Tuesday, July 3, 2012

#34 - Kagemusha

BACK-STORY:  Many feel that “Kagemusha” is Akira Kurosawa’s greatest masterpiece.   He certainly meant for it to be.  He got the idea for a samurai epic years before but career setbacks (like being fired from "Tora! Tora! Tora!") and funding issues set things back and the film almost did not get made.  In fact, it was only intervention by fans Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas that provided the extra funding needed to put the movie over the top (and to help pay for stuff like importing 200 American horses including numerous female equestrian riders).  Those two incredibly hot directors were blown away by the story board paintings Kurosawa did himself to outline the film.  It was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.  Kurosawa won the BAFTA for Direction.
OPENING:  “Kagemusha” means “shadow warrior” and refers to the practice of some Japanese daimyo of having doubles for security.  The movie is set in the same Sengoku (Warring States) period that “The Seven Samurai” was set in.  A shogun wannabe named Shingen (Tatsuya Nakedai) who is the head of the Takeda clan is introduced to his new kagemusha by his brother.  The double is a petty thief who is due to be crucified and he is a loose cannon, but he does look exactly like Shingen so he gets the job.
SUMMARY:  The year is 1574 and Shingen is in a civil war with two other warlords – Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga.  He lays siege to Ieyasu’s castle and gets shot by a sniper while listening to a flute player in the castle.  The arquebusier reenacts the shooting for Ieyasu, but it’s unclear who he hit.  Shingen is badly wounded so he lifts the siege and withdraws.  His subsequent death results in the council’s risky decision to substitute the thief for him.
                Ieyasu and Oda send a trio of spies to confirm the rumors that Shingen is dead.  When the thief discovers Shingen’s corpse, he wants out and the council agrees to set him free.  The thief witnesses the spies seeing the burial of Shingen in a big jar in a foggy lake.  He overhears them planning to return to their employers with the strong circumstantial evidence that Shingen is dead.  Because Shingen was a good boss and refrained from crucifying him, the thief offers to masquerade as him.
the kagemusha watches a battle
the dream
                The first big test will be whether the kagemusha can fool Shingen’s little grandson and his concubines.  Don’t even think about fooling his horse!  At first the grandson smells a rat, but he is quickly convinced that people change.  The five concubines should be a bigger problem, but the shadow warrior convinces them he is now gay.  Just kidding.  Actually, he tells them the truth and they laugh it off (which happens to be their response behind closed doors as well, just kidding).  He begins to take on the persona of Shingen and bonds with the grandson.  All the intense dialogue (the Japanese like to yell at each other) causes the shadow warrior to have a surrealistic dream so Kurosawa can share his story boarding with the world.
                Shingen’s son Katsuyori wants to prove himself by expanding the Takeda holdings.  He has daddy issues.  For unclear reasons, Shingen had disinherited him in favor of the grandson.  Kurosawa reenacts the Battle of Taketenjin Castle.  There are lots of banners fluttering.  This is a windy movie.  There is lots of musket firing.  There is lots of repetitive riding and running back and forth.  There is not lots of fighting.  The audience gets to experience the fog of war as Kurosawa presents it as very confusing (and unfortunately boring).  
The kagemusha gets cocky because he inspired his troops to victory (I assume it was a victory) by watching the battle from a stool and tries to ride the horse with disastrous consequences.  You can fool a concubine, but not a horse.  Now the gig is up and he is expelled from the castle.
CLOSING:  Katsuyori (against the council’s blustery advice) decides to preempt his rivals by laying siege to a castle at Nagashino.  The kagemusha tags along.  He has developed a loyalty to the Takeda clan that is unrealistic.  Ieyasu and Nobunaga arrive with a relief army.  Here comes the big set piece!  The enemy is behind a palisade.  Katsuyori’s cavalry charges.  The musketeers fire volleys.  Pikemen charge.  Musketeers fire volleys.  More cavalry.  More musket fire.  Based on the reaction of the commanders and the shadow warrior, things are not going well.  A scan of the corpse strewn field with its writhing horses confirms this assumption.  The thief grabs a spear and charges to his death.
Acting -  7
Action -  6
Accuracy -  8
Realism -  7
Plot -  7
Overall -   7
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  Possibly.  It is not a hard core war flick.  It’s more of a drama with some battle scenes that leave much to the imagination.  However, there are few female characters and none of importance. 
HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  The movie is set in the Sengoku (Warring States) period of Japanese history.  Specifically the Azuchi-Momoyama period which was the last stage.  It began in 1568 when Nobunaga entered Kyoto (the imperial capital) to install Ashikaga Yoshiaki as the last shogun of the Ashikaga shogunate.  It ended with Ieyasu’s victory over the Yoyotomi clan at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and his subsequent establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603.
                Takeda Shingen was a daimyo who warred against Nobunaga and Ieyasu.  He was one tough dude with a lot of charisma.  The use of doubles was not unknown for daimyos, but the story of the thief is pure fiction.   His banner (which is featured in the movie) had the symbols for wind, forest, fire, and mountain.  This was based on a summary of Sun Tzu’s advice in The Art of War.  “Swift as the wind, Silent as a Forest, Fierce as a Fire, Immovable as a Mountain”.  His cavalry charges were famous and feared.  Kurosawa opens the movie with one of the theories on his death – shot by a sniper during a siege.  The other possibilities were from an old war wound or from pneumonia.  Good choice, Akira.  He was buried in a temple, not in a giant pot in a lake.
