If Dodes’ka-den, a flawed but deeply felt ensemble piece perched at the edge of financial ruin, signaled for many Japanese cinema titan Akira Kurasawa’s fallibility, then Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior) ushered him into the good graces often accorded aged artists who understandably fall back on the themes and variations that marked their earlier major works. The pleasures of Kagemusha (and, make no mistake, there are pleasures) should be familiar to Kurosawa’s proponents; the film vibrates with a profound respect for historical veracity, the busy intersection between political sociology and psychology, and grunting, portentous masculinity. Of course, only the last item on that list really explains what about Kagemusha (and, more so, Kurosawa’s 1985 follow-up Ran) garnered all the enthusiasm.
The “shadow warrior” of the title is a common thief who is taken into custody by the Takeda clan in 16th-century feudal Japan because of his uncanny resemblance to their warlord Shingen. Shingen’s brother Nobukado suggests he should be retained as a potential decoy. Though the thief (in the movie’s static but hypnotic one-take opening shot) is quick to denounce Shingen with all the class-conscious wrath he can muster, Nobukado’s impulse proves correct: Shingen is mortally shot almost immediately thereafter. Whether out of a sense of duty, or whether he realizes his only other choice is death as punishment for his previous crimes, or perhaps because he feels the first pangs of power-lust, the kagemusha steps in to impersonate the late Shingen.
Kagemusha, much like the similarly overblown but handsomely mounted Lawrence of Arabia, is an epic with a cipher in its point position. Rather than attempt to understand the kagemusha’s motivations, Kurosawa is more interested in the ambiguities between his role and his psyche. (Some viewers even find themselves toying with the idea that Shingen’s soul imposes itself into the body of his double, but the third-act dream sequence pretty explicitly suggests the two entities remain separate; the one is simply haunted by the legacy of the other.)
Eventually, though, even the character study demurs to Kurosawa’s roiling pageantry. Kurosawa spent the many years it took to get this project off the ground painting his scenes. So it’s no surprise that Kagemusha’s strength flexes and relaxes practically on a shot-to-shot basis. Certain tableaux have a vaguely gaudy but lusciously polychromatic thrust, others are just kitsch. In fact, the entire movie looks as though it was cautiously filmed from a great distance (many medium exterior shots bounce around in the frame), as though Kurosawa wanted to make sure the sense of sweep and grandeur is only a zoom out away. He’s canny enough to bookend his film with unforgettable first and last shots, but it wasn’t until Ran’s appropriation of Shakespeare that he found a way, in his late period, to successfully match show with tell.
Just as the film rises and falls from shot to shot, so does the transfer, only in this case the quality index bounces between excellent and astonishing. Criterion’s Blu-ray features almost surprisingly subtle atmospheric effects and skin tones and near-perfect black levels. The dream sequence is a jaw-dropping mélange of just about every color you can imagine in the spectrum. Focus is tight even when Kurosawa’s camerawork slips (as in those aforementioned medium shots), and the grain is appropriate without being a distraction. I haven’t seen their work on Chungking Express or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but I’d have to imagine this stands among Criterion’s best color transfers to date. The 4.0 surround mix doesn’t feature as many directional effects as I’d expect given the behind-the-scenes presence of Francis Ford Coppola (fresh off of Apocalypse Now), but it’s crisp and clear.
Again, anyone familiar with Criterion’s existing DVD release won’t find anything new here. The centerpiece is a downright aerobic commentary track by Stephen Prince. While not everything he says is likely to strike viewers as salient or even interesting, you’ve got to give the guy some credit. He was tasked to talk over a three-hour film and I counted about seven inhales. "A" for effort. Also included is a 40-minute behind-the-scenes doc on the film’s creation under the "Toho Masterworks" umbrella, which is ironic given Coppola and George Lucas had to beseech 20th Century Fox to bail out Kurosawa’s production. And speaking of which, there’s also a 20-minute video interview with Coppola and Lucas. Possibly eclipsing them all, though, is "Image: Kurosawa’s Continuity." Is it heresy to say I actually enjoyed Criterion’s reconstruction of Kagemusha through Kurosawa’s pre-production artwork than I enjoyed the film itself?
Kurosawa’s autumnal return to form is a tad too calculated to stand shoulder with Rashomon (or Ran), but Criterion’s Blu-ray at least presents its pageantry in the best possible light.