Features

Barbican Film: ‘Kagemusha’

Kagemusha (1980) is an exemplary piece of film that stands out as a testament to the extraordinary career of the late great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. As a young man Kurosawa was keenly involved with the arts and in particular painting.

At the age of 26 he made his first steps into the world of film as an assistant director, applying his artistic talents to storyboarding – he would paint a full scale visualisation of a scene, depicting in the utmost of detail his vision for it. Kurosawa’s most accomplished works display the level of preparation that went into his films, with each of the shots applied exhibiting true beauty.

Kagemusha has to be Kurosawa’s masterpiece though, receiving the backing of legendary American directors Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas who both came on board as executive producers. Both Coppola and Lucas were huge admirers, and have touted aspects of Kurosawa’s work as being hugely influential on their own.

With such high profile involvement and with such a unique approach to developing how a scene was to appear it is no surprise that Kurosawa’s Kagemusha has an allure of the grandiose. The wonderfully presented scenes that depict 16th Century Japanese pomp and the honour of that way of life are framed in a manner that allow us to imagine Kurosawa’s original painted storyboarding of them.

The film tells the story of Kagemusha (Tatsuya Nakadai), a poor thief who is recruited to impersonate Shingen, a very powerful warlord who is the leader of the Takeda clan. Shingen is embroiled in an ongoing and unfaltering war with two other powerful men who like him are vying for the conquest of Kyoto.

Kagemusha is called upon when Shingen is fatally wounded in order to keep up the pretence that the powerful man is still alive and therefore maintain the respect from the enemies of the Takeda clan. From here, the story delivers moments of intense emotion that is conveyed by depictions of respect, love, and friendship, and the ultimate demise of this level of humanity through death is explored. Further, Kurosawa tackles the idea of perception and how what we see truly serves as a catalyst for what we feel.

For many of the scenes in Kagemusha the camera is fixed and unmoved with a very simplistic style of editing applied that uses simplistic cuts and very static camera movement. As a result it feels as though we are staring intently at a divinely fashioned image that makes us feel acutely aware of all the minor nuances that are unfolding in front of us; truly encapsulating.

It could be likened to viewing a painting that upon first glance tells a story but upon second glance a new element of that story is introduced because of some minor detail originally unnoticed. Accompanying this style is some excellent application of sound that is used sparingly and cleverly interspersing the many periods of sombre silence. Together, this combination affects our senses in a manner that makes it impossible to recognise anything happening outside of the filmic world that is presented to us by Kurosawa.

Kagemusha is beautiful and even with such portentousness it still manages to be wonderfully simplistic allowing for fantastic moments of humour and titillation that in turn make the films central character so wonderful. The performance by Tatsuya Nakadai, portraying both Shingen and Kagemusha, is profoundly brilliant and is a performance that made Western audiences stand up and take note of Japanese cinema. As a result, this film entertains on many levels and is rightfully respected as an importantly influential piece of film on a global scale – if this isn’t Kurosawa’s finest hour then it is at least his most complete. 

Russell Cook