“Kagemusha” – Chris Luedtke

In the three hours I just spent staring intently at my television set, I have difficultly finding a point to begin with all the happenings that Akira Kurosawa presents to us in his piece Kagemusha. As is with the filmography I’ve seen from this man so far, he doesn’t skimp and never fails to impress, even if the film ends up being a lackluster experience. Kagemusha is beautiful in its brilliance but drawn out in so many ways, the experience is almost like a choke hold.

The powerful warlord Shingen Takeda (Tatsuya Nakadai) has been mortally wounded in battle. However, shortly before his death, Nobukado Takeda (Tsutomu Yamazaki) came upon a petty thief named Kagemusha (Nakadai again) that was about to be crucified. A quick haircut and change of clothes revealed that he looked exactly like Lord Shingen. Deciding to play it safe, the clan keeps Kagemusha around, and before long, his use as a fill-in for Lord Shingen is greatly needed, for upon Lord Shingen’s death, he wished that his passing not be made public for three whole years. Now the petty thief Kagemusha must step into the shoes of a ruler and become a leader of the Takeda clan for the next three years, of which he was never a part of prior. But a big question remains: can the Takeda clan really pull this off? With their enemies already sniffing for proof of Lord Shingen’s death, the Takeda clan will have to take every step necessary to conceal Kagemusha’s true identity.

What Kurosawa has crafted here is no ordinary impostor film. There are a lot of human relationships and attachments that grow, helping add to the dramatic conclusion. Kagemusha is a likable, funny character with a lot of heart. The people that surround him are there on strict business, and that is made obvious. The fact that he was a petty thief before this is quite surprising, now that I look back at the film. There is maturity everywhere, though. As Kagemusha progresses, so does its intelligence. It’s as though the film is growing on screen. The problem that this presents, though, is that sometimes progression takes awhile. Again, Kagemusha clocks in at a hefty three hours. Do I think some of it could have been cropped down? Yes. There were some drawn-out moments that I just couldn’t wait to get past. Sure, some of these bits help to color in our characters more, but some of the people in here are starting to glow neon. I knew after the first ten jokes that Kagemusha was funny and had wit. It didn’t need to be reinforced another ten times. Still, things such as this are a minor splotch on the canvas.

Battle sequences aren’t as common ground as they were in films such as Ran, Seven Samurai, or Yojimbo. Still, Kagemusha stands on its own within these ranks, and that’s something to be admired. The few battle sequences that we have the pleasure of seeing aren’t anything short of glorious. Between suicide charges and holding ground, Kagemusha crafts its own brand of suspense and nail-biting action. Getting to these moments just takes time, unfortunately. But when they’re on the screen, we’re happy to let them stay as long as they want.

So, what else is there to be said? Not much. If you’ve treated yourself to Kurosawa films before, then you should know what you’re in store for with Kagemusha. It’s epic to the core, with action, a complex plot, and colorful characters that stick long after the film as ended. Kagemusha isn’t without its flaws. I find it to be intelligent but also rattling. It requires patience from the viewer in order to sort everything out. If you’ve got the time and the stomach to slam through three hours of human self-destruction and intense warfare, then Kagemusha is most certainly recommended. But see Ran first if you haven’t already.

Rating: ★★★☆

-Chris Luedtke

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