Akira Kurosawa’s legacy is highlighted by several critically acclaimed and influential samurai films. His magnum opus Seven Samurai (1954) innovated in the action genre; The Hidden Fortress (1958) gave George Lucas his template to create Star Wars (1977); and Yojimbo (1961) not only has its roots in spaghetti westerns but also influenced many that came after it. Yet none of these films earned Kurosawa one of his most prestigious awards: the Palme d’Or. That honor belongs to Kagemusha – also known as The Shadow Warrior – which celebrated its 40th anniversary on April 26 and took home the top prize at the 33rd Cannes Film Festival in 1980. Its $6 million budget1“Kagemusha.” The Films of Akira Kurosawa, by Donald Richie and Joan Mellen, University of California Press, 1998, p. 204., the highest in Japanese history at the time, made Kagemusha the largest production of Kurosawa’s career, utilising more than 5,000 extras2McGlone, Neil. “Seventy Years of Cannes: Kagemusha in 1980.” The Criterion Collection, Criterion, 24 May 2017, www.criterion.com/current/posts/4593-seventy-years-of-cannes-kagemusha-in-1980 in sieges and battles that span years of his nation’s history. As Kurosawa’s late colour epic deals with the theme of shadows, it is fitting that the film itself has been overshadowed by his own filmography, allowing Kagemusha to be read as a meta-commentary on its own reputation.
This 180-minute Sengoku period drama follows the titular Kagemusha (Tatsuya Nakadai), a thief spared execution due to his identical resemblance to Lord Shingen, daimyō of the Takeda clan (also played by Nakadai). The thief is then trained in the art of being a double by the Shingen’s younger brother Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki). Years later, Shingen is shot by a sniper during the siege of a Tokugawa clan castle. His army retreats and he dies in the secret company of his generals. The Kagemusha assumes the role of Shingen for the following three years at the daimyō’s request to keep his death a secret. He gradually accepts his new responsibilities and identity, much to the dismay of Shingen’s son Katsuyori (Kenichi Hagiwara). Rumours surrounding Shingen’s supposed death spark tensions with the rival Tokugawa and Oda clans, leading to skirmishes throughout the land. After three years of successful deception and comfort in the role, the Kagemusha’s secret is revealed and he is relieved of duty. Despite this, he follows the Takeda clan’s army, now under the command of the ill-prepared and arrogant Katsuyori, to the 1575 Battle of Nagashino, where the clan is slaughtered. The Kagemusha, once nothing but a petty thief, takes up arms against the Oda clan and is shot dead.
Kurosawa’s shadow play
Kagemusha is a meticulously paced tragedy revolving around one man’s identity imprinting itself on the lives of others. Kurosawa and his two cinematographers Takao Saitô and Shôji Ueda achieve this through strategic use of shadows that appear both physically at key points in the narrative and metaphorically through characterisations and landscapes. Beyond the film’s title, Kurosawa establishes this motif in his very first frame. As Shingen and Nobukado discuss the potential usage and practicality of the thief, the daimyō casts a large shadow between him and his current double. The spectre looms behind him, an omen warning that his own death is not far behind, yet Shingen remains unaware of his impending fate. He faces away and looks down upon the others, wielding all the power in his kingdom. The Takeda clan’s crest hangs above him and symbolises the four elements of the Earth. Shingen is referred to as ‘The Mountain,’ a fitting name for a towering presence which captures land in its shadow. This world belongs to him, and every character in Kurosawa’s story is defined by their relationship to their lord.
Shingen’s shadow is inextricably linked to him and follows his exact movements. It does not exist without him. The same applies to both characters that share the frame with him. As Shingen’s younger brother and longtime double, Nobukado exists in a purely subservient role despite being royalty himself. His identity is that of the daimyō, not his own. During a training session with the Kagemusha, he admits to feeling selfish for desiring separation from his brother and wanting to be his own man, but as Nobukado himself explains, “the shadow of a man can never stand up and walk on its own.” With Shingen gone, he is nothing. The daimyō has taken his brother’s life as well, departing the world with his purpose and identity. Nobukado now doubles for a man who is not even legitimate because of his brother. Despite no longer casting a physical shadow, the weight of Shingen’s final wishes still bends the entire Takeda clan’s future to his will and as a result it will fall into darkness with him.
