Few filmmakers, be they from the East or West, have directed as many hailed works in as many decades as Akira Kurosawa. The Japanese master started his directorial career in the 1940s and, between his active years of ‘43 and ‘93, was responsible for (with leaving out several) Stray Dog, Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, Ran, and Dreams.
One of his final features, Kagemusha, was released in 1980 thanks to Kurosawa loyalists Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, who convinced 20th Century Fox to shell out the remaining numbers on the check when Toho Company Ltd. could not find the funds to complete the film.
Set in 16th-century Japan, the story observes the effects of what happens when a respected leader is so easily replaced. When Lord Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai) is killed by a sniper, the Takeda clan lackeys, fearing the enemy could take advantage of the assassination, recruit a look-a-like thief (also Tatsuya Nakadai, which would explain the resemblance) to serve as the kagemusha, or shadow warrior, for three years.
The thief learns Lord Shingen’s mannerisms to an exact and, in the ultimate test, fools both his mistresses and his grandson. The film could have played out as comedy, but then Kurosawa was never much good with the genre. He was an ambitious filmmaker and Kagemusha, like many of his films, is presented in such scope--the sets gigantic, costumes theatrical, and battles some of the best ever shot.
American directors have often strived--and seldom achieved--to imitate Kurosawa. It’s ironic here, though, that Kurosawa, who owed much to the West for Kagemusha getting made, didn’t care to borrow from them. Take, for example, the conclusion of the magnificently-shot final battle. Thousands lay dead, with blood imbedded in the dirt and horses keeling with their last breath. Kurosawa uses dispassionate static shots of the aftermath, never fully able to capture what death must be like on the field. Maybe he should have watched the scene in Gone With the Wind where Scarlett searches for Dr. Meade and the camera, in an unmatched crane shot (by Ernest Haller), reveals the thousands of wounded and dead Confederate soldiers.
No other moment in cinema, save what Steven Spielberg did with Normandy Beach in Saving Private Ryan, realized the effects of war. What Kurosawa does is, simply, lazy and amateur.
This isn’t to say that Kagemusha, as a whole, is--though it clearly shows an aging director (Kurosawa was 70 at the time) trying to match his greater works. Despite its feats, Kagemusha is a demonstration of why sometimes “epic” just means long and self-indulgent.
Lucas, Coppola, and Kurosawa (HD; 19:21): The filmmakers, who helped finance Kagemusha, sit down for these 2004 interviews to discuss how Kurosawa impacted them, raising funds for the film, and why it was important to them.
Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create (HD; 41:01) is an extensive documentary on the making of Kagemusha.
Image: Kurosawa’s Continuity (HD; 43:44): Kurosawa’s original storyboards, drawings, and paintings are on display to take us through a shortened version of Kagemusha. This featurette runs awfully long, but it invaluable in that you’ve likely never seen the works before.
A Vision Realized offers a collection of over 20 Kurosawa storyboards in a split-screen comparison with their fully realized film versions.
Suntory Whiskey Commercials (HD): There are five Suntory Reserve commercials here, all shot on the set of Kagemusha. A fun addition that will immediately bring to mind Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation.
Also included with this Criterion Collection Blu-ray is a 36-page booklet with an essay titled “Kagemusha: From Painting to Film Pageantry” by president of the Japan Society of Boston Peter Grilli and a Sight & Sound interview with Kurosawa conducted by Japanese film expert Tony Rayns.