Friday, February 28, 2014

Addio Zio Tom

Addio Zio Tom (1971)
Dir. and written by Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi

Oh good, another chance to use my “Controversial opinions” tag. What we got here is a real doozy, a film from Mondo documentarians Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, the ones who did MONDO CANE, WOMEN OF THE WORLD, and AFRICA ADDIO (and MONDO CANE 2, I guess, but usually we don’t talk about that). But it’s not a documentary, at least in the traditional sense. Instead, it’s a faux-documentary, where the filmmakers go back in time to the Antebellum South so they can “document” the various horrors associated with American racial slavery, seen here depicted by modern Haitian actors/extras. Again, from the sophisticated good taste that brought you the scene in WOMEN OF THE WORLD where dozens of the topless title characters on a beach run away from a weird old Scottish polygamist. And they’re making it, at least in part, to try to apologize for what a lot of people (including that nut Roger Ebert) thought were some extremely questionable choices in their previous film, which may or may not have been a little racially insensitive. Or as Ebert put it: "AFRICA ADDIO is a brutal, dishonest, racist film. It slanders a continent and at the same time diminishes the human spirit.” (he gave it a thumbs down).

So, you got two Italian semi-documentarians/semi-exploitation filmmakers, not native English speakers, who already made one film with some pretty iffy racial content, who are now trying to make an entirely staged mockumentary about slavery, using Haitian reenactors, based on historical sources, in order to prove they’re not racist. That sound like a good idea to you?

The result is what you’d expect, I think; a shocking, appalling parade of horrors which feels equally stunning and leering, piercing and sleazy. I can confidently say that there’s nothing else like it in the world, and thank sweet merciful Zeus for that. Still, even though it’s an unequivocally unpleasant experience, I’m sort of glad I watched it. It’s like those horrifying Nazi psychology experiments that we could never ethically reproduce, but we’re kind of glad to have data from. If you can keep watching, you’ll see things here that you’ll never, ever see attempted again.

See that? Pretty fucking shocking, ain't it? I warned you! This is only gonna get worse from here.

For one thing, this is a film about the horrors of slavery which is pitched as a dryly ironic, straight-faced satire. The film shows you a non-stop parade of eye-popping sadism and dehumanizing cruelty, but depicts it with a kind of “Gosh-isn’t-this-interesting” cheerfulness (that was pretty commonplace in World Documentaries from the 60’s) and then trusts the audience to be in on the joke, which it decidedly was not. And who could really blame them; these wounds are just way too fresh and too personal for this type of droll absurdism to be possible, let alone appropriate. But I’m not sure these Italians understood that; they’d been culture hopping since the early 60’s with MONDO CANE, perpetually interested in the bizarre, shocking and macabre details of a world which was really opening up and coming together for the first time in history. We were with them when they were gawking at foreigners and native cultures in MONDO CANE, but I don’t think they counted on how how deep the scars of slavery go in America, and how utterly unable we would be to join them in their curious outsiders’ distance. Rubbing our faces in depravity and setting it to cheerful, catchy Italian pop songs (by Italian horror maestro Riz Ortolani of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and MONDO CANE fame) might be a clever, brazen way of highlighting the cognitive dissonance that allowed slavery to continue. If we were watching from a safe distance. But as of now, there’s no way of getting around it, this is just way too much, the pain is still way too real for it to play as a pitch-black comedy.

Still, I think the movie’s heart is in the right place, and in a way it’s almost admirable to try something like this, to really play up slavery as grand guignol, to make us face a level of barbarity that no other movie would dare show. It definitely does that. There’s a long procession of sickeningly degrading scenarios that just drop your jaw, and they just come one after another after another. Slaves forced to eat out of troughs like animals, casually raped, hunted for sport, tortured by curious academics. These scenes are not coy, there’s nothing subtle about them whatsoever, and indeed in many cases they’re clearly the result of elaborate choreography and camera setups, long takes involving hundreds of extras being explicitly and blatantly brutalized. There’s simply no other visual document that I know of this dedicated to hurling humanity’s cruelest impulses into your eyes, forcing you to see just how fucking ugly this system was. I mean this is some SALO level shit, but on a exponentially larger scale and closely based on real history.