The Kagemusha himself is afforded even less autonomy. His backstory is extremely limited and his real name is never revealed. It is the mere coincidence that he bears Shingen’s likeness that causes his entire life to be completely rerouted. A thief facing execution is suddenly forced into assuming the highest authority in the land to serve the wishes of the daimyō. Even in death Shingen wields enormous power. The film establishes him as wanting to rule above anything else, even designating his young grandson Takemaru (Kota Yui) to succeed him rather than his son Katsuyori so he may rule for all of his years. As a result, Shingen has failed to properly groom an heir to prepare for his sudden passing, thus necessitating a puppet of himself to remain atop the throne. Not even death will stop the perception of his reign.
By his own design, Shingen’s kingdom will not last long without him. Kurosawa demonstrates this all-encompassing possessiveness through silhouettes. After Shingen is mortally wounded, his army begins its retreat, marching in step as the sun literally sets on the Takeda clan. Though their annihilation will not be for another three years, this is the beginning of its end. The dark outlines of soldiers cast shadows further down to those below, just as the leaders of their clan are doing to them. The truth is being hidden from those who are sacrificing their lives for someone who is already dead. Nobukado appears as the shadow of Shingen personified to dispel any possible rumors and keep them subservient.
Kagemusha approaches its action scenes unlike any of Kurosawa’s other samurai films up to this point, placing an emphasis on guns rather than sword-to-sword dueling. Battles are fought more from a distance with the focus primarily on the Takeda troops firing and being fired upon. Kurosawa amplifies the disorienting nature of the various skirmishes sprinkled throughout the film by setting them at twilight or nighttime. Shingen is the impetus behind these conflicts, thus his spectre shrouds the realm in disorienting darkness. Even after years of fighting, his men are still kept in the dark, framed as silhouettes. They are shadow warriors themselves. However, when the veil of illusion is lifted and Katsuyori assumes command, he leads the clan to ruin in broad daylight. Having long sought freedom from Shingen’s shadow like his uncle Nobukado, he emerges not as a savior but as an unworthy leader of his father’s own creation. The corrupted form of the Takeda and its line of succession has been revealed and its long foreseen doom has arrived.
Hiding Shingen’s death from the men of the Takeda clan is a difficult task for the Kagemusha, but an even riskier one is fooling the daimyō’s own harem, all of whom would recognise that he lacks the lord’s signature shoulder scar. In a scene midway through the film, Kurosawa employs a reversal of Shingen’s shadow from the opening scene to demonstrate the Kagemusha’s increased comfort with and acceptance of his role. The titular character casts a shadow on the opposite side of his body as Shingen, the meaning behind which is now redefined. Initially symbolising Shingen’s impending death, the shadow has now crossed over just as he has. The phantom of Shingen himself continues to linger in his kingdom while the Kagemusha has assumed his identity, clothing, and now casts the daimyō’s own shadow.
At this point in the film, Nobukado has trained the Kagemusha in the art of being the Shingen’s double for years and attends this meeting with him. To his shock, the Kagemusha appears to give away his own identity under pressure from these women but quickly turns the entire charade into a joke, sneaking a knowing wink at Nobukado. The old double had warned the Kagemusha that “it’s not easy to suppress your identity and become another,” but now Nobukado observes that the Kagemusha has fully accepted his role as Shingen. The two are gradually becoming one, and this merge will be tested further as a war brews over the uncertainty of the daimyō’s fate. Nobukado excuses them both and the Kagemusha stands and moves towards a light source, causing his shadow to expand across the room and its ceiling. This simultaneously acts as both a symbol of his budding confidence and Shingen’s darkness that continues to envelop all with the passage of time. The shadow has now stood up and walked on its own, but this illusion cannot hold forever.
Living in the shadows
Like the Kagemusha’s shadow, Akira Kurosawa’s filmography had grown immensely by 1980. Nearly four decades of directing had caused him to set an incredibly high bar for himself, leaving each of his subsequent films in a larger shadow of hits to be compared against. With the luxury of time, it can be observed that Kagemusha, despite having the highest budget of any Japanese movie at the time with $6 million, is not as well-remembered, watched, or studied as many of Kurosawa’s other works despite its grand scale and festival accolades. It did not appear to influence future filmmakers in the way his other films like Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, and Yojimbo did. Community-based film websites like IMDb or Letterboxd show that Kurosawa’s largest film is not rated among his ten most popular features.
