belong (and perhaps because the same actor also plays Shingen). They are deciding whether the thief can be used as Shingen's kagemusha (shadow warrior, basically the warlord's double). This clever distance and framing makes it obvious that physically each could pass for one another.

One of the films key points is that in the rigidly structured and ordered society of 16th Century Japan, almost everyone was interchangeable. They didn't do their job; they were their job. The fact that most of them have the same haircuts and uniforms makes it hard for us to identify these people, but it's more that all signs of personality are subjugated. If the film seems slow and somewhat dull it's because this society is stolid, and Kurosawa isn't afraid to bring that out even at the expense of the enjoyment of certain members of the audience. The obvious reading is that Kagemusha is a puppet, but in many ways almost everyone but the generals are too. Even the supposedly great ruler Shingen does not appear to have any real character, just a few idiosyncrasies and ways of posing and posturing. Obviously there are huge differences between the ruler and the peasants, but ultimately whether the thief can succeed in doubling for Shingen comes down to his willingness to give up all aspects of self in favor of constant imitation.

The thief is the only peasant with a role worth talking about, and aside from the generals, until he "becomes" Shingen at the end of the opening scene, the only one with strong will and character. He has the guts to laugh long and loud at Shingen when the ruler questions how such a wicked scoundrel could be his double. In a great gutsy reply, the thief tells Shingen, "I only stole a few coins. A petty thief. But you've killed hundreds and robbed whole domains. Who is wicked?" While it's true the thief has nothing to lose because they were going to kill him anyway, you get the sense that he's a ballsy rebel that isn't afraid to die, and perhaps give the circumstances would rather. Shockingly Takeda likes him and even agrees with him. "I am wicked, as you believe. I am a scoundrel. I banished my father and I killed my own son. I will do anything to rule this country. War is everywhere. Unless someone unifies the nation and reigns over us we will see more rivers of blood and more mountains of the dead." The honesty of both men earns each other's respect and the scene ends with the thief bowing to show his acceptance of the new purpose of his life, the first and only purpose of his existence.

Predictably, Shingen (1521-1573) soon dies after a sniper wound (this is disputed with some historians attributing it to illness, perhaps tuberculosis). Before he dies, he tells the most trusted members of the clan to keep his death a secret for at least three years, guard the domain, and never move from it to attack.

Kagemusha can "lead" the troops because the generals make all the decisions. They argue over strategy and order the troops around during battle. They are the ones with the real wisdom and power. General Yamagata can even get away with telling Shingen he's a mountain monkey that behaves like a five-year-old child and is so narrowminded he should not dream of rulership.

One of the most interesting scenes is an enemy sneak attack where many people around "Shingen" are killed. Shingen's job is to "be the mountain," so he must stay seated while his protectors use their body to shield him from danger. I feel it's the best scene toward making you question the value of life in this society because two young men that were previously of a higher class die bravely to save his life. Is one life really worth more, and if so whose? Is Shingen really worth more than Kagemusha or is a leader in these times worth no more and no less than his perceived value? Is this life just about nothing more than who your parents are and being in the right place at the right time?

While the scenes where Kagemusha gains acceptance as Shingen from Shingen's various unknowing relatives, partners, and subjects come as no surprise, they are still interesting and cleverly orchestrated. Many mistakes are made by Kagemusha in his attempt to be Shingen all day and all of the night, but luckily they are only witnessed by the few people that know he's an imposter. His problem is not lack of concentration; it's lack of desire. This is a man with a great deal of personal pride that, in spite of how others view some things he's done, believes he was honest and honorable. He quickly longs to return to his previous existence not because it was great, but simply because it was him. In a pathetic attempt to retain the self, he tries to steal some of the warlord's stuff and run away, but the shock and disgrace of discovering the lord's corpse (they hadn't told him Shingen died yet) in the large jar he was stealing from gets him caught. Unfortunately, this is one of the scenes that's taken down by Nakadai's overacting.

If you are looking for battle action, this film is not the way to go. Kurosawa's warrior films have always been about the characters and their strategy rather than the action, but I believe this film shows a minimal amount of fighting even by his standards. Kagemusha is about the "leader" in the battles, and his job is simply to sit calmly, motionless. While in essence he does nothing, the presence of their rock gives his warriors a sense of bravery, confidence, and pride they wouldn't have otherwise. On the other hand, Shingen never losing a battle on his home turf psyches the opposition out and gives the Takeda clan a kind of home field advantage.

