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Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (1980)

September 23, 2015

kagemusha-movie-poster-1980-1020269710Kagemusha will do two things to you if you have the patience to rally through it. It will take your breath away, then it will break your heart. It presents a complex situation wrought with conflicting emotions and begs audiences to put themselves in the situation presented by revealing all sides of a story. Becoming emotionally attached to the characters is a near guarantee since even the most selfish decisions are easy to understand under the circumstances. Kagemusha forces you to question your own integrity and loyalty while also delivering a dangerous consequence of losing sight of who you are.

Akira Kurosawa is a painter behind the camera, one that takes bold, patient, and slow strokes on the canvas he films. The set design and location of filming breathes life into medieval Japan during the chasm of civil war between three warring clans. Of the three, we focus most on the Takeda Clan, led by the righteous victor Shingen. Considered a major threat to his enemies and a mountain to his people, Shingen meets an untimely end after a chance accident. For the sake of the promise of peace and victory for his people and the unity of Japan, Shingen and his council employ the help of an impersonator (a Kagemusha), a thief saved from death by Shingen’s brother and current double, Nobukado.  Through tranquil moments we watch how the stress of keeping Shingen’s death a secret affects the clan, its enemies, and the impostor who now must walk in Shingen’s shoes as the war rages on.


No line of dialogue gets wasted in Kurosawa and Masato Ide’s screenplay. Nearly every word lends itself to developing the story or explaining the history of the characters we encounter. Likewise, each shot within the film is treated with meticulous attention to detail creating visually stunning scenes that absolutely blew me away. Kagemusha is a film largely told through wide shot angles in order to fit Shingen’s council and its armies into scenes. Within each fantastically choreographed scene bodies are perfectly aligned in shots to deliver clean palettes complete symmetrical balancing and rule of thirds framing. Kagemusha simply put is poetry in motion moving in a gentle pace while still being riveting through its character’s expressive body language and an intense story.

Kurosawa inadvertently (or maybe purposefully) creates a dueling viewpoint of societies within the time period featured. On one hand we become captivated by the individuality and distinctive qualities of medieval Japanese culture—the partially shaved heads, amazing silk embroidered clothing, the practiced, routine manners and rituals of the time. These distinctions make comparing and contrasting the better known, commonly focused on European culture unavoidable. Similarly, it becomes fascinating to compare the ideals both cultures shared despite being thousands of miles apart. Much like medieval Europe, Japan’s civilization saw the plague of many wars, boosting banners to show their allegiance to their designated rulers, and duty and honor held the utmost respect among people. Post-feudalism Japan is practically romanticized and the culture exalted.


But it’s the dilemma that The Thief finds himself in as well as those in the Takeda clan that makes for such a poignant subject matter. While the horrors of war gets shown in full display through the frequent, brutal use of matchlock firearms and bright crimson soaked bodies in piles, the effect that war has on the people involved is what’s so emotionally laborious to watch. The Thief is reminded time and again that his life could have ended before the interjection of Nobukado. Instead The Thief is given another chance, a new life, one in which he gets stuck in a place of purgatory as the double for Shingen. He must learn to be someone he is not for the greater good of the clan. Yet, he is tasked with very real feelings and connections he makes to those in the clan while realizing he will never be the person they think he is.

Kagemasha is gripping due to the way in which it explores the complexities of human bonding and self-deception. The Thief begins to immerse himself into the role of the commander which eventually leads to a forgetting of self, a task that grows easier for The Thief just as the consequences grow more dire. With time and more learning he gets lost in the grandeur of being a leader further affecting his fate. Kurosawa also explores the complexities of Shingen’s bastard son, a character who is incapable of accepting his own fate and instead revels in his selfishness. For character’s with such deep internal conflict it’s heartbreaking to realize that everyone in a sense means well, but their own self-deception and egos commit the ultimate betrayal resulting in an intense, epic ending.

SEE IT. Then recommend which Kurosawa film’s I need to check out next. His work will be my new obsession!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 20, 2015 8:38 AM

    One of my favorite Kurosawa films!

    • October 20, 2015 8:51 AM

      I’m currently on the road of exploring Kurosawa films. Kagemusa was the first I watched of his (I actually watched Rashomon forever ago but plan to rewatch it) and of course I fell in love. Since this review I’ve seen Seven Samurai too. Any others of his films you’d recommend I watch next?

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