Monday, October 12, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Kagemusha"

In addition to being one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Akira Kurosawa was also an accomplished painter.

While he was trying to get financing for his 1980 film "Kagemusha" -- one of only a handful he made in color -- he painted a number of landscapes and portraits to help convince studios what the final product would look like. Kurosawa eventually got half the dough from an American studio at the urging of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, who were admirers of the great Japanese director of "Rashomon," "The Seven Samurai" and many other iconic films.

It may be blasphemous to say, but I believe the influence of Kurosawa the painter had a deleterious effect on Kurosawa the filmmaker. His films had been noted for their immediacy and focus on the actors' faces -- whether it was a samurai tale or a modern one, Kurosawa put you in the middle of the human interaction.

With "Kagemusha" -- which means "shadow warrior" -- I think Kurosawa fell in love with painting with film, filling his frame with colors and images that could be frozen and hung on a wall. The centerpiece of "Kagemusha" is a dream sequence in which a thief who has been chosen to impersonate a great warlord, even after his death, is chased by the warrior after he rises from his grave. It takes place on an imaginary beach of rainbows hues with candy-colored clouds in the background.

You can also see this effect in the film's many languid battle scenes. Kurosawa shows very little actual fighting, being more concerned with the images of soldiers and horses moving about in rigid patterns of color and pageantry. Some of these scenes will go on for 10 minutes or more. Kurosawa continued this self-indulgence with "Ran" in 1985, which many consider his masterpiece.

The warlord, Shingen, and the thief are both played by Tatsuya Nakadai, who replaced the original actor chosen after he and Kurosawa didn't see eye-to-eye. Shingen is 53 years old and the greatest of the warring clan heads, but dreams of taking Kyoto and becoming emperor. For years he has used his brother Nobukado as his double, to confuse his enemies and protect him from harm. But then his sibling finds the thief, who has been condemned to die, and realizes that he could truly pass for Shingen, even up close and with people who have known him for years.

While attempting to take an enemy castle, Shingen decides to listen in to the flute performance one of the soldiers inside the keep puts on every night, beguiling the men both inside and without. A sniper's bullet mortally wounds him, and before his death Shingen instructs his chief vassals to conceal his death for three years by using the double in his place. He is convinced that his many enemies will join forces to destroy his clan if they suspect he is dead.

The thief is haunted by the spirit of the warlord, even as he makes his best effort to impersonate him -- eventually even winning over his grandson and heir and his mistresses, all of whom had expressed some initial doubt. Over time the thief becomes overconfident, and comes to believe that he really can carry on the mantle of Shingen. He also becomes enamored with the young grandson. So when the ruse is invariably found out, the thief is cast out like a vagabond.

I do like "Kagemusha," as I have enjoyed all of Kurosawa's films -- "High and Low" remains one of my favorites -- but I do feel that at three hours or so, it is simply too long. The battle scenes, while glorious in their beauty and commentary about the follies of men, just go on and on. The worst thing that can happen to a great director is that they come to believe their own legend.

3 stars

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