Kagemusha (1980)


The financial failure of Dodes'ka-den left Kurosawa devastated. It was, in fact, such a low point in his life that Kurosawa attempted to take his own life. Luckily he failed and recovered.

After his suicide attempt it looked as though Kurosawa would never make another film again. Production companies didn't want to fund films for the aging director especially after his suicide attempt that increased the rumors about his mental stability.

However, in 1975 Kurosawa was asked by the Soviet Union production company Mosfilm to direct a joint Soviet-Japanese film of his choosing.

For this film Kurosawa chose the true story of a Siberian hunter who helps a group of Russian troops survive in the harsh Russian wilderness.

The film went on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and more importantly brought Kurosawa back to filmmaking.

For his next film, Kurosawa would find the funding he needed from two unlikely sources. American directors Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, two big fans of Kurosawas, convinced 20th Century Fox to pay for part of the production in exchange for the international distribution rights.

With the funding he needed, Kurosawa began making his next period film Kagemusha.


Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior) is based, in part, on the true story of Shingen Takeda, a 16th-century clan leader in feudal Japan.

The film begins with Nobukado Takeda, Lord Shingen's brother, presenting a man he believes could act as a double for the lord should the need arise.

The man, a petty thief, looks exactly like Lord Shingen, though they share no common ancestors.

While visiting the battlefield outside an enemy castle, Lord Shingen is mortally wounded by an enemy sniper.

Before dying, he tells his retainers not to move the clan's forces for three years, lest the word get out that he has been killed.

Reluctantly, the double for Lord Shingen takes on the duties of the late lord. Only the retainers are made aware of Lord Shingen's death.

Katsuyori Takeda, Lord Shingen's son, believes he should be the leader of the clan, and disobeys his fathers orders by going into battle himself.

Meanwhile, Lord Shingen's double grows increasingly confident. He is so consumed with his role that he attempts to ride the lords horse, which will only respond to its true master.

When the double is thrown from the horse, it is discovered that he is in fact the double and he is subsequently cast out of the castle.

Katsuyori, further defying his father's wishes, send his entire army to battle, where they are quickly killed in a hail of gunfire.

With one final act, Lord Shingen's former double takes up a dead soldiers spear and charges at the enemy, only to be shot himself.

As he stumbles into a nearby river, he sees the flag of the Takeda clan floating on the water before he himself is carried downriver by the current.


After 18 years, Kurosawa returned to the genre that made him famous, the jidai-geki.

This time, however, Kurosawa would bring with him both color photography and a story based on the actual history of the time.

Indeed, Kagemusha feels more like a historical epic than a great study of humanity that Kurosawa brought to the screen in his earlier films.

This is not meant to take anything away from the film, but it is worthy to note that Kurosawa in his later years seemed far more interested in telling a story than expounding his humanist ideology.

This is also not to say that his ideology is not present at all in the film. The final scene of the film vividly and powerfully depicts the horrors of war and the needless bloodshed of the feudal period in Japan.

But the final battle is merely a fraction of the entire film. The rest is merely an interesting story about a double taking on the role of a fallen lord.

Loyalty and power are the main themes of the film, not the horrors of war. Lord Shingen's double (we never do learn his name) becomes increasingly consumed with his role as the de facto clan leader.

So consumed is he that even as he is cast out of the castle he continually returns as if he were still or ever really was the clan leader.

The double, though he has the power to do essentially whatever he wishes, chooses to obey the orders of a man he hardly knew. He remains loyal to the bitter end.

It is loyalty that leads to the ruin of the clan as well. Katsuyori is quick to ignore everything his father told him and lets his need for power get to his head. He leads his forces into battle despite ill omens including a rainbow that one of the retainers believes is "blocking their path forward".

Also, it is the loyalty of the horse towards its true master that causes it to send Shingen's double flying off its back. Kurosawa always had a lot of respect for horses, and it is perhaps because of his feelings towards them that they are the ultimate cause of the double's fall from grace.

The film is replete with imagery, most notably in a dream sequence reminiscent of the one in Drunken Angel.

Shingen's double approaches the jar we know to contain the body of the late lord. When he approaches it Lord Shingen's double bursts out and begins to chase his double.

Here Lord Shingen is being haunted by his sense of duty to the lord. When Lord Shingen goes away, his double begins to wander around as if he were lost, until he finds his way into a shallow pond and begins to create small splashes with his legs.

Kurosawa uses a long lens to shoot these splashes up close to make them seem larger than they are. He also puts the sounds of much larger waves on the soundtrack. The double then awakens and behind him we see a painting of a raging sea. Both of these are symbols of the coming battle.

The dream sequence is also important visually because of the dizzying array of colors that Kurosawa uses. It is a brilliant dream-scape that only Kurosawa could create.

Apart from the dream sequence, color comes into play the most during the battle sequences. The majority of the battle scenes take place at night, and the fighting is largely out of sight. Kurosawa replaces the shots of the fighting with smoke lit bright red to signify the bloodshed taking place on the battlefield.

The second most memorable scene is the final battle. With no sound whatsoever and slow-motion, Kurosawa creates an agonizing picture of a blood-stained battlefield.

He cuts to several shots of shot horses (they were given sedatives to create the effect) attempting to get up, soldiers screaming but not being heard, and mounds of dead soldiers in the field.

The scene is incredibly powerful. Without sound, the audience must concentrate fully on the images, an incredibly smart move by Kurosawa as it heightens the magnitude of the scene considerably.

Though the majority of the Kurosawa company of actors was replaced after Red Beard, several have returned for Kagemusha. In the lead role of Shingen and his double is Tatsuya Nakadai. Nakadai (Yojimbo, Sanjuro and High and Low) came in as a replacement after the former lead actor had an argument with Kurosawa.

In smaller parts are former Kurosawa bit part actors Takashi Shimura and Kamatari Fujiwara. These would be their final roles in a Kurosawa film and though their roles are not especially important, it is still a small pleasure to see them working with the great director again.

As for photography the film represents both the culmination of Kurosawa's shooting style and the style he seemed to adopt later in life.

There are still the long lenses, long takes and multiple cameras. But gone are the elaborate camera movements and dynamic editing.

Though not as immobile as his next film Ran, the camera in Kagemusha is more apt to merely pan around rather than physically move around in the space.

This is, perhaps, merely a sign of Kurosawa's age. He was 70 years old at the time he made Kagemusha.

Though the color in the film is not as vivid nor hold as much meaning as it did in Dodes'ka-den, it does lend a lot to the realism that Kurosawa always sought with his period films. Again, everything from the sets to the costumes to the props looks authentic to the period.

Kurosawa readily admitted that Kagemusha was merely a test run before his next film Ran. Though its ideological message may have given way to the historical aspect of the film, Kagemusha is still an period film by the director who knew them best (well, except maybe Mizoguchi).