Though billed as a documentary, the directors don't shy away from using vaguely surreal perspectives to enhance the intensity of the horror show.

There’s not a ton of other movies to compare this to, since there just aren’t too many movies that focus on this topic. Even DJANGO UNCHAINED kind of shies away from depicting slavery this explicitly. We do have 12 YEARS A SLAVE, though, and it’s interesting to watch that one and ADDIO ZIO TOM so close to each other and see what differences emerge. Most notable of those differences is that 12 YEARS was --it has been suggested, anyway-- a movie about the tortured and ambiguous relationship between masters and slaves. This one isn’t. It’s a movie about the relationship between masters and property. The whites don’t acknowledge the humanity of their slaves even enough to talk to them. In one of the earliest scenes, the camera approaches a decadent dinner party of older white Southerners, who acknowledge the filmmakers and talk directly to them about why they feel blacks are so inferior. All while they’re being served by a silent company of slaves! In one of the film’s precious few moments of subtlety, Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe babbles on about why blacks are inherently inferior to whites while the camera suddenly catches the eye of the silent black butler waiting on her. She doesn’t think twice about talking this way around him, but this quick moment of eye contact tells us that not only does he understand exactly what she’s saying, he’s silently seething over it. But all he can do is look away from the camera and keep serving.

That scene is a perfect encapsulation of what the film is going for, and also a perfect example of why it was such an easy target for critics claiming it was racist. While we see literally hundreds of Haitian extras being degraded in every possible way, the camera never directly addresses any of them. A broad cross-section of whites are interviewed about their attitudes and their relationship to slavery, but the slaves themselves stay painfully silent (in fact, the one and only slave who speaks to the camera is a sniveling Stockholm-syndrome weasel, arguing that slavery is actually for the benefit of blacks). Combined with all the dehumanizing scenarios, this makes it pretty easy to accuse the film itself of playing into dehumanizing narratives, feeling sorry for the blacks but at the same time affording them no agency.

But I don’t think that’s really what’s going on here; I think Prosperi and Jacopetti are actually doing two fairly clever things which sort of dovetail into each other. First, they’re attempting to directly adapt historical sources and depict them literally. While slave narratives are certainly available (see: Northup, Solomon) the lion’s share of primary sources on the subject come from the white people who absolutely dominated the cultural dialogue at the time. The movie depicts just how shut out of the conversation slaves were; they’re not even interviewed in a movie which is actually about them, and instead have to sit there and listen to a bunch of ignorant honkie fucktards pretend to be experts. But the second thing is even more interesting: by blithely playing along with the racist claptrap from the whites, Jacopetti and Prosperi highlight just how little these crackers actually understand about what’s happening here. These whites aren’t just conveniently ignoring the humanity of their slaves, they’ve actually convinced themselves that it really isn’t there. They’ve invented an alternate reality to live in, where they can cheerfully subjugate another race and genuinely believe they’re humanitarians for doing so.

You had my curiosity. Now, you have my disgust.

That in itself is repugnant enough, but Jacopetti and Prosperi aren’t quite done just yet. Because while the willed blindness of the whites is convenient at the time, it also puts them in a dangerously ignorant position. And the movie subtly intimates that this isn’t a forgotten relic of the past either; whites today (1971) are still utterly oblivious to the black experience, and the result might just be that they get exactly what they deserve. The end of the film is filled with (mostly fictional) images of modern blacks rioting and fucking up a bunch of utopian white suburban drones who seem completely confused as to why this is happening. The suggestion is that they just don’t get it. ’Why are black people so mad these days?’ they wonder, not realizing to what extent their complete ignorance of what the African American experience has been like is making them dangerously unable to deal with the reality here. Indeed, though I watched the shortened American version first, the director’s cut (and the one shown literally everywhere else on Earth except America) begins with almost 20 minutes of (apparently genuine?) civil rights movement footage, which is also sporadically interjected into the main narrative.

