Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writer: Akira Kurosawa & Masato Ide
Cinematographer: Takao Saitō
Producer: Akira Kurosawa and Tomoyuki Tanaka
by Jon Cvack
Seeing Ran (1985) for the first time was as close to a religious experience as one gets. Kurosawa is one of those filmmakers that I deliberately took my time getting to, knowing that as my palate grew I would come to better appreciate his work. It was really about three years ago, during my Netflix “Director's Project” that I realized both how many incredible films this guy has made and how many I hadn’t seen (fifteen total above a 3.8, and that was after the three or four I’d already seen up until that point). Compared to his Golden Age between 1948 and 1965, Kurosawa would only make three films from 1965 to 1980; the year of Kagemusha’s release. He was widely regarded as washed up during this period, only to make his triumphant return that would extend for the rest of his life.
Having reread King Lear shortly before seeing Ran, I was excited to check out see Kurosawa’s version of the play. Reading about the background of the entire production - and Kurosawa’s Golden Era in particular - made the film all the more powerful, as it demonstrated that like any great work of art, you can often feel the amount of heart that went into the project. The film was not just exceptionally and flawlessly crafted and not just one of the greatest adaptations of all time - it was the culmination of an artist’s life; offering a profound reflection on who Kurosawa was, his successes and failures, and what it all mattered. Never has a film with such extravagant action felt so deeply personal.
With that in mind I was excited to get around to Kagemusha; another epic war film made five years prior to Ran. In many ways it all feels like a trial run to his magnum opus, as it contains a strikingly similar story and structure, particularly the focus on three feuding clans; Kurosawa’s unprecedented mega-epic scenes (featuring thousands of extras); and the concluding moment where Kagemusha (a Japanese term for political decoy), looks aged by years, gazing upon the slaughter that took place largely because of him. It’s easy to see how this would evolve, and how Shakespeare might have offered him the muse he needed to fully extend the story. It’s clear that Kagemusha contains many of the same demons Kurosawa would later explore in Ran; in this case the idea of impostership, unfit for the powerful responsibilities bestowed upon him.
Kagemusha focuses on Takeda Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai), who meets his thieving brother Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki) that happens to bear a striking resemblance. Shingen recruits Nobukado as his body double in the emergency case of requiring one, except when Shingen is shot and mortally wounded, demanding his commanders keep his death a secret for three years, Nobukado is forced to take his role. All the while, Shingen rivals - Oda Nobunaga (Daisuke Ryu) , Tokugawa Ieyasu, and Uesugi Kenshin - have varying ideas about Shingen’s passing.
Nobuko is presented before his commanders, who agree to sell the idea to the community. All is fine except for Shingen’s grandson who refuses to buy the doubling, leading to the most fascinating relationship of the film, as Nobuko develops a genuine love for his grand nephew, who soon looks past the differing appearances. Nobuko isn’t to ride Shingen’s horse, though, as the untameable animal would never bow down to any man beyond his former master. When one of Shingen’s son, Katsuyori grows jealous that an impostor is playing the role of their father - a position he covets - Katsuyori tests Nobuko by asking for his military advice before the generals, to which he admonishes them with the facile advice to stand like mountains, impressing the council.
It leads to the great Battle of Takatenjin, where the rival Oda and Tokugawa clans all battle with one another, and due to the impostor’s extemporaneous strategy, they end up triumphant. Overconfident, the impostor attempts to ride Shingen’s horse, quickly falling off, revealing his identity to all, who then banish him from the kingdom.
Katsuyori finally takes over and leads his men to the epic Battle of Nagashino, where along with Takatenjin, were two scenes up there with the greatest war films - Saving Private Ryan ('98), Braveheart ('95), Paths of Glory ('57), Ran (of course), you name it. Katsuyori is butchered by the Oda Clan and his army of rifled men, as the exiled Nobuko watches from the weeds. The image almost eerily resembled Ichimonji and his defeated, hopeless and heartbroken. In a glorious moment, as great as any scene in Braveheart, Nobuko takes up a sword and charges toward Oda’s men, getting shot within seconds and falling into a river whose current drags him along, past his fūrinkazan (a Japanese Battle flag that derived its slogan from Sun Tzu’s Art of War) which translates as - “In raiding and plundering be like fire; be immovable like a mountain.”
Like all great films - and said time and time again - this is the type of movie that I assume gets better the more you watch it; allowing you peel layer after layer with each viewing. Thinking back, I never really grasped what was occurring between Katsuyori and Nobuko’s “Mountain Monologue” and that Nobuko might have mounted Shingen’s horse out of hubris. He confused chance with nature, believing that just like in the beginning, with luck leading to his meeting with Shingen, he could gamble once again. His failure to respect the horse led to his downfall. It left me wondering about chance and nature, and their relationship to the immovable mountain. We’re not sure if Nobuko would have won at Nagashino, but if he accepted his early fate rather than challenging nature he could have survived and maybe saved the kingdom. The State of Nature is not to be tampered with or pursued.
Returning to Kurosawa’s life and what Ran all meant regarding Kurosawa’s personal life, I can’t help piecing the prelude in this. In many ways, just as he was ostensibly Ichimonji, so he was Nobuko, in this case understanding the privileged position he had entered, unfortunately destroyed by making a wrong decision. I wonder if anyone knows what Kurosawa’s horse was?
While not my favorite of his, that’s simply because the bar’s so high. There are dozen more films that far outshine this story. But in terms of containing the most heart, and what Kurosawa explored within himself, I think this is a fascinating piece.
BELOW: The amount of actors, set design, wardrobe, and action in this scene is absolutely staggering
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