"Swift as the Wind,
Silent as a Forest,
Fierce as Fire,
Immovable as a Mountain”
-Takeda Shingen’s motto,
taken from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War
With over thirty films to his credit (as director), Akira Kurosawa was one of the most consistently brilliant film artists who ever lived. Kurosawa's films—which he invariably co-wrote—shared a precision of narrative in both scripting and imagistic storytelling, whether set in modern times or during the samurai era with which he is most often associated. During his late-period career slump, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola rode to the rescue, securing the additional financing needed to put Kagemusha before the cameras, and it's a fine example of the Kurosawa style.
Kagemusha (or The Shadow Warrior) takes place between 1573 and 1575, in the Sengoku Jidai (Warring States) period of feudal Japan. The prologue establishes—in a bravura static shot—the splintered identity at the heart of the tale. Three men who are nearly identical in appearance sit and regard each other. One is warlord Takeda Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai), one is his brother Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki), and the third is an imposter, or rather a potential double for Shingen. This third man, the kagemusha (also played by the winningly theatrical Nakadai), is a petty thief with little interest in noble duty. Greatness is of no interest to him, but it is thrust upon him when Shingen sustains a mortal wound during an ill-advised battlefield visit. Faced with the consequences of his inaction, the kagemusha agrees to take on the role of his late master, only to learn—as so many do—that the line between pretense and reality can be a very fine one.
The story that ensues deals with the kagemusha's uneasy, tentative steps in Shingen's shoes as the warlord's enemies (former allies Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu) attempt to suss out whether or not Shingen is truly still alive. Unrest in the land means that "Shingen"'s seat of power may topple at any time, especially if the kagemusha makes even one false move. For the Takeda clan to survive, the double must fool even Shingen's closest, from his concubines to his grandson. Kagemusha is, then, in one respect, a celebration (and a warning) of the transformative power of acting. Performance is a key element of the world of the film—from a Noh performance to Oda's recitation of the song of Atsumori—and the actor that is the kagemusha shows perfect tragic timing: as soon as the kagemusha begins believing his own press, he takes a mighty fall. Even then, Kurosawa carefully mirrors the men trapped in fate's embrace: both meet their end with their left arms in slings.
One of only seven films Kurosawa shot in color, Kagemusha has a stunning visual impact. The sheer artistry of the film is undeniable: the creativity of approach, the mastery of storytelling through sight and sound, the painterly composition and color. Kagemusha includes astonishing vistas, both on location and in a studio transformed into a nightmare landscape. Beyond being a cinematic genius, Kurosawa was an obsessive workhorse who put his full being—including his back—into every film. An example to his crews, the master would commonly walk around his sets and touch them up himself (case in point: Kurosawa personally helped to weed the steps seen in the film's memorable post-title sequence. Shingen's son Katsuyori (Kenichi Hagiwara) laments, "Try as I might, I cannot escape my father's shadow." It's a sentiment many a filmmaker (even Lucas and Coppola) no doubt shared about Kurosawa.
Criterion gave Kagemusha an excellent hi-def transfer for its release on standard def DVD; now we get to enjoy that fine picture quality in an even sharper and more vibrant form on Blu-ray hi-def. Criterion hasn't applied artificial sharpening to their source (a 35 mm low-contrast print made from the original negative), so the transfer is blessedly film-like. The image is steady and brilliantly colorful with accurate contrast and a great degree of detail that would have pleased the master himself. Using restoration tools similar to those used to remove any dirt and scratches from the picture, Criterion has produced a clean and clear Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 mix that repesents the film at its best advantage: dialogue, effects and music come through nicely in a discrete balance.
Kagemusha comes with one of Criterion's top-notch scholarly tracks, a commentary by Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa. Prince shares details about the film's conception, production, and reception, as well as its place in Kurosawa's career and artistry.
"Lucas, Coppola, and Kurosawa" (19:21, HD) is a pair of 2004 interviews with George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, who recall their production assistance, how it came about, their memories of watching Kurosawa at work on the set, and their feelings about the director and the film.
Next up is an installment of "Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create" (41:01, HD). This segment from the exhaustive multi-part Toho Masterworks series focuses on the making of Kagemusha. It's very much in keeping with the rest of the series, which presents respectful and informative recollections by Kurosawa's collaborators as well as a historical context for the film in question. Participants include Kurosawa (vintage), associate producer/script supervisor Teruyo Nogami, director of photography Takao Saito, director Takashi Koizumi, Daisuke Ryu, Masayuki Yui, Jinpachi Nezu, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kota Yui, set decorator Koichi Hamamura, art director Yoshiro Muraki, lighting director Takeshi Sano, composer Shinichiro Ikebe, and horse trainer Minpei Shirai.
For "Image: Kurosawa's Continuity" (43:44, HD), Masayuki Yui assembled Kurosawa's original storyboards into a Kurosawa-approved montage.
A Vision Realized (HD) compares the storyboards to still shots from the final film.
The disc also includes five "Suntory Whiskey Commercials" (totalling 3:30, HD) shot on the set of Kagemusha, the "U.S. Trailer" (1:23, HD), "Japanese Teaser" (3:21, HD) and "Japanese Trailer" (3:28, HD).
True to form, Criterion has also produced a beautiful 40-page booklet featuring tech specs, cast and crew listings, an essay by scholar Peter Grilli, an interview with Kurosawa by Sight and Sound's Tony Rayns, and reproductions of many of Kurosawa's watercolor storyboards for the film.
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