The story of Akira Kurosawa's fall from grace is one of the more depressing in the annals of cinema. He never suffered half the indignities of Orson Welles or Erich von Stroheim, but following Red Beard he never had an easy time of securing funding again. Where once he produced a film almost annually, each of his features following his turbulent final collaboration with Toshiro Mifune was separated by a five-year gap, a trend that lasted until 1990's Dreams. By the late '70s, Kurosawa had not worked in Japan since Dodes'ka-den, his first color feature, at the turn of the decade. He won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for 1975's Dersu Uzala, set and filmed in Sibera, but the acclaim did nothing to convince Toho Studios to fund their former golden child. At last, two leading American New Hollywood directors, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, both deeply indebted to Kurosawa's technique and themes, learned of the master's troubles and used their clout to convince 20th Century Fox to back the film (though how Coppola, still embroiled and near-bankrupt in the tsunami that was Apocalypse Now and still teetering on a knife edge before being vindicated upon its release, helped I'll never know).
In one of life's little ironies, the film Lucas and Coppola helped make, a return to the samurai genre, even, is utterly different from the films that informed these two megafans. Kagemusha, a depiction of the key moment in Japanese history when the old daimyo system morphed into a unified Japan. Primarily, it follows the Takeda daimyo, leader of the doomed clan, as he attempts to besiege and defeat his enemies, the Oda and Tokugawa clans.
It sounds like your typical, epic Kurosawa jidaigeki, filled with battles and expressions of honor, and to a degree it is. Yet the structure is different: Kurosawa shows only briefs clips of rapidly edited action, instead focusing on the intimate details of a lord's double and how this kagemusha must reign after the true lord's death to preserve morale. However, the battles in his other films often represented their themes, and what little we see of the action here serves the same purpose. The warriors of Seven Samurai found honor in their sacrifice for peasant farmers, even as Kurosawa never stooped to celebrating their violence. The reluctant brutality of the ronin who calls himself Sanjuro presented extreme violence as a violation of this wise samurai's sense of honor. Kagemusha presents the emerging impersonality of military warfare brought about by guns, an incomprehensible slaughter that destroys any sense of value, much less honor.
Shingen, the Takeda daimyo, is himself slain by gunfire, shot by a sniper who wasn't, as we learn later, even aiming carefully. The generals who hear of their master's wound are naturally distressed, but Shingen's enemies do not seem particularly pleased, either. Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu learn that he has been wounded -- but not killed -- and they display a reverence for their foe and they disparage the cowardice of the attack. As the Takeda clan had nearly made peace with Tokugawa, Shingen's brother Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki) decides to use a double to fool both Shingen's enemies and allies, preserving appearances and morale until the situation can be smoothed.
They find a dead ringer in a petty thief (Tatsuya Nakadai) set to be crucified for his crimes. They recruit him to be a kagemusha, or "shadow warrior," a job that he takes to with surprising skill. With only descriptions of the lord's behavior and mannerisms from those who knew Shingen best, the kagemusha is soon so convincing that even those who knew the truth and taught him about Shingen cannot tell the difference. Yet there are still some concerns as to certain tells that might give away the ruse. One of the elite circle mentions Shingen's horse, a wild beast that only the real lord could ride. "His lordship has been ill," another instructs the men to tell those who would ask questions, "and he must refrain from riding." The matter of the lord's mistress is then put forward. "His lordship has been ill, and he must refrain from riding."
The role of the kagemusha was initially meant for Shintaro Katsu, the comic actor known for playing the blind samurai Zatoichi. But Katsu angered the director when he showed up on-set with his own camera crew seeking to document (without his permission) Kurosawa and his shooting technique. So, the director replaced him with Nakadai who, it must be said, does not excel in the role. He infuses Shingen with so little personality that when he transforms the thief into the lord it's hard to be impressed; his only achievement is looking like himself. Nakadai had proven himself in previous Kurosawa pictures, and he still had his flawless performance in Ran ahead of him, but he's one of the major flaws in this picture.
Another is the leaden pacing. Seven Samurai is perhaps the "shortest" three-and-a-half-hour movie ever made, one with far less action that many would have you believe but edited so that even its scenes of reflection and quiet worry maintain momentum. (I also suspect that he hit budget or time issues, as some shots contain uses of hand-held shots that simply jar in comparison to his formal camerawork elsewhere.) Despite Nakadai's two-dimensional performance, it is genuinely interesting that the thief is being absorbed into the late Shigen's persona, to the point that Shingen's young grandson looks upon the double as the real, albeit kinder, deal and even Shingen's embittered son turns to the man he knows is a fraud for serious tactical advice in the conflict with Tokugawa and Oda. But Kurosawa breaks the narrative in odd places, often touching upon but never fully explicating Katsuyori's anger concerning his lack of inheritance. He might as well not show Nobunaga or Ieyasu at all, apart from perhaps their initial reactions to Shingen's wound and the eventual revelation of his death, as they add little to the story and don't have enough presence between them for one character. It leaves the film a good half hour too long, and for the first time, I found a Kurosawa film to be an occasionally arduous task.
When, however, the elements click, Kagemusha can be as impressive as anything else in the master's canon. In the long interim between Dersu Uzala and this, he returned to painting, and shots here combine the deeply artistic composition he'd always displayed with a more abstract and painterly tinge. Kurosawa fills the screen with impressionistic skies, most strikingly with reds and purples during battle scenes. In one of the film's best moments, the kagemusha has a warped dream sequence as he more or less runs through a painting alternately chasing and chased by the ghost of Shingen. As the term kagemusha means "shadow warrior," Kurosawa injects numerous shots of the thief's shadow growing and growing until it fills the screen, yet he frames these shots so as to, somehow, make them flow naturally without disrupting the flow for the sake of a visual cue.
Many dismiss the film as a sort of dress rehearsal for Ran, and while that's harsh, one cannot deny that Lear was on Kurosawa's brain even here. It certainly has Shakespeare's sense of nihilism, what with the final shots of mass slaughter and of the kagemusha's bullet-ridden corpse floating down a river along with a standard now laughable in its hollow proclamation of spirit. Yet it's unfair to call it nihilism, either in Kurosawa's work or the Bard's, as it's tempered with great regret and sadness. Kagemusha's seeming wistfulness of the sword and spear warfare that preceded the cold gunfire of this new brand of killing undermines the director's clear disdain of any sort of violence, but in reality he's simply lamenting the loss of all codes of honor, even if they had no real application in battle. In fact, Kagemusha is the sole of Kurosawa's jidaigeki films to line up with his depictions of postwar Japan: the warlords used muskets and wanton destruction to unify the country, and later we dropped two bombs from 30,000 ft, leading Japan into its modern era. This film is as slow as it is because it's Kurosawa's death march for the cultural values he mourned his whole career.