(Aka The Shadow Warrior)
(1980 - Japan)
With Tatsuya Nakadai, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kenichi Hagiwara, Jinpachi Nezu, Hideji Otaki, Daisuke Ryu
Directed by
Akira Kurosawa
Reviewed by JB

"Psst... what's the answer to number 12?"     Kurosawa hadn't made a "big" film set in Japan since RED BEARD (1965) but thanks to the help of such prominent fanboy friends as George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, he was able to obtain international financing for a new samurai epic set in sixteenth century Japan.

     For KAGEMUSHA, Kurosawa first signed Shintaro Katsu, "Zatoichi" himself, to play the duel role in KAGEMUSHA, that of a dying warlord and the lookalike thief chosen to take his place.  But after one day of shooting, Kurosawa fired "Master Ichi", who proved to be too much of a prima donna.  Kurosawa then turned to his old faithful stock company member Tatsuya Nakadai, veteran of such classics as YOJIMBO, SANJURO and HIGH AND LOW

     With KAGEMUSHA and the followup RAN, Nakadai finally joined Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura in the pantheon of great Kurosawa lead players, a place well-earned after nearly thirty-one years of loyalty to the director he called "The Emperor".  He may not have Mifune or Katsu's commanding presence but his expressive face and natural charm are superlative assets in KAGEMUSHA, especially in scenes where he, as the thief pretending to be the king, bonds with the dead lord's grandson. 

     Would that I could say KAGEMUSHA is as good as Nakadai is.  There is nothing really that wrong with KAGEMUSHA. It's a fine, rewarding film except its length, which, at three hours, is far too long for the slim story it tells.  Unlike the Shakespearean roots of RAN, which could easily support a long film, KAGEMUSHA is an epic without an epic tale to tell.  Despite Nakadai's fine work, Kurosawa's script gives us no particular reason to care about the character's troubles.  Nakadai does what he can with the part, but "The Shadow Warrior" is one of Kurosawa's least interesting protagonists.  

     KAGEMUSHA was an experimental film for Kurosawa, who may have wondered if he still had it in him to command hundreds of extras on horseback in massive battle scenes.  He did, as the battles are impressive, though RAN's warfare would be even more outstanding.  Kurosawa also sharpened his skills on experiments with color, long takes and carefully arranged tableaus of characters - the opening scene features three lookalikes sitting in place and talking... for seven minutes! 

     For fans of Takashi Shimura, look for him two hours into the film as a doctor.  Unfortunately, he is in and out of the film in a matter of minutes, and his scenes, clearly written simply as a way of getting the veteran actor into the film, were cut in its original U.S. release.  Thankfully, the Criterion DVD release restores this footage, which, while not terribly exciting or even interesting, is historically important, as Shimura would never work for Kurosawa again and would be dead within two years.

     KAGEMUSHA is still a noble effort, beautifully directed and extremely impressive in parts and deserves a respected spot in any good Kurosawa collection.  But it is what Kurosawa always said it was: a dry run for RAN, a film he had been planning for several years.  ½ - JB

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