Kurosawa partly made Kagemusha as a dry run for his next film Ran, a resetting of Shakespeare's King Lear. Looking at the two films from today's standpoint, it's almost amazing that Kagemusha was financed with American money and Ran with French. I say this because Ran had the battle sequences expected by Americans while Kagemusha had the exploration of humans and their actions expected by the French. Kurosawa only made 7 seven films in his last 33 years, largely because he had a hard time getting funding. At that point the Japanese studios were the ones that wanted a product they could sell regardless of the quality, and Kurosawa's production company started with three other top Japanese directors crashed and burned immediately with the flop of his Dodesukaden (1970). Kagemusha was backed by admirers George Lucas, whose career making Star Wars was inspired by Kurosawa's 1958 film Kakushi toride no san akunin (The Hidden Fortress) and Francis Ford Coppola, before to me his name became a symbol of nepotism and cinematic mediocrity (Jeepers Creepers this guy that once backed Koyaanisqatsi now backs films like Goosed). With it's $6 million budget, it was the most expensive Japanese film to date. It was not the first Kurosawa film to be funded with foreign money, as Russia financed much of his 1974 film Derzu Usala, but Kagemusha was the first Japanese movie where a foreign country not only put their money into it but also handled worldwide distribution.

Despite its lack of violence, the scenes involving the army are the standouts. Kagemusha is a throwback to the old days, employing thousands of extras with elaborate colorful battle outfits. That could be meaningless, but the cinematography and choreography are exquisite and exceptional. Looking at this film, one certainly would not think that Kurosawa was a director associated with black and white films (his previous two were also color). The soldiers are never shot in what appears to be broad daylight. Usually we see them at sunrise or sunset when the outdoors has it's own very distinct look that alters the effect of the soldier's costumes. There's a certain uniquely colorful beauty to every scene of troop movement, at least until you reflect on the pointlessness of a land where most everyone's existence is defined by endless battling over territory. It's a very expansive film that's breadth cannot be fully enjoyed in the pan and scan video that's unfortunately the only way we can see it on at the moment.

One great shot is a low angle of the orange sky at sunset. The soldiers sitting on the ground near the camera are barely visible, in part because it's very misty, with the main focus being on the soldiers marching across a wall behind them. As the shot is set up so the wall seems to block all the other light, the marching soldiers appear more as solids blocking the orange rays.

Another great moment is the first time Kagemusha leads the troops. The spies from the other clans feel the only logical explanation for the Takeda clans recent action is that Shingen has indeed been killed, so we get Kagemusha convincing the troops and the spies that he's Shingen from the overhead spies eye view (they are looking down from a small mountain). The screen is basically split into two diagonals with hundreds of troops decked out in their armor raising their lances and shouting in the bottom left while "Shingen," almost acting as a composer, and his generals ride by the front line in the top right. Where the scene gets cool though is when the split changes to horizontal and Kagemusha and co. riding by remains in focus even though there's a blur of troops in between them and the camera.

Even though Kagemusha handles himself well, he still has bouts with self-doubt. This is shown by a nightmare on an incredibly colorful set that looks as if Kagemusha is walking on the surface of a planet with a colored cloudy atmosphere. Well, he's not really walking. He's running away from Shingen, who hatches from his jar in full battle gear and starts stalking after Kagemusha, but then turns his back on him and walks away. What's great about the scene is Kagemusha doesn't know if he should keep running or chase after the lord, so he just winds up wandering around bewildered.

The production values are certainly fantastic. The one thing I generally didn't like was Kurosawa's heavy overuse of mist, steam, and dust. It gives the film a more artistic feel, but at the same time takes away some of the realism and in my opinion what makes most of the shots so beautiful. This is a small issue, but nonetheless I find natural scenes like the one where the troops are marching through the wind toward the ocean with the tide coming in far more impressive than most of his steamy stuff.

Shinichiro Ikebe's soundtrack is so effective because it's only used at appropriate times. It gives a certain feel of longing and weariness to the travel scenes. This is not at all a soaring score. The film has been criticized for not having "epic moments," but that's one of its strengths. Kurosawa realizes the clan period was an unproductive rather than glorious part of Japan's history, and while this isn't really the focus of his film, he still has his ways of showing the pointlessness of it all. The film would be more pleasant with one of those overrated happy shiny triumphant John Williams scores, but why should war be pleasant? The glory is reserved for Kagemusha's achievements in making people believe he's Shingen or at least momentarily forget he isn't. While in and of itself deception is not a good thing, it is what keeps the clan going and the troops motivated.

Visuals aside, the film's greatest pleasure lies in Kagemusha's relationship with his young grandson Takemaru (Kota Yui). This is an important relationship because, we assume seeing that his son Katsuyori Takeda (Kenichi Hagiwara) was too aggressive to lead the clan, Shingen choose to bypass him and make Takemaru his heir. The bond they form is moving because it's immediately established that Takemaru had a less than spectacular relationship with Shingen, whom he was afraid of. More importantly, even though Takemaru isn't in the know, it is through this relationship that some of Kagemusha's own character can live on. These scenes show that people of different class could actually have a great relationship, but only as long as the illusion that they were the same lasted.

