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.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review! This is the only article I could find that discusses the similarities between DAVE and KAGEMUSHA. I figured RogerEbert would at least mention the connection in his review of DAVE, but he never brought it up.