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Review: Kagemusha

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My first foray into the brilliant world of director Akira Kurosawa left me with a better understanding of his legacy. So many have said so much about his brilliance that I felt incomplete as a movie buff to have not yet seen any of his works.

Kagemusha tells the story of an era where rival Japanese samurai clans fought to unify their control of feudal Japan. The historical aspects of the film provide the eye candy, while at the centre of it is an intricate study of humans dealing with illusion and reality.

Lord Shingen, leader of the Takeda clan, is mortally wounded on a campaign to take a rival castle. Before his death, he orders that his death be kept a secret to allow his clan to consolidate power and protect his clan’s territory. Shingen had found and groomed a common thief, who happened to look exactly like him, to be his kagemusha (meaning ‘shadow warrior’). The kagemusha has never filled in for the lord for such an extended time. The film centres around the internal and external struggles of this pretense.

The film moves at a slow pace, but is masterfully approached in many different perspectives. Shingen’s enemies struggle to find out the truth about the condition of the true lord. Shingen’s general have to find a way to use, accept and cover for the imposter’s shortcomings. The thief, who was only spared his life due to his resemblance to the lord, now has to maintain the unenviable illusion. The kagemusha, having an entirely opposite personality to the lord, has to resolve within himself whether he can pretend to be another person for the next 3 years.

Kagemusha is not to be mistaken simply as a samurai movie, but a war movie where we get to study the generals on both sides of the conflicts. It is interesting to discover the emerging Western influence of the era. The war scenes are also well arranged and sure to please the more discerning war movie fans. The characters are well developed as we get to know the motivation and plights of all that are involved in the stories. Kurosawa spent a lot of time peeling away the layers of the Takeda clan enemies and gave us a deeper glimpse into their thoughts and actions.

The switch and transformation of the kagemusha into Lord Shingen captivates the audience with its attention to even the smallest detail. Every scene in the movie is so meticulously organized and well thought out that I was in awe of the gorgeous imagery and artful direction of Kurosawa. For example, many reviews have remarked upon the first scene of the movie where lord Shingen and his brother discussed about the capture of the thief and would-be Kagemusha. You see 3 figures sitting in candlelight, with the 2 brothers placed at a different level than the thief, to draw attention to the differences between their personalities and classes. The candlelight casts shadows on the wall, heralding the shadow warrior’s becoming. This is a very famous scene that is so simplistic, yet so meaningful.

I don’t want to go into too many details about the movie’s defining points. Suffice it to say that essays can be written, and I’m sure have been written about the making of this movie. I’ve heard many good things about other Kurosawa films, such as Seven Samurai and the critically acclaimed Ran. Many critics have commented on Kurosawa’s use of Kagemusha as a warm-up to his epic, Ran. The making of Kagemusha was particularly hard for Kurosawa as he could not secure the financial backing from Japan, and had to seek Western help in friends like Francis Ford Coppola and Geroge Lucas who served as executive producers. Kagemusha brought Kurosawa back to prominence as Japan’s greatest director, and though it is usually not considered one of his more famous works, it did allow him to follow through and execute Ran.

Next on my list will be Ran followed by other Kurosawa works such as Ikiru, and the Seven Samurai. I highly recommend anybody who has not seen this artist’s vision to immediately do so! Kagemusha is a recommended starter film for the uninitiated as I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the film. It is perfection from beginning to end.


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