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.