Cast & Crew
On the death of a clan chief his place is taken by the lookalike hired to overlook the battlefields while the chief is really busy elsewhere.
Best Art Direction
Best Foreign Language Film
After he recovered from the multiple razor slashes he made across his throat and wrists, Kurosawa spent the remainder of the decade making Dersu Uzala (an extremely arduous shoot) and the writing of three scripts: a King Lear adaptation that would later become Ran (1985), an adaptation of Poe's The Masque of the Red Death, and an original story based on a true historical event, Kagemusha (1980). While he most wanted to direct Ran first, it was Kagemusha, a violent and at times humorous story that seemed the most bankