Kagemusha, or The Shadow Warrior, is an old man's story, a re-
flective tale told with great care and even greater leisure. The old man is 70-year-old Akira Kurosawa, whose masterly output includes Rashomon, Ikiru and The Seven Samurai, one of which nearly always appears on somebody’s all-time ten-best list. His use of film techniques such as slow motion
and the zoom shot have left other directors, notably Sam Peckinpah, indebted to him; most of all, his superb craftsmanship is and always has been soldered to his heart in his search for new ways to take experience and filter it through a lens. In Kagemusha, Kurosawa’s blood runs slow; to watch it requires patience, but the vigil won’t go unrewarded. Masters of any art form don’t really dry up, but like the rest of us they do grow tired.
In a subtle, Japanese way Kagemusha is Kurosawa’s King Lear. Set in 16thcentury feudal Japan when it was torn apart by civil wars, it centres upon the efforts of a powerful clan leader, Takeda (Tatsuya Nakadai), to wrest power from the other clans. Takeda sometimes uses a “kagemusha,” or double, to outfox his enemies in battle; his latest, a petty thief whom he had saved from the noose, appeals to Takeda’s sense of irony. But when Takeda is fatally shot, having been promised that his death would remain secret for three years, the double (Nakadai, again) must assume a weight of power he was never meant for.
Even more uneasily lies the head that wears a surrogate crown. The double, who as a common thief never had a real identity in the Japanese social strata, finds himself, comically and painfully, living a lie that grows larger and larger. And when he is revealed as an impostor, he’s left alone on a heath—except it’s a bloody battleground where horses and men are writhing in slow-motion agony. There’s a lot of Dostoyevski in Kagemusha, a lot of looking into that overgrown pond called the self, vainly, poignantly awaiting a clear reflection. Physically,Nakadai isperfectly equipped for the part: his sad, drooping eyes try to veil the double’s confusions. Though the film never lowers itself to anything as blatant as moralism, Kurosawa seems to be saying that masquerades never work, and that any rise to greatness, even from the lower depths, is inevitably followed by a fall. As well as the Lears of the world there are also the kagemushas.
Ablaze with color and resounding with a stirring musical score by Schinichiro Ikebe, Kagemusha is as well-made and shining an object as one could wish to see. But the spectacular battle scenes of The Seven Samurai have quieted down to the chess-like moves of those in Kagemusha. It is, if an old man is telling a story, an old man’s prerogative to tell it that way—and just fine if seen by the respectful
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