And that’s the point here, I think: to explain how we got to the tumult of the 70’s without white people having the slightest clue what was really going on. And it’s hard to believe now, but seriously, they really just didn’t. When riots started decimating American cities in the late 60’s (for example, the Watts riots in 1965, Detroit riot in 1967) white America was scandalized and baffled. While the Detroit riot was still underway, President Johnson ordered the formation of what would become known as the Kerner Commission, which was ordered to answer three simple questions about the riots: “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?" These are not questions asked by people who have the slightest knowledge about what life was like in the segregated urban ghettos of the North, and people where genuinely surprised by the commission's findings that maybe, in some small way, virulent racism, segregation, and discrimination might have something to do with all the anger. Collectively, white America panicked and reacted with fear and confusion, generally rallying around the kind of fascist, law-and-order conservatives who to this day continue to stoke racial fear as a tool to get themselves into power. And that’s where ADDIO ZIO TOM comes in: they’re trying to suggest that whites have forgotten just how deeply culpable they are in this violence, and just how justified the pent-up frustration of the blacks has become. The last scene is a fictional sketch of a modern-day black man reading The Confession of Nat Turner* while oblivious, obnoxious white people frolick around him on the beach. To the extent that they even notice him at all, they seem confused as to why he’s not having as much fun as they are. “Well,” Prosperi and Jacopetti seem to be saying, “now you know.”

Weirdly, Japan gets it.

Honestly, I think this is a pretty brilliant setup for a film, and there’s an undeniable evil power here which is easier to appreciate now than it would have been in the 70’s. And for better or worse, only these two particular cultural outsiders could have showed us this perspective. Like Alexis de Tocqueville, Jacopetti and Prosperi were such keen observers of the world by virtue of their being outsiders. But, unfortunately that outsiders’ quality which gives them the perspective they needed to create this vision also just makes the camera a little too excited about all this for us to really feel comfortable. There’s a leering, voyeuristic fascination with spectacle here which just doesn’t sit right. I mean, ADDIO ZIO TOM is in no way the first film to turn real life horror into overwhelming, cinematic spectacle with only lip service to its human cost; any number of swords and sandals epics do the same to older periods of history, for example. But had those films come along only a hundred years later, it would probably have been too soon for that, too. It seems kind of unfair, but it’s also undeniable. The movie is just a little too eager to entertain you with things you simply are not ready to find entertaining.

In fact, the film’s achilles heel is that it’s probably a little too Italian for its own good. While the US has serious racial issues which get addressed in the film, Italian culture is not without its own biases and troubling contradictions. This movie feels uncomfortably close to the obligatory rape scenes in a million Italian horror movies, where the movie ostensibly condemns the rape, but also uncomfortably ogles the poor gal while she screams for help.’ Yes, it’s horrible that these poor people were subjugated and exploited, but come on, look at those titties!’

The fact that these extras were provided to the film by Haitian dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier makes this aspect particularly questionable. Were they even paid? Did they have any choice but to participate? It’s the kind of thing that makes the film harder to defend on charges of exploitation, even if its intentions were good. A more somber, elegiac tone might have made this a little more palatable to the few people who might have been open to the film’s underlying message. As it stands, it seems like this one managed to alienate just about everyone: Ebert thought it was shameful exploitation, Pauline Kael thought it was an incitement to racial violence (incidentally, David Duke agreed with her, adding that it was a Jewish conspiracy for good measure --I guess the Italians were just patsies? Anyway, not too often that you hear Pauline Kael and David Duke agreeing on things, so treasure this moment). It’s funny, because I think Ebert would have liked it better had he agreed with Kael on the film’s intentions, and Kael might have enjoyed the film more if she thought the film was less political. But something this extreme is just bound to push people’s buttons, and that pretty much ensures that any other point gets lost.

Since the movie is really as much a commentary on the present as it is on the past, there are plenty of little meta elements. But this cameo might be a little on-the-nose.

The filmmakers, for their part, strenuously objected to charges that the film was racist, and I believe that they were earnest about making an anti-racist film, especially considering it was 1971 and Nixon was still president and saying things like this:

“The second point is that coming out--coming back and saying that black Americans aren't as good as black Africans--most of them, basically, are just out of the trees.  Now, let's face it, they are.”
                                     -Richard Nixon to a young Donald Rumsfeld, July 11,1971

