- Movie Rating -

Kagemusha (1980)

| October 10, 1980

About halfway through Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha, I kept questioning what he was trying to do.  This is not a criticism; this is standard operating procedure with me and Kurosawa.  It’s fun to ask questions during his films because the answers are always as fascinating as they are illusive.   What is he trying to say?  What is the message that he wants to impart?  The joy of his films is that the theme unravels slowly – his films are thinking man’s epics.  There is always more than one layer, and Kagemusha has many layers.

Kagemusha, I think, questions the tenets of leadership and what it means to be a seen as a great leader of men.  What do we want from a leader?  Do we want a thinking man or simply a symbolic figurehead?  Here I think it is important to have the latter.  The story takes place in Japan in 1572 during a three-way civil war led by three different lords: Nobunaga Oda (Daisuke Ryu), Ieyasu Tokugawa (Masayuki Yui) and Shingen Tadeka (Tatsuya Nakadai).  During their latest skirmish, Shingen is mortally wounded and, upon his death, orders his clan to hide this information for three years in order to give time to groom a successor.  But, times being what they are, an alternate solution presents itself.  Shingen’s brother Nobukado (Tsutomo Yamazaki) rescues a small-time thief (also played by Nakadai) because of his resemblance to the fallen lord and presents the idea that the thief could easily pose as Shingen in order to keep up appearances.

What follows is part intrigue, part subtle farce as the poor thief goes through the difficulty of posing as a man that he does not know, especially since the ruse is hidden from everyone except those in the need-to-know circle, his closest advisors.  That means that the poor thief must not only pass as a convincing double to his enemies but also to the Shingen’s mistress and to his children, those who would be the first to see through the ruse.  Overarching even this intriguing plotline is the story of a man who rises from a poor lowly thief to a man in a position of great power.

But if Kurosawa only stopped at the confines of a clever premise then the movie wouldn’t be worth much more than an entertainment.  He raises the story even higher than by infusing this poor thief with a feeling of power and spirituality that comes with the reverence of being in the shoes of a great man.  But at the same time, he sees that greatness comes with the price.  What are Shingen’s great armies willing to do for him.  They march into battle in perfectly hewn lines of soldiers lining the battlefield in beautiful precision, but ultimately, it is all for nothing for pageantry does not equal great strategy.  And, what is it all for?  Why are Shingen’s armies dying en mass for this man?  What is greatness?  What makes Shingen great?  How are the dead on the battlefield really honoring him by being dead?  Is a symbolic leader of any use to anyone when the chips are down?

[Reviewed April 4, 2021]

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1980) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized