Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior
Akira Kurosawa, Director
The Criterion Collection
$39.95; DVD

By the late 1970s, Akira Kurosawa, the aging lion of Japanese cinema, was having trouble getting financing. Despite his international stature as the auteur of Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and some two dozen other remarkable films, Toho Studios was dragging its feet in backing his ambitious new project. But two of his biggest fans, George Lucas (whose Star Wars films owed so much to the samurai tradition) and Francis Coppola, rode to the rescue with a bag of money from 20th Century Fox, and the result was Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior. Now it’s on DVD for the first time since its release in 1980, in the uncut, meditatively paced three-hour version that has never before been available outside Japan.

It’s a huge film in many ways. Unusual for a Kurosawa film, it retells actual history, the sixteenth-century struggle of Lord Takeda Shingen and several rival warlords to become the country’s supreme ruler. There are epic battles, long lines of troops marching over vast landscapes, alliances and betrayals, and plots and counterplots, much of which can be sorted out only with the aid of Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince’s excellent audio commentary. The film has about the most sumptuous color cinematography you’ll ever see. There are astonishing moments, as when mad Lord Nobunaga, Shingen’s chief foe, learns of Shingen’s death and immediately breaks into a graceful Noh dance, singing of life’s illusory, impermanent nature; or when soldiers march along a ridge across the face of the setting sun, whose lush rays repeatedly splay and reunite as each man walks past, a painterly elegy for the fast-approaching end of the samurai era. There are also nimble-footed battlefield messengers, comical spies, and, tagging along with each warlord, a slim, silent page whose feminine features hint at what, historically, his actual function was: to be the lord’s sexual partner.

The focal character in the midst of all this pageantry is one who doesn’t belong there at all: a common thief, who has been rescued from crucifixion because of his uncanny resemblance to Lord Shingen. He is trained to act as the lord’s double, or kagemusha, a common practice in those days that could be put to many tactical uses. He learns how to walk, talk, and contemplatively stroke his mustache well enough to make cameo appearances, but when Lord Shingen is felled by a sniper, the thief must take over his role completely. Now the destiny of the clan depends on his not only rallying the lord’s troops but deceiving his grandson, his concubines, and—hardest of all—his horse.

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