Now THAT’s fucking racist, and not only that it barely even makes sense.** In fact, it’s white ignorance like this which is being satirized here. But even so, it’s hard to get past the fact that there’s an ill-considered desire to recreate MONDO CANE’s breezy, droll charm which permeates the film. This stuff is just way too horrible, and, again, too recent, for it to be anywhere near an appropriate subject for the kind of spectacle and titillation that Jacopetti and Prosperi were experts at capturing. Their good intentions end up being overpowered by their obvious enjoyment in crafting meticulous and horrible scenarios. Which, again, pretty much exactly what Italian exploitation cinema is known for, and what we love about it. But there’s no getting around it, even if this film weren’t billed as a documentary, this would be way too far. I thought even DJANGO UNCHAINED was a little cavalier about its appropriation of slavery narratives and images in search of entertainment; this, obviously, goes way further. We’re just not capable of being entertained by watching this stuff, so the combination of cheeky parody and horrific brutality quickly becomes nightmarish and repulsive, and the film’s genuine points and genuine history get easily overwhelmed by our shock and revulsion. Which, admittedly, still makes it a pretty unique and affecting experience, but probably not the kind the filmmakers intended.

So, these were not the right guys to make this movie, but then again, I don’t know if anyone really was; it’s kind of catch-22, because this stuff is so appalling there’s no way to depict it all without either going way too far or shamefully soft-pedaling the truth. 12 YEARS A SLAVE makes slavery look pretty shitty, but doesn’t even come close to touching some of the more colorful horrors depicted here; they would simply be too much, no one would notice the rest of the narrative after that. So instead ADDIO ZIO TOM goes the other direction and just throws ALL of it in there, but that doesn’t work either, you just become numb after awhile and the absurdity of it all becomes so apparent that it ends up being a sick comedy anyway. So I dunno. We’re still desperately in need of more popular culture depicting slavery in an honest way, but it’s a pretty hard line to walk. I can’t really imagine anyone, from any walk of life, watching this movie and not being offended on some level, but then again, you can hardly help but be impressed by something this ballsy and confrontational, and if you can get past its more embarrassing impulses I think there’s actually a pretty interesting message here, explored in a shockingly unique way.

Soon to be a major motion picture.

I guess that’s what sort of appeals to me about these Mondo films. They’re all pretty offensive on some levels, but there’s also something sympathetic and genuine about their funhouse mirror reflection on reality. They’re not fiction, but they’re also not pretending to tell some kind of objective truth, either; they use (some might say “exploit”) the richness and strangeness of reality to try and draw out more abstract and complicated feelings. They use unexpected juxtaposition to draw interesting contrasts, and imply connections between things which superficially might not seem intrinsically related. Pauline Kael dismissed MONDO CANE by accusing anyone who liked the film of being “too restless and apathetic to pay attention to motivations and complications, cause and effect.” But I actually think it was she who was too literal to pay attention to the more amorphous motivations and complications Jacopetti and Prosperi were trying to draw from these fragmented images. It’s gonzo journalism: telling real truths without pretending to tell objective truths. Their genius was in their implication, their suggestion, the parallels they draw, and all at a time when most people expected documentaries to be a bit more direct.*** In this case, the intimation lost on most critics (partly due to the butchered North American edit) is the way the painful history of slavery and the unmitigated horrors it perpetrated linger on, forgotten by white American but still painfully near to African Americans. The “Uncle Tom” of the title was always a fictional creation by white Americans trying to comfort themselves in their racism, and it’s time for us to shatter that fantasy, right here, right now. Hence, GOODBYE UNCLE TOM, the English translation of the title.

Of course, no one was probably gonna pay attention to that message after the scene where a bunch of Black Panthers break into a suburban home, snatch a white baby from a crib and bash its head in against the wall (see below). Like most of the movie, the message gets lost in the static of transgressive and nightmarishly shocking images which just unambiguously cross every line you can think of. You can’t fault people for missing the subtlety of something pitched this hysterically. Still, despite the possibly unforgivable missteps, there’s an undercurrent of genuine brilliance here. The filmmaking is searing, pugnacious; whether you like it or not, you’re going to have to confront what they’re pushing at you. The intense visuals, the propulsive score, the keen detail and slippery mix of reality and re-staging add up to an atmosphere of near-hallucinogenic sensory overload. It’s brash, confrontational cinema at both its very best and most misguided, sometimes simultaneously. But whatever side of the equation you come down on, you gotta admit there’s nothing else like it. And that’s probably for the best, but as problematic as this one is, it’s too potent a force for me to regret having it in the world. Just don’t let it end up the final word on this subject, OK America?

