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The Criterion Collection presents
Kagemusha (1980)

"The shadow of a man can never stand up and walk on its own. I was my brother's shadow."
- Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: March 28, 2005

Stars: Tatsuya Nakadai, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kenichi Hagiwara
Director: Akira Kurosawa

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 03h:00m:23s
Release Date: March 29, 2005
UPC: 715515015622
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A+ AA+A- A-

DVD Review

As a younger man, Akira Kurosawa made films at an astonishing pace, averaging a picture a year for more than twenty years. But cost overruns on films like Red Beard, financial disappointments and public disfavor in Japan, and bouts of depression culminating in a suicide attempt, to say nothing of the inevitable workings of time, slowed down the director's output in his last decades—a new Kurosawa picture became anticipated that much more, an event that happened only every five years or so. Kagemusha would not have been possible without the participation of Kurosawa's two most ardent and successful American acolytes: executive producer credits on the film go to George Lucas and Francis Coppola, who paid their respects to the master by expending some of their political capital in Hollywood to secure financing for this grand and gorgeous movie. Kagemusha may not be the most emotionally compelling Kurosawa film, and in some respects it's useful to see it as much for its own sake as for its role as preparation for Ran, the director's last epic; but this is still an incredibly impressive cinematic achievement, one of the world's great filmmakers operating at the height of his powers.

The director's keen interest in the history of his country is in some respects the animating force behind this movie, which is based on historical material—the action begins in 1573, with Japan not yet unified, its regions presided over by warlords and samurais. The focus here is on the Takeda clan; the emperor, Shingen, is fearful that the only thing yoking together his domain is the force of his personality. Of course he cannot be everywhere at once, and from time to time employs his brother, Nobukado, to stand in for him. But even this is insufficient, and Nobukado has serendipitously landed upon a plan. He saves from crucifixion a thief called Kagemusha, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the emperor (they are in fact played by the same actor, Tatsuya Nakadai); they will train Kagemusha to serve as a second Shingen, an emperor for public consumption, a need which becomes even more pressing when the actual emperor is wounded and killed in battle. (Yes, the waggish among you will note the similarity between the premise of this movie and that of Dave.) How will the perilous empire fare with a mock emperor at its helm?

The themes of the piece are pretty overtly announced, then, with the doppelgänger figure, an invader in the family, the intersection of high and low; they are played out in stunning variations here, as Kagemusha tries to pass, and faces no shortage of challenges: will Shingen's grandson and heir believe that the impostor is his beloved grandfather? What of the emperor's mistresses? And the wild stallion that will allow only Shingen to ride him—will Kagemusha's hubris in passing as royalty make him foolhardy enough to try and mount the horse? Kurosawa has long demonstrated an almost clinical look at humanity: pity us humans and the foolish things we do. And that sort of emotional detachment reaches a sort of apex in Kagemusha, as the internal politics of the palace and the warring factions vying for supremacy with the house of Takeda remain largely opaque, the stuff of inside baseball. The actors are all fine, but we never come to empathize with any of them, really, because Kurosawa doesn't want us to. (The contrast with the overt Shakespearean adaptations, Ran and, earlier, Throne of Blood, could hardly be more obvious.)

But Kagemusha brims with more majesty and pageantry than just about any other picture in the director's canon, and it is truly epic in its scale. The crowd scenes are shot with precision, and in fact the composition is extraordinary throughout; the battle scenes are as visceral as any in a John Ford Western. And of course Kurosawa remains the most meteorological of filmmakers—the weather informs the mood and tone of almost every scene, especially so in a phantasmagorical dream sequence, an obvious precursor to Dreams. And even if we're not intimately involved in the characters of the piece, it's as much a study of kingship as the best Shakespearean history plays—the dilemmas that face the pretender to the throne are exactly those that Richard II, say, or Prince Hal wrestle with.

What's most visually striking, though, is Kurosawa's use of color. Red Beard, made fifteen years before, was his last black-and-white movie; but the pace of the director's filmmaking in this period makes this only his third color feature. His painterly palette is breathtaking; he always demonstrated a particular appreciation for the lines and contours of geography and architecture, but here that sensibility meshes with the eye of a master colorist, making for images that are deeply and enduringly beautiful. Kagemusha may not be Kurosawa's signature achievement, and it may not be your favorite of the director's films—it's a little too emotionally cold for that—but it's a taut and beautiful three hours, one of the titans of cinema working at the peak of his powers.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Kurosawa's signature style—telephoto lenses and the flattening of three-dimensional space—make this a visually paradigmatic film of his, and it looks absolutely beautiful in this careful transfer. The colors employed by the director can make your jaw drop, not just because they're so lovely to look at, but because they so perfectly mirror the emotional states of his characters, and they're rendered here with precision and not a bit of interference.

Image Transfer Grade: A+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The film occasionally favors an almost Ozu-like stillness and silence, especially in its domestic scenes; it's all very well rendered here, though the cacophony of the battle scenes is only occasionally problematic.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 31 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
3 Original Trailer(s)
3 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Stephen Prince
Packaging: Amaray Double
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying booklet, with essays and illustrations
  2. color bars
Extras Review: Another strong effort from Criterion in showing off a fine film to its best advantage. Stephen Prince, who with Donald Richie is one of Criterion's designated Kurosawa go-to guys, provides a commentary track packed with information—he ably elucidates the intricate sixteenth-century historical circumstances being dramatized here, and talks about the influence of Noh on Kurosawa's visual style. Prince is also very good on the film's subtext, much of which concerns homosexuality among the samurai ranks; this is in some sense the logical extension of the theme of doubling at play in so much of the movie. Twenty minutes of the picture were cut for the original theatrical release outside of Japan; they've all been restored here, and Prince points out what was cut, and speculates as to why. Also on the first disc are a trailer for the Japanese release, and two for the U.S.

Disc Two leads off with Lucas, Coppola and Kurosawa (19m:18s), interviews with the first two on that list about their experiences with the last. Lucas talks about John Milius introducing him to Kurosawa's films when they were students at USC; they both reflect on Kurosawa replacing his leading man, Shintaro Katsu, shortly after the beginning of the shoot, for being too much of a loose cannon. You'll also find another installment of Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create (40m:56s), devoted to the making of Kagemusha, featuring interviews with members of the cast and the production team; since financing took so long to secure, Kurosawa had a significant amount of time to work on the storyboards for the movie, which are elaborate and beautiful. In fact, they serve as the basis for Image: Kurosawa's Continuity (43m:40s), which condenses the story of the feature, uses some of its audio, and tells the story exclusively with those storyboards. A Vision Realized offers side-by-side comparisons of twenty-four of the storyboards with shots from the final cut.

Finally, its Suntory time, as Kurosawa stars in a series of five ads (03m:40s in all) for Suntory whiskey, shot on the set of Kagemusha. The first two feature Coppola as well; I challenge you to watch these and not think of the Tokyo travels of Mr. Bob Harris.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

If you're unfamiliar with the work of Akira Kurosawa, this might not be the best place to start—I'd recommend Rashomon for that, probably—but this is an epic, majestic film that is as profound a meditation on the nature of power as the Henry IV plays, and riotously parades the director's unmatched technical skill in the use of composition and color. The participation of two filmmakers deeply influenced by the director, George Lucas and Francis Coppola, made this film possible; kudos to them, and to Criterion, for turning out this handsome, informative, technically spectacular two-disc set.


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