The movies dialogue is brief and to the point. Some statements are very profound like when Nobukado tells Kagemusha what it was like for him to impersonate Shingen. "I know it is difficult. I was for a long time the lord's double. It was torture. It is not easy to suppress yourself to become another. Often I wanted to be myself and free. But now I think this was selfish of me. The shadow of a man can never desert that man. I was my brother's shadow. Now that I have lost him it is as though I am nothing." Most of the film though is about not expressing any such feeling, just about doing your tasks the way they must be done.

Kurosawa certainly sees irony and comedy in the ways of this society. One particularly humorous scene has two servants sweeping dirt aside so Shingen can ride in on his horse. The servants think they are finished, but one of them didn't move the dirt in a nice enough pattern so their overseer orders the other guy back, takes the broom from the screw up, does it "properly," and throws the broom into the bungler's chest.

Nakadai's performance is mainly good, but could have used more subtlety. My main problem with his performance is I don't believe his eyes wouldn't have betrayed him. I realize Kurosawa was trying to show Kagemusha's difficulty and self doubt, and that no one dare challenge the warlord. However, I don't buy that only the audience observes Kagemusha looking so lost and out of place. He's too central a figure for there to be only one time when a few protectors notice give each other a weird what's going on with him kinda look. Kurosawa does portray the people as pretty dump and unperceptive. For instance, at one point Kagemusha falls off the horse "only Shingen can ride," so Nobukado complains, "How stupid. He could deceive men, but not the horse."

There are scenes where Nakadai's performance is incredibly convincing though. For instance, Shingen's burial at sea where he discovers his passion for the lord and realizes it's his duty to help him the only way he can, which is to win Nobukado's trust back immediately and proceed to lose himself. Overall though, I thought he was much more impressive, commanding and under control, in Masaki Kobayashi's superb anti-Samurai film Seppuku (Harakiri). Kenichi Hagiwara does a strong job, making Katsuyori an intense, aggressive, attention-commanding figure. Kota Yui is also impressive as Takemaru, a role that would be so cliché in a Hollywood film, because he brings spirit to his role as the perceptive and inquisitive grandson rather than just cuteness.


Kagemusha is a tragic character because no matter what he does he can't win. All the credit for anything he does right goes to Shingen, even succeeding in deceiving everyone for three years, while all the blame for anything he does wrong goes to him. No one that knows he's not the lord will ever respect him, and sooner or later everyone will know. Those that were deceived will blame him even though it wasn't his idea and he wasn't calling the shots. Those that know from the beginning are hypocritical because they need him to be the ruler, but resent him for any decision he makes even though they are wise and he only makes them on the rare occasion he has to make a call to protect his ability to deceive.

Perhaps the biggest point the film makes is that once you've given yourself up, you can never regain yourself. Kagemusha's existence during Katsuyori's reign is truly pathetic. He takes on the look of a beggar, seemingly doing nothing but crawling around to follow the action from as close as he can without being detected. He cares so much for the people of the Takeda clan and wants to continue to help them, but now he's a powerless reject. He can only look on as Katsuyori destroys the clan.

The final segment depicts one of those important battles that my history classes skipped over, the Battle of Nagashino on May 21, 1575. It's important because it's the first military battle where firearms where used systematically on a large scale, predating any such battle in Europe by more half a century. The Takeda clan was famous for their strong cavalry, but the Nobunaga clan had 3000 guns. It's was a suicide mission with Katsuyori's imprudence singlehandedly bringing the clan down. This isn't covered in the movie, but during Shingen's day there were many times when the troops lined up but one side wound up retreating after little to no fighting. Thus, Katsuyori could easily have pulled out after his first round of lancers were gunned down.

The post battle shots are some of the best ever filmed. They alternate between wider shots that emphasize the scope of the carnage and closer shots that focus on the wounded. It's impressive just seeing that many people and beasts lying on the ground at the same time. The best shots are actually of horses trying to get back to their feet. I also like how the score is pretty much the same as one we heard earlier when the troops were at full strength preparing for battle, except it's been altered so the horn has a sadder death ridden Taps kind of feel.

For the sake of creating one of the most memorable film endings, Kurosawa finishes this long scene of devastation by having Kagemusha run out from behind the bushes into the battlefield. At first we think he's going to do something great because, well, it's a movie and the hero usually steps up at the end so everyone goes home happy. This is a man that has been gutted though. His heart and soul have been ripped out of him now that the remaining thing he cared about has been cut down for no good reason. He had been below these men, above them, and below them again. Finally, he joins by picking up a lance and running toward the enemy in a one-man attack. Wounded by enemy gunfire, he stumbles toward the ocean where he collapses and dies as the symbol of Shingen rises from the depths of the sea. We think he's finally made peace with Shingen through a symbolic acceptance that's about to come, but a magical current takes his body right on past so Shingen remains just out of reach. Perhaps though he's done something more important, finally broke free of Shingen's shadow and made peace with the soldiers he duped as well as himself.


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