*Especially appropriate for this film, since it’s a fictional narrative that nonetheless has a genuine intent to impart history.

**Trying to decipher the Nixon tapes makes it clear just what a terrible communicator this guy was, on top of being a racist asshole. I’ve never seen anyone constructing such indecipherable ramblings so consistently. It seems like he was utterly incapable of finishing a sentence without changing topic in the middle, swearing, and then returning with a completely different syntax.

***Of course, it’s not like they were exactly ahead of their time, either. Nobody really made films like this before, and no one has since.

Yes, this is really in there.

Friday, February 14, 2014


Kagemusha aka Shadow Warrior (1980)
Dir. Akira Kurosawa
Written by Akira Kurosawa, Masato Ide
Starring Tatsuya Nakadai, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kenichi Hagiwara

So what we’ve got here is yet another masterpiece from Kurosawa, who has not made a single film that I have seen which was anything less than absolute perfection. The guy has more than earned his place in any serious cinephile’s heart, obviously. But sometimes I wonder if Kurosawa has enjoyed the success he has in America because moreso than his Japanese peers, his films offer a more palatable bridge between Japanese and Western cultures. More than contemporaries like Ozu or Masakai Kobiyashi, Kurosawa’s films seem influenced by Western storytelling, pacing, narrative beats, and themes. Sometimes he’s adapting Western works (Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest in YOJIMBO, Shakespeare’s King Lear in RAN) but sometimes it’s a little less direct, like his noir-styled STRAY DOG or the superficially simple men-on-a-mission template he would essentially create from scratch for SEVEN SAMURAI, but which would obviously go on to resonate so deeply in the West.

But the cool thing about Kurosawa is that he was by no means a simple mimic. Every one of his films feels distinctly Japanese and distinctly Kurosawa. When Western elements inform the roots, the branches twist and turn in an utterly distinct and unmistakably unique way, creating something which for Western audiences --and, I suspect, Eastern as well-- is constantly both familiar and surprising. Such is the case with KAGEMUSHA, a film which in some ways seems like a precursor to RAN with its fastidious period detail, enormous spectacle, and depictions of horrific warfare and brutality. There’s a difference, though, in that if the two exist in the same bleak world of detached, feuding Shoguns and widescale devastation, KAGEMUSHA finds some human warmth amid the suffering. It’s at least as fatalistic than RAN --if not a good deal more--, but with just the lightest touch of Kurosawa’s famous humanism to make it cut all the deeper. This is all a matter of public record. The most interesting thing about it, though, is the fascinating way it weaves together Western narrative tropes with a distinctly Japanese perspective on identity.

The film begins with a long, static take of a deeply surreal image: three versions of the same man sit facing the camera, dressed identically, discussing the possibilities opened up by their curious similarity. The conversation gradually makes it clear that the man in the center is Lord Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai, veteran of HARA-KIRI, SAMURAI REBELLION, KWAIDAN), patron of the Takeda clan, while the man on his left is his brother Nobukado, who also sometimes acts as Shingen’s double. The third man is the odd one out, even though he looks identical to (and is played by the same actor as) Shingen himself: he is an unnamed thief, about to be executed save for Nobukado’s intervention upon realizing that he is the Lord’s exact double. The Thief’s manner and composure is completely different from Shingen, but he is his equal in one regard: he’s got, as the Japanese say, cajones. When Nubokado suggests that the Thief could easily serve as Shingen’s double, he also blanches at the thought of a lowlife thief representing his honorable master. But the Thief counters that he merely stole a few coins, while the Shogun has murdered countless people, including his own son. Which of them is truly wicked? he demands, clearly putting his own life at risk.

Shit's about to get kinky.

But it’s not the Thief who should be worried. Shingen is fighting a never-ending battle against two rival lords, and is close to victory in his siege of one of them. Alas, an errant sniper shot mortally wounds him, prompting him to beg his brother to retreat back to their ancestral home, and there use a double to maintain the illusion that he still lives. Suddenly, the whole clan is relying on the Thief (an outsider from the North) to convincingly impersonate one of the most powerful people in Japan, or risk their total destruction once Shingen’s adversaries sense weakness. The Thief is initially reticent about his new role, but turns out to be far more clever and resourceful than anyone expects as he manages to outwit enemies, fool Shingen’s family, and even lead the clan into battle.