                Katsuyori is an historical figure.  He was disinherited by Shingen, but I could not find out why.  He was accurately portrayed as desiring to expand the Takeda lands with bad results which ended in his suicide and the end of the Takeda clan.  He was no Alexander to Shingen’s Philip.
                Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu were very famous daimyos.  At the time of the movie, they are accurately depicted as allies.
                The Battle of Nagashino was one of the most famous battles in Japanese history.  It has been called the first “modern” battle in Japanese history.  The movie gets the general facts right.  Katsuyori was besieging Nagashino castle.  Ieyasu and Nobunaga sent a relief force of 38,000 which included 3,000 arquebusiers.  Katsuyori had only 12,000 which was about 1/3 cavalry.  He did have the vaunted Takeda cavalry, however.  Unfortunately, Nobunaga was aware of that and ready.  His army had a large number of arquebusiers armed with matchlock muskets.  He stationed them behind a palisade and they were trained to fire in rotating rows of three.  This type of volley firing predated similar tactics in Europe by twenty five years.  Kurosawa decided not to add the stream with steep banks to make the charge even more futile. 
                Katsuyori, no military genius, determined that a frontal charge by his cavalry would stampede his opponents.  He did not reckon with the discipline of the enemy ashigaru (foot soldiers) or the rolling volleys.  The gunfire was devastating.  To cover the reloading intervals, Nobunaga had archers raining arrows on Katsuyori’s forces.   Subsequent charges produced similar results.  The battle resembled the Battle of Crecy in its missile fire defeating shock aspects.   Reversing centuries of military wisdom, he then sent in his infantry.  The pikemen tried stabbing through the palisade, but also ate a lot of bullets.  The samurai waded in with swords and spears.  The samurai did not make it into the film which is odd considering Kurosawa’s association with samurai.  Pity, that would have been some added action in a film that could have used it.
                The little touches are accurate.  The castle interiors and costumery are realistic.  There is a brief Noh performance so we get a taste of some Japanese culture.  At one point, one of the allies breaks into a song when he hears of Shingen’s death.  Only in Japan.
CRITIQUE:  Kurosawa has a style that can be mesmerizing.  The interior scenes tend to be static, the exterior scenes dynamic.  The indoor shots are usually from a stationary camera.  He uses windiness to add to the flow of the exterior scenes.  The wind also helps the banners flutter.  There are a lot of banners in this movie.  Kurosawa is also preoccupied with colors.  They are either vibrant or bland.
                The acting is not as scene-chewing as most Japanese movies, but could be off-putting to some.  It may be part of their culture, but there seems to be a lot of simmering outrage in the characters. They commonly have a difficult time modulating their voices.  Nakadei is no Toshiro Mifune, but he does a good job in the dual roles.  He can be silly at times which is natural for a Japanese film of this type.  The supporting cast is solid.
                The plot is linear.  It is fairly standard in its arc.  You do get the bizarre dream sequence, but that is the only unorthodox scene.  The film does flesh out the basic outlines of a historical story with logical human actions for the most part.  After all there were kagemusha.  It’s a bit of a stretch that a condemned thief would be chosen and then continued post mortem, but it makes for good story telling.  This aids the twin themes of identifying with your employer and you can’t fool people forever.  You have to stretch your credulity to believe that an intellectually challenged thief could pull off the impersonation and that he would remain loyal to the death after being ignominiously ejected from his faux family.
CONCLUSION:  Not being an American director or professional movie critic I feel I can impartially rule that “Kagemusha” is overrated.  I can see why the above fawn over it, but as an average viewer it is too long and boring.  There is way too much talking (and yelling) and not enough action.  There are big buildups to the battles and then little pay-off.  Even the final battle is brief.  It does not belong on the Greatest 100 list and is inferior to “Seven Samurai” ( which did not make the list).  It is also not as good as #76 "Ran".  It is a must-see, however.

THE POSTER -  This is a cool one because it is one of Kurosawa's drawings.  Doesn't give you any idea what the movie is about.  Grade - B
the trailer

THE TRAILER -  Pretty good at showing the action, but not all the talking.  Grade - C


  1. I have this one and Ran to watch but I need to be in the right mood. I've seen many of his other - non war movies and during a certain time I liked him a lot. Nowadays I don't always do well when it's too slow.
    What I really like is his use of colors and the acting is so different from what we are used to it's an experinece as well.

  2. the war movie buffJuly 6, 2012 at 7:52 AM

    I agree. I have to be in the right mood as well. I personally think Japanese cinema is overrated. The acting is so over the top. I also do not like pretentious direction and cinematography. I started one the other day (not a war movie) and had to stop because it was so slow. Entitled "Stray Dog". I hardly ever give up on a movie.

  3. I'll never understand the love many have for Ran, but like Ikiru, I didn't care for either one, much preferring Kagemusha, Donzoko and the predictable Seven Samurai.

    Having read reviews I did not expect to like this one, but there are many things in the human interaction that appeals to me.

    Good thing that Kurosawa made a wide range of movies so that each could choose among them for our own personal favorites.

  4. Good stuff. First time reading this Blog.


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