Thursday, March 4, 2010

Kagemusha (1980)


After the death of their lord, a group of upper officials recruit a petty thief (Tatsuya Nakadai) to impersonate their lord, while they attempt to rid their country of civil war.

"The shadow of a man can never stand up and walk on its own."

Based on historical accounts, Kurosawa's Kagemusha is one of the more interesting entries into his list of works. Often written off as little more than a "dress rehearsal" for Ran (Kurosawa's own words even), I've found throughout the years I have a rather large soft spot for Kagemusha. It's story is strong, but not great. It's directing is superb, but for time purposes much was left on the cutting room floor. It's also riddled with subtle jabs at the pointlessness of war. Yet these calls never feel perfectly developed... ultimately leaving Kagemusha as a premium example of when a film has everything that's just good, but never great.

Tatsuya Nakadai's performance may in fact be the perfect standpoint for this film. It's a good performance, and he handles the material well, but it's never a great one. He never takes that extra step to suck the audience in to this dynamic character. He's ultimately playing someone who looks like himself with a couple of added character quirks. The reason his performance is so important is that with the exception of a handful of scenes the entire film is situated on him. Even during the huge battles that take place, Kurosawa opts to ignore the fighting and instead concentrate heavily on Kagemusha's reaction to them. How he grows through the war, and ultimately gains respect for the man he criticizes, and interprets. The real glue for the film though lay in the supporting cast. Each with a strong enough presence and deliver to help carry the film through its conversation pieces. This is by no means the longest Kurosawa film ever, but being so conversation and stage dependent, you will be well aware it is not speedily paced.

Though if you're worried about pace, don't be. The tale of Kagemusha, if even for its historical significance alone, is a rather intriguing one. A man perfectly impersonating a lord for well over a year, especially during a time of war. It's a captivating story, and add to that Kurosawa's love of a man coming to realize something grander than himself, and you got something worth talking about. Still, there's always a feeling that it could have been more. Amazing shots and moments, stuck in the background of first time efforts, leaves it always feeling a bit underwhelming. It works because you grow to care, but it never achieves that level of pure amazement it so rightly should have.

While it's riddled with depth, and intriguing characters, Kurosawa's Kagemusha is a perfect example of a movie that always feels good, but never achieves greatness.

Alternate Perspectives:

"Though I may be far off the mark, it felt to me as though Kurosawa himself were the thief, living in the shadow of the man he used to be." - Japan Cinema

"When, however, the elements click, Kagemusha can be as impressive as anything else in the master's canon." - Not Just Movies

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