In Akira Kurosawa’s later years, it was almost criminal that a director with his resume was forced to practically beg for financing. Kurosawa was in the midst of a career drought, having made only two movies in almost 15 years with Dersu Uzala and Dodesukaden. This coming after a run of films that has proved influential to even today’s filmmakers. While Kurosawa did have to obtain foreign financing for his movies in later years, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, both of whom cite…Kurosawa as heavy career influences, agreed to finance his next film, 1980’s Kagemusha (or The Shadow Warrior).
Set against the background of 16th century samurai Japan, Lord Shingen is given a thief to act as his double, to protect him from assassination attempts and confuse any enemies. While the thief refuses at first, Shingen is wounded by a sniper, and during the rush to determine if Shingen was killed, the thief takes his place, with the support of Shingen’s generals. Despite the thief’s thoughts of Shingen, he eventually finds humanity in what he does, and even after Shingen’s death, continues to portray him for almost 2 years (Shingen’s death was a closely guarded secret). When the secret is found out and the thief banished, he still wished to be close to the action, both for Shingen’s “funeral” and for the last battle in the film. 2 of the warlords in the film, Nobunaga and Ieyasu, formed an alliance designed to take over from Shingen, and had been unsure for some time whether Shingen was dead. Any tactical moves they wished to make could not be done, because Shingen (the thief playing him, more to the point) was nearby to see what was transpiring.
Around this time as well, development of the rifle became an integral part of combat. No longer could samurai rely on swordplay, as they lost any advantage in range to the more effective weapon. Whether Kurosawa picked this era as a sign that he was tired of doing samurai films or not I don’t know, but no one has done them as effectively since Kagemusha and Ran. With a title like The Shadow Warrior, the movie seemed to portray how message and reputation can carry one’s life, even after they have gone. There is a 6 minute long shot to start the movie, where the thief and Shingen rationalize each other’s sins, and appear to be one and the same, thus setting the stage for anything the thief may try to accomplish even if he does decide to portray Shingen. Perhaps the reason that the thief is fond of portraying Shingen is that he discovers the humanity behind him, notably his grandson Takemaru. After the bond he had forged with him made leaving far too hard to bear, and as he sees the generals in the film, the ones who gave him a chance to live, get basically mowed down in what is a one-sided battle that Shingen’s Takeda clan cannot win, the thief feels his fate disappear with the clans, and completes his suicide mission.
It’s not a cheery film, as it’s loosely based on Japanese history, and Kurosawa doesn’t seem to stray from the basic historical events (but I’m not a scholar), and to see a film that he envisioned for so long to come to fruition, now as part of yet another Criterion DVD release, is nice to see. And Kagemusha comes to US audiences in its full theatrical 180 minute cut (the previous release was 20 minutes shorter in the US).
The Dolby Digital 2.0 surround soundtrack sounds pretty good, with some decent sound panning and no soundtrack hiss to concern yourself over. While some of the sound effects come off as too artificial, it’s splitting hairs on this great director’s film. It’s a bit more robust than I expected also, making for good viewing.
While Kurosawa only has a few color releases available, Kagemusha is the most recent one, and the first color release that Criterion has gotten their hands on. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation for the film looks excellent, with very vivid (but not blown out) color reproduction. While there are some minor artifacts in the film, you have to look real hard to see them, and the end result is really something to see.
As is the case with Kurosawa movies from Criterion, you get a solid amount of information on the film, starting with a commentary by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince. Prince makes use of the entire length of time on the track, providing a proper historical perspective on the film, along with providing some technical details, and pointing out which scenes have been restored for this release. Prince also explains how some scenes in the film may stand as metaphors for the end of his career and possibly the end of the samurai film genre, and compares the production crew of his later years to his earlier successes. The commentary may be dry, but has a lot of information in it. The only other features on the first disc are the US and Japanese trailers and teasers. Disc 2 has another edition of the Toho Masterworks Series featuring Kurosawa’s work. The series, entitled “It Is Wonderful to Create”, covers much of the production, including the casting, filming, and plenty of on set footage. Initially, Shintaro Katsu, the actor who played a blind swordsman named Zatoichi in a series of popular 1960s and 1970s Japanese films, was slated to play Shingen, and was replaced after an argument with Kurosawa, and this is covered. The feature even covers the colors and score and hits on just about everything, and includes recent interviews with the cast and crew, always a solid addition. Next is some interview footage with Lucas and Coppola, discussing Kurosawa’s influence on them and how they became supporters of Kagemusha. Following this is a recreation of Kurosawa’s storyboards set against the film’s dialogue and soundtrack, with over 200 well drawn paintings set to the soundtrack and lasting about 45 minutes. A separate comparison feature with the storyboards and actual film shot is next, and Kurosawa’s Suntory ads complete the set, making for some relaxing times.
Yet another high quality Criterion treatment of an outstanding film. Kurosawa doesn’t have too many color films out there (this was by choice), and Criterion has presented it exceptionally well here. Fans of the genre will want to see this, and fans of film should have no problems in picking this up.
Special Features List
- Commentary by Stephen Prince
- Retrospective interviews with George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola
- “It Is Wonderful to Create” documentary of Kagemusha
- Suntory Whiskey Ads
- Trailers and Teasers