One possible explanation for this could be that Kagemusha’s plot differs greatly from most of his samurai films, placing more emphasis on tension and illusion rather than sword fights and action. Despite being categorically different, it is natural to compare Kagemusha to Kurosawa’s other films, especially his 1985 follow-up Ran, which bears many similarities to Kagemusha but did so to far greater and longer lasting popularity. Ran dispels the idea that Kurosawa’s later works could not reach the same praise as his earlier films. Kurosawa himself admitted that he viewed Kagemusha as a stepping stone towards Ran, which he had been trying to make for more than a decade.3“Ran.” The Films of Akira Kurosawa, by Donald Richie and Joan Mellen, University of California Press, 1998, p. 214.
Many of Ran’s most celebrated aspects were first showcased in Kagemusha, most notably Kurosawa’s use of colour and large armies. As his first non-black and white samurai film, Akira Kurosawa uses extravagant hues to build upon his signature directorial technique of using weather to externally display characters’ emotions in ways he could never do before. Just as the rain somberly pours as the Kagemusha is relieved of his duties, the film paints its battlefields’ skies a vibrant shade of red, as if blood has stained the Takeda world itself. Kurosawa’s choice of colours add an even greater sense of foreboding dread to the battles’ atmospheres. He is even able to subversively utilise an entire rainbow not as a symbol of peace, but of fear; perhaps a final warning to Shingen’s son from beyond the grave.
While Ran’s armies are composed of around 1,200 extras4Grilli, Peter. “The Old Man and the Scene: Notes on the Making of ‘Ran’.” Film Comment, vol. 21, no. 5, 1985, pp. 59. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43452118. Accessed 26 May 2020, Kagemusha features about 5,000, by far the most in any Kurosawa film. There is, however, a large difference in the way they are used. Given the nature of its story, framing, and stylisation, Kagemusha does not showcase any unique sword fights the way Kurosawa’s other samurai films do. The use of arquebus guns by the opposing armies prevents much of the close-quarters combat one would expect in a samurai film. Kurosawa instead displays the horror of war rather than leaning into its exciting elements. Among each film’s most memorable sequences are their climactic final battles, but where Ran shows carnage and bodies falling off horses, Kagemusha implements restraint to create a haunting atmosphere of despair. As wave after wave of Takeda clan troops are mowed down by gunfire, Kurosawa only shows the reactions of the generals and the impersonal barrels of rifles. After three waves, the devastation that Shingen’s hubris has wrought upon his people is unveiled in a sea of bodies and blood. The only on-screen death of the finale is that of the Kagemusha himself: the shadow extinguished in broad daylight.
Another reason Kagemusha may not be as well-regarded as Kurosawa’s other samurai films is because it is above all else a drama, not an adrenaline-pumping action movie. The Kagemusha is not a powerful warrior like Toshirō Mifune’s Sanjurō character; he is a common man thrust into a position of unbelievable power. The discovery of his secret would destroy the foundation of an entire society. Ironically, a criminal finds his life’s purpose and meaning by stealing the life of another. Lengthy scenes where the Kagemusha is under scrutiny from inside and outside the Takeda clan are filled with tension. At any moment the entire charade could fall apart, revealing the Kagemusha to just be a regular man. But as he takes his final stand, he truly becomes the leader everyone believed he was.
Kagemusha is an overlooked and moving character study by Akira Kurosawa, as well as a beautiful exploration of Sengoku period Japan. His first samurai film in the colour world contains some of his most stark visuals, including an unforgettable dream sequence seemingly displaying every color of the spectrum. It is fitting that the repeated theme of shadows should apply so appropriately to the film’s legacy itself. Kurosawa’s expert utilisation of this simple technique is but one of many factors contributing to this strong piece of filmmaking which deserves a new light to be cast upon it. As one of only eight East and Southeast Asian films to win the Palme d’Or (and with the unfortunate delay of the 73rd Cannes Film Festival due to the COVID-19 outbreak), there is no better time for Kagemusha to be re-evaluated and emerge from the shadow of Kurosawa’s other samurai films.