While the production of KAGEMUSHA is enormous (roughly half the scenes look like they must have a thousand extras, all in meticulously detailed period costume), the drama is subtle and inward-focused. Both the Thief and Nobukado (now custodian of his fraudulent "brother") have experience with the terrible weight of impersonating someone so important and powerful, and an odd kind of grudging respect forms between them, or at least an understanding. The Thief is a somewhat selfish, frivolous man, forced to assume not only the life of someone else, but also his responsibility and the burden of his larger-than-life status among the family and country that barely know him. 

In the face of these huge forces, the man he once was threatens to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of Shigan’s near-mythical status. In perhaps the most stunning scene in a film jam-packed with stunning scenes, the Thief dreams that he is face-to-face with Shingen himself against a surreal, impressionistic painted background and standing astride a tiny version of the countryside. Shingen, bedecked in his ritual armor, is an extremely intimidating figure, and the Thief first flees from him. Perhaps he is just afraid of the Shogun’s warlike garb, but perhaps he also worries that Shingen rejects this illegitimate imposter as unworthy. Then, just as the dream seems to be spiraling into a chase, the focus shifts: Shingen himself appears to retreat, only to have his doppelganger follow him, searching frantically for the man who, from beyond the grave, has stolen his own life. If the Thief is an unworthy interloper into another man’s life, his own life was equally stolen from him, sacrificed so a dying monarch could exert his will for a few more years. But the Thief is not outwardly angry; instead, he seems plaintive, desperate. Does he want Shingen’s blessing? His wisdom? Or does he just want him back alive so he can have his own life back?

I need to have more dreams like this.

All that has been covered in some depth elsewhere, by far smarter men than I. So instead, I’d like to focus on contrasting the film with Ivan Reitman's 1993 romantic comedy DAVE. Because as an American, your expectations for this tale are a little different from the Japanese ones. DAVE, as you’ll recall, is a normal, Kevin-Kliney dude who is hired to act as the U.S. President’s double while the real POTUS is incapacitated by a stroke. It’s almost a remake! Except, the final destinations of Dave and our unnamed Thief are wildly different, and I suspect it has a lot to do with the different cultures telling these fables.

Here’s the thing: the drama in these two tales is pretty similar. There’s a regular guy, plucked out of his comfortable element, and forced into a position of enormous power and responsibility. Can he get away with it? Is he clever enough to avoid detection and pull one over on the bigwigs around him? It’s basically a fish-out-of-water story combined with an element of tension because of the clandestine nature of the impersonation. Both movies mine this element for most of the major plot points, and then both movies also go on to address the question of identity for the person who assumes the role of the impersonator.

But it is here that the two movies diverge. The American film is about the *transmutability* of identity. Dave, a regular guy, impersonates the president at first as a stooge for his handlers, but gradually with more and more of his own agency. The presidency becomes a catalyst for his personal growth into the role. At the beginning of the movie, he’s sort of a loser, the kind of guy no one would expect much of, but by adopting this false identity he discovers strength and character in himself which he had never tapped before. He rises to the occasion and ends up actually being a better president than the man he’s impersonating. This is, then, a classic American myth of self-empowerment: the idea that identity is constructed and that even a common man can transform himself into someone who could successfully lead the free world. Identity is not fixed: you can transform yourself into someone new, someone better, if you’re sufficiently motivated to.

Betcha didn't expect to see this in here when you first started reading.

KAGEMUSHA, on the other hand, is much more complex. Living Shingen’s life does cause the Thief to grow, but in a much less grandiose way. DAVE implies that it is exactly Dave’s plainness, his everyman good sense and morals, that make him more qualified to lead than the duplicitous real president. But in KAGEMUSHA, the Thief’s common-ness make him utterly incapable of actually becoming Shingen; that is to say, there is never the slightest suggestion that he should actually exercise any real power or attempt to take the Shogun’s place. All decisions are made by Nobukado and a cabal of advisors who are in on the scheme, and the emphasis is carefully placed on the idea that the Thief is only playing the role for appearances. He’s not included in any discussions of strategy (even though on several occasions it becomes obvious that this would be helpful). No one even considers asking for his opinions, and he’s expected to accept getting treated like the commoner piece of shit he is behind closed doors, when no one can see. 

