Thematically fascinating and visually glorious, this Akira Kurosawa epic about political intrigue in feudal Japan has several passages that are intoxicating. Moreover, the story delivers timeless themes by way of characters that feel mythic, which has the effect of making the film seem like a slick retelling of a fable that’s been handed down through generations. Yet Kagemusha is not perfect. Parts of the movie are maddeningly sluggish, and the lead character’s personality is presented so cryptically that it’s hard to buy into some of the choices he makes. For viewers who accept that Kagemusha operates on a largely metaphorical level, however, the picture is a feast for the mind and senses.
Exploring profound topics of honesty, identity, and loyalty, the film tracks one man’s unlikely ascent from dishonor to a peculiar kind of heroism. Set in the 16th century, the story begins by introducing Lord Shingen Takeda (Tatsuya Nakadai), leader of the powerful Takeda clan. Shingen’s pragmatic brother, Nobukado (Tsutomo Yamazaki), presents a thief (also played by Nakadai) whom he recently saved from execution, noting the thief’s resemblance to Shingen. Despite the thief’s obvious low character, Shingen agrees to use the thief as a kagemusha, or decoy, should the need arise. Soon afterward, Shingen suffers a mortal wound while visiting a combat zone, and before he dies, he demands that his family hide the news about his death for three years, giving the clan time to consolidate power and groom a successor. The thief assumes the role of Lord Shingen, but not without difficulty. Beyond the expected problems of failing to convince the people who knew Lord Shingen best, there’s the issue of enemy spies who saw part of the ritual during which Lord Shingen’s body was put to rest. Eventually, the thief enjoys both failure and triumph while portraying the deceased warlord, and the dramatic question becomes whether the clan can survive without the strength and wisdom of the real Shingen.
While there’s nothing new about the doppelgänger plot device, Kurosawa pursues goals much loftier than the simple rendering of a premise. For instance, the film approaches spirituality with its depiction of the thief internalizing the reverence he sees directed toward Shingen even after the warlord’s death; living up to the role becomes a form of personal transcendence. Similarly, Kurosawa presents battlefield scenes as cinematic poetry—armies wearing color-coded flags, lines of horsemen silhouetted against blood-red skies, combat zones strewn with corpses. Throughout the movie, Kurosawa provides a master class in composition, whether he’s using symmetrical rows of people or more ephemeral elements, such as mist and smoke, to construct indelible images.
The director also employs visions of pomp and ritual to ground his film in its historical period. One striking vignette involves laborers using brooms to erase hoof prints in a courtyard so a warlord’s dramatic entrance occurs on unmolested soil. All of this is set to a regal orchestral score, which lends Shakespearan grandeur. If there’s a significant complaint to be lodged against Kagenmusha, it’s that the film represents the stately side of Kurosawa’s artistry rather than the kinetic side. The dynamic filmmaker of the ’50s and ’60s emerges periodically during action scenes, but Kurosawa relies quite heavily on static frames, which—along with lengthy dramatic pauses—contribute to overly reverential pacing.