If you’re a Japanese film fan, you’ve probably watched some Akira Kurosawa films or, at the very least, heard of him. Some of his most famous films include ‘Seven Samurai’ and ‘Rashomon’ and I highly recommend you watch them both. Kurosawa was at his most prolific in the 1950s and 1960s, although his later work is also worth a watch. ‘Kagemusha’, produced in 1980 and one of the last films directed by Kurosawa before he died in 1998, is proof of this.
‘Kagemusha’ takes place in Sengoku-era Japan and tells the story of a thief, sentenced to execution, who is recruited by the powerful Takeda clan to impersonate their leader, Takeda Shingen, to whom he bares an uncanny likeness. The mighty warlord is gravely ill, and any news of his death, combined with the weaknesses of his disinherited son Katsuyori, could encourage the Takeda’s enemies (Nobunaga Oda and Tokugawa Ieyasu) to attack the clan. Whilst the thief is reluctant and possesses none of the mighty warlord’s mannerisms, he has no choice but to go along with their plan.
Soon after his recruitment to the role of ‘kagemusha’, meaning ‘political double’, Shingen dies and the criminal unwittingly unearths his body whilst searching for treasure and is furiously expelled by the clan who feel he cannot be trusted. A jar containing Shingen’s body is dumped in a lake and this is witnessed by spies of the Oda and Tokugawa, whom the thief overhears and cause to return to the clan begging to be of service to the deceased lord. So begins the assimilation of the thief into the role of great daimyo and deception of the clan, and therefore their enemies. Both amusing and tragic, the film builds up to the Battle of Nagashino, a bloody clash between Oda Nobunaga and the Takeda forces.
It is interesting to note that ‘Kagemusha’ was Kurosawa’s first colour film, which allowed him to play on one of his most primary themes of illusion and reality. The most unusual part of the film is the scene in which the thief dreams he is being chased by the real Takeda Shingen through a field of clouds. It’s rather eerie but typically Kurosawa-esque.
You might also notice that George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola appear as executive directors in the film credits. The two persuaded 20th Century Fox to make up the shortfall in the film’s budget when the original producers, Toho Studios, could not afford to complete the film. According to Lucas, 5000 extras were used in the Battle of Nagashino and, although filming took a whole day, only 90 seconds of footage made the final cut and the rest landed on the “cutting-room floor”.
Clearly, ‘Kagemusha’ is not just a film about an interesting part of history but also a film with a rather interesting history itself. If you do not know much about the story of Takeda Shingen, the film is satisfactorily historically accurate and sure to be enjoyed by Kurosawa novices and old faithfuls alike. The exact nature of Takeda Shingen’s death remains unknown to this day and ‘Kagemusha’ presents just one account but it is certainly a fascinating story of the lengths the clan went to keep his death a secret in order to survive.
If you’ve never seen a Kurosawa film, either, this would be a good place to start, particularly if you like your samurai history.
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All photos from movierapture.com