In a way, it seems strange to an American sensibility; if they want the charade to be truly convincing, the Thief needs to live the part, actually stepping into Shingen’s life and truly doing all the things that entails. But to a Japanese sensibility, I think this sort of transformation would be unthinkable. You cannot just “become” a Shogun if you are born a thief. They’re not just roles, they’re separate and immutable realities. A thief cannot become a Shogun any more than Dave could become a dinosaur. As we saw in 13 ASSASSINS, the rigid social order is the basis for all of life’s interactions and responsibilities; if social barriers are not fixed, and an individual can fluidly move through different social positions, the entire structure becomes dangerously suspect. In this time of brutality and chaos, the rule that keeps everyone alive is a rigid, ordered hierarchy. As much as a thief might be a good Shogun, and maybe an even better ruler than the real one, such a move would plunge the entire system into bloody anarchy.

Man, how many Cher concerts have I seen that start exactly like this?

It’s complicated, however, because even if he can never be a true ruler, his experience living the life of one obviously has a profound effect. When we meet him he’s a rather crude and self-centered man, but during the course of the film we see him become much braver, kinder, and more honorable than anyone could have foreseen. The movie leaves no doubt that he actually ends up a better substitute father to Shingen’s grandson than the original ever was, and his bravery and loyalty is shown to far outpace that of even his peers in Shingen’s inner circle. Like DAVE, the Thief finds his experience living someone else’s life to be a transformational experience which makes him a better person. And judging from our limited experience with the real Shingen --who is mythic in reputation but we also see acting petulant, childish, and cruel-- the Thief may well end up better suited to be a just ruler. 

But he never can be. That is the difference. DAVE depicts a man who grows to be worthy of the role he takes; KAGEMUSHA shows us a man who, no matter how good he is personally, will always be a fraud. His attributes as a leader and a human matter little, because putting him in this position has been uncomfortable and wrong all along. The movie has great sympathy and respect for the Thief, but not because he’s a good Shogun; it respects that he tries his best to do something which he cannot possibly succeed at and which can only end in his destruction. Even Nobukado --who turns out to be a really nice guy and the Thief’s biggest advocate-- has to acknowledge that it is creepy and wrong that people have to pretend this loser is Shogun, even as he mourns in the same breath that once the truth is revealed, there will be no possible role for the guy and he’ll be cast out.

One unlucky dude.

In fact, this is exactly what happens. Ultimately, the strain of living a double life causes the Thief to crack and believe he truly can be Shingen. This is his tragic flaw, and when he attempts (and fails) to ride the Shogun’s famously unrideable horse, the truth is revealed. The movie seems to regard his mistake as hubris, rather than optimism, and when he’s thrown out into the rain people are sad in the kind of way you’re sad for someone who has caused their own downfall. The real tragedy becomes apparent once he has departed, because both he and the clan are equally doomed. Shingen’s son is recognized (against his dead father’s wishes) as Shogun, and leads the whole clan on a disastrous, suicidal military adventure that his father has specifically warned against. Nobukado and the other officials have no choice but to follow along because this guy is the only proper source of power over the clan, even though they know it’s a horrible idea which will get them killed, and have just spent 3 years demonstrating that they can effectively and productively govern themselves. The clan winds up at the real historical Battle of Nagashino, which a quick wikipedia search suggests did not wind up so well for the Takeda clan. The battle itself is as gorgeously crafted a piece of war cinema as I have ever seen: we see wave after wave of Takeda warriors hurl themselves towards the enemy, but don’t see the result until the very end of the battle. It’s astoundingly beautiful, stunningly staged, heartbreaking and brutally suspenseful all at the same time. If you can watch it without covering your eyes at this point, you’re braver than I.

