Kagemusha can be viewed as Akira Kurosawa’s quieter and more intimate warm-up to its bigger and grander successor Ran which would come out five years later. I guess one must thank directors George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola without whose involvement – they managed to get the additional funding necessary for its completion – the film would never have seen the light of day. And without Kagesmusha, perhaps there would be no Ran.
Although its scale is smaller than Ran’s, it is a strong film that stands firmly on its own merits which, given the fact that Kurosawa is behind the camera, are plenty. For one thing, it reminds us once again what a great master Kurosawa was. There are enough sequences in the film that serve as testaments to his supreme storytelling and artistic abilities. These two films are significantly different from the more playful and light-hearted samurai films he made in the past, such as Yojimbo and Sanjuro.
Brimming as much with dark cynicism as it does with poignant humanism, Kagemusha takes place in feudal Japan, narrating the power struggle between three rival clans; one of them, the Takeda clan, is headed by Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai). When Shingen is mortally wounded in battle and later dies, his brother arranges for his death to be kept a secret for a period of three years by hiring a lookalike of Shingen (also played by Nakadai) who happens to be an ex-thief, and forcefully persuades him to play the warlord to fool his enemies.
Kurosawa opens the film with a single, calm and static shot of three men – Shingen, his identical twin brother, and Shingen’s double – from a distance. We are unable to make out who is who because Kurosawa doesn’t go for close-ups, and all three are wearing the same costume. The men are speaking, but it’s unclear who is saying what. It’s only a while later that we learn their identities. Given that Shingen and his double have diametrically opposite characters, Nakadai appropriately tunes both his performances so as to make the viewer clearly distinguish one from the other.
As the story progresses, we begin to sympathize with the double despite not making much of a strong first impression. He is trained by Shingen’s brother to talk and act like him, and there is one particular moment where everyone around him is stunned by his incredible transformation into “Shingen”. It creates a similar effect on us too. In a way, Nakadai’s performance makes a statement about the nature of acting itself. If Kurosawa hadn’t parted ways with his long-time muse Toshiro Mifune, we would’ve gotten to see him in this role instead; and his portrayal would be much different from Nakadai’s.
The film’s pace perfectly reflects Shingen’s character – oscillating between long periods of stillness and exuberant activity. Unlike in Ran where Kurosawa gives equal importance to characters and battle scenes, here he gives more importance to the characters. The battle sequences mostly take place in the background, unseen to us, and confusing us just as it does Shingen. Kurosawa visualizes every frame as a great painter would, and there are enough stunning shots in the film that can be turned into wallpapers. There is a strikingly surreal dream sequence which looks like an impressionistic painting of Van Gogh. The film can be enjoyed as part of a double feature with Ran.