March 26, 2009

Kagemusha

1980 film
directed by Akira Kurosawa
written by Akira Kurosawa and Masato Ide

It is the 16th century, a stretch of time known as The Warring States, where warlords and their clans constantly feud for control over territory. During a break in one such siege, as soldiers are entranced by the nightly tune of a flute, a sniper's bullet catches Shingen, Lord of the Takeda Clan. In order to keep their clan from appearing weak and suffering a mass onslaught from rival armies, Shingen's death is kept a secret and a petty look-alike thief is rescued from crucifixion so he can take over leadership of the clan until the late Lord's grandson comes of age.

Yes, this is your typical Prince and the Pauper story, with the unnamed thief pulling off a surprisingly good imitation of Lord Shingen, though the realization that what he thought would be a part time gig has now become a 24-hour-a-day responsibility does cause a few slipups. And there's only so much the surrounding swarm of advisers, all in on the secret, can do to prepare him for the occasional unpredictable scenario, such as a night-time ambush where he's told to sit where he is, no matter what, even as soldiers around him are dropping from hidden musket fire.

I know he had to come in at the last minute to replace a performer that instantly clashed with Kurosawa, but Tatsuya Nakadai is quite capable in the dual roles of stoic Lord Shingen and the doubtful thief. There's maybe one or two moments where he goes into some forced, cackling laughter, but it's no worse than some of Mifune's broader roles with the director, and I love how he captures the sense that the thief is learning honor and dignity, even as the noblemen around him are starting to forget.

Tsutomu Yamazaki also shines as Shingen's brother and chief strategist, Nobukado. In an interesting bit of character depth, their similarity originally had him working as his brother's double, until a heavy workload and the discovery of the thief allow him to once again assume his own identity. He now finds himself a mentor to the thief, grooming the man's impersonation of his brother while feeding him lines from the advisers.

Another interesting character is that of Katsuyori, Shingen's son. His illegitimate nature sidelined him from inheriting the throne, so he now finds himself bowing down to an impostor of his father while he's expected to sit and wait for his own child to take command? Hells no! He breaks the family motto of "like a mountain" and amasses forces of his own that he recklessly hurls towards opposing clans. Unfortunately, while the character is potentially interesting, musician Kenichi Hagiwara's performance is not. At times bland, at others over-the-top, he just never quite slips into the role.

There's plenty of other fine performances to make up for it, but one problem I had was that I just didn't get captivated by anyone. The actors are great and their parts no less worthy than prior Kurosawa works, but there's something about the film that keeps them distant. Maybe it's the heavy makeup and distractingly (though beautiful) elaborate hair and costumes, or Kurosawa's on-going love affair with telephoto lenses that leaves him abandoning closeups, or maybe the fact that Kurosawa has largely lost his broad stable of regular performers. It's likely a bit of each, but the fact stands that I just didn't get pulled in by anybody.

Visually, the film is spectacular. The vibrant pastels of DODESUKADEN are distributed a bit more precicely amongst vistas and characters, creating a wonderful dynamic on the screen that further enhances his already legendary composition. And his use of extras, with each army decked out in identifiable colored uniforms, blazing across the scene, lying in wait, kneeling before their masters, or writhing in blood-soaked mounds, is among the most impressive.

My only other major complaint against the film is the music. While Kurosawa wisely keeps it absent for many scenes, and there's a haunting trumpet solo that feels like something out of the scores Ennio Morricone did for Sergio Leone, a lot of the larger, bombastic stuff feels clunky, old-fashioned, and typical. Not bad, just a bit of a letdown.

After over a decade of struggle and suffering, this was meant to be Kurosawa's big return to form. While it's uneven, with occasional moments of excess and the telling lack of his usual scripting partners, I'm glad to say that he still succeeds in pulling off a damn fine film.

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2 comments:

Anthony Williams said...

Cool. Like the convenient new comment box. Obviously my primary interest in Kurasawa is his influence on Star Wars and the relationship with Lucas but also interesting to get a sense of his work in the second half of his career.

Just out of curiosity; did Lucas or Coppola's names appear in the credits anywhere that you recall?

NoelCT said...

Even in the Japanese cut, they're near the top of the end credits as "Executive Producers of International Version".

The DVD also has a nice pair of interviews with Lucas and Coppola as they talk about Kurosawa's influence and how they got involved with the picture. There's also some nice footage and stills of them hanging back on location as the Master directs.