But the real tragedy is the Thief himself. Having been revealed, he’s free to go now, he’s got his own life back (and he seems to have been generously rewarded for his service by Nobukado). He’s free to go back to his own life, but he can’t; his years of living in another skin have left him a different person, there’s no life to go back to and yet his new life is denied to him. The child he had been raising as his own (grand)son, the staff who were his friends, his false brother who had been his counselor -- none of them will talk to him or acknowledge him ever again. During his years as the Shogun, he has made himself a new family, and now they’re rejecting him as a fraud even though his feelings for them were real. He’s an old man (in his late 50’s by this point) with no home left to return to and too little time to start over again. The only thing left for him to do is literally sacrifice his life (just as he has symbolically sacrificed it for the last three years) for the family who can never return his love. The final shots of the film depict his quixotic one-man suicide charge against the enemy (after the now-Shogun has already turned tail and retreated) and his bullet-ridden body floating on an ocean current over the banner of the Takeda clan. This film seems to take the perspective that this is a tragic but unavoidable turn of events; I defy any Western audience to watch this and not find it a tragic and maddeningly completely preventable turn of events.

But on the plus side, it's real pretty. Not sure if I mentioned that before.

I thought 13 ASSASSINS had an implied criticism of this horrific and soul-crushing fanatical devotion to a hierarchical system, but having seen this one I’m not so sure. I wonder if Japanese audiences look back at this rigidly ordered society with nostalgia, the same way Western audiences feel about our at-least-equally horrific feudal period. But there is one little detail which makes me wonder if there’s more to it than that: the film makes a point of showing us that one of Shingen’s major rivals, Oda Nobunaga, has a strong affinity for Western artifacts. He’s blessed by a Catholic bishop before he goes out to battle*, weirds his allies out by offering them European wine (“it looks like blood, but it’s European wine,” he tells them, and then makes fun of them when they hate it) and even wears what appears to be a distinctly Western suit of armor into battle. And of course, he’s ultimately the one who kills off the Takedas using western-style rifle barrages (against their traditional horses-and-swords charge). He seems decidedly less honorable than the third Shogun rival, Tokugawa Ieyasu (who demonstrates his honorable nature by mourning the loss of a rival of Shingen’s caliber, whereas Nobunaga gloats) but then again, his victory is well earned. Is this in there to subtly suggest the wholesale slaughter that will come from opposing Western influences? And if so, does it blame Nobunaga for turning his back on tradition, or Shingen and the Takeda for blindly following destructive traditions and failing to evolve with the times? Or, is it merely intended to be an accurate representation of these real historical characters set in a time just before traditional Japanese culture would be deluged by Western influence?

Ridin' wordy.

Given the film’s themes of identity, I’m inclined to think Kurosawa is indeed up to something here. Having come of age in post-WWII Japan, Kurosawa himself may have felt like a generation of Kagemushas, living a double life of traditional Japanese culture even as their country was rocked with changes which altered the very fabric of economic, social, and political life. Like the Thief, perhaps Kurosawa saw himself in a kind of no-man’s-land, amazingly adept at a Western way of thinking and storytelling which he also would never truly be a part of, and perhaps shouldn’t be a part of. His interest in Western culture may be seen as equal parts practical necessity and genuine love, but there’s also a part of him which will never be of that world. I don’t know too much about Kurosawa himself, so perhaps making it personal to him is unwarranted, but there certain was, at the time he made this film (as there is today), a kind of schism between East and West in Japanese culture, which I believe at least on some level is symbolized in the story of the Kagemusha. Appropriate, then, that it took two Westerners to actually allow Kurosawa to finish the film: Francis Coppola and George fuckin’ Lucas get “Executive producer” credit here for convincing 20th Century Fox to foot the bill and allow Kurosawa to finish shooting after Toho studios panicked at the Godzilla-sized price tag.

That means that appropriately enough, KAGEMUSHA isn’t just an exploration of fractured identity --particularly between East and West-- but actually the result of it, too. Many critics, particularly at the time, criticized the film for being cold compared to the director’s earlier work, but I soundly disagree with that assessment. I think it’s an incredibly humane, sympathetic film about a man --and a country-- in a particularly cruel situation. It’s about the coldness of the world, but the whole purpose of telling the story is to find the human element in it which makes it worth suffering through. East, West, Kurosawa, Lucas, Kagemusha and Dave… that’s something we can all relate to.

*I took this to mean that he himself was a Catholic, but wikipedia claims that although he was interested in the Catholic church and allowed them access to his people, he himself was an avowed Atheist until his death. I like this dude.

Man, they were barely even trying by these later CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON sequels.