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Release Date(s)1980 (August 18, 2009)
Studio(s)Toho/20th Century Fox (Criterion - Spine #267)
Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha was five years in the making after Dersu Uzala appeared in 1975. The latter had had only modest success and Kurosawa’s home studio, Toho, being in financial decline at the time, had reservations about committing the large resources needed for the epic film that he envisioned in Kagemusha. Only through the support of American directors George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola who arranged for 20th Century Fox’s backing was filming finally possible. In the meantime, Kurosawa had busied himself preparing numerous sketches and paintings of the images he wished to commit to film as part of the Kagemusha project. Thus when filming could finally go ahead in 1979, Kurosawa had virtually the entire project mapped out in his head and this sense of both the overall picture and its details probably allowed the project to get completed despite numerous filming delays and difficulties involving both cast and crew.
Inspired by the history of 16th century Japan in which a powerful warlord used a double to confuse his opponents, the film tells the story of peasant thief Kagemusha who is called upon to impersonate the warlord Shingen who has secretly been killed. The thief is reluctant at first, but he warms to the task as he realizes its importance. His personal ambition grows, but at the same time he becomes haunted by the warlord’s spirit. It’s a balance that becomes increasingly difficult for Kagemusha to maintain, especially when the actions of opposing factions seem likely to lead him into war.
Kagemusha is a dark epic – colorful in execution but dark in tone – that shows Kurosawa’s mastery of both large-scale battle sequences and more intimate expository passages. In the latter, Kurosawa shows great restraint in developing scenes slowly and methodically, which allows the audience to appreciate more fully the weight of the uncertainties and pressures on the Kagemusha character and eventual mental demons that torment him. The battle sequences are impressively mounted, but as effective for what we don’t see as what we do. Showing the reaction of onlookers instead of the actual event is nothing especially new, but it is much more effective and even more horrific than viewing an orgy of blood-letting that typically just numbs the senses.
The Kagemusha character is played with considerable sensitivity by Tatsuya Nakadai, a reliable Japanese star. He was not Kurosawa’s first choice – that being Shintarô Katsu who was well-known for his playing of Zatoichi, the blind samurai warrior – but Katsu and Kurosawa had a disagreement that led to Katsu’s dismissal before shooting had hardly begun. It has been speculated that Katsu might have leant a lighter tone to the central character giving the film a different feel overall. I suspect the difference in practice would have been slight given how detailed an image of what he wanted to accomplish Kurosawa had in his mind, after the many years of preparation.
When released in 1980, Kagemusha shared the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival with All That Jazz. It received two Oscar nominations including Best Foreign Language Film, but did not win.
Criterion’s 1.85:1 Blu-ray release delivers the same 180-minute international release version as the previous 2005 special edition DVD. It is a considerable improvement over the DVD, however, offering vivid colour and a sharp, well-detailed image. Blacks are very deep and contrast is impressive. Some of the night-time scenes seem a little murky in comparison to the rest, but the overall impact is very positive. Moderate grain is evident and there’s no sign of untoward digital manipulation.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio is a 4.0 mix that sounds quite robust, with some decent use of the surrounds. The Japanese dialogue sounds clear, and hiss and crackle is virtually absent. The optional English subtitles are effective without being intrusive.
The disc supplements included here are a direct port of those on the 2005 DVD, and remain very comprehensive. The only essential differences are that the trailers are now presented in HD, the gallery comparison of gallery of Kurosawa’s storyboards to the final film have also been upgraded to HD (and benefit greatly from the added resolution) and the insert booklet is smaller and slightly edited, omitting the Richie biographical sketches. Most impressive is Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince’s audio commentary, that is both richly informative and a pleasure to listen to. The film’s production is also thoroughly covered in two featurettes (a 41-minute making-of documentary from Toho’s Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create series, and a 19-minute interview piece with George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola). Also included are a 44-minute video that reconstructs the film through Kurosawa’s paintings and sketches; a gallery of Kurosawa’s own storyboards and their actual recreation on the screen; five Suntory Whisky commercial spots made on the set; three trailers; and a 48-page booklet containing an essay by scholar Peter Grilli, biographical sketches by historian Donald Richie and a Kurosawa interview by critic Tony Rayns. Like the 2005 DVD, the Blu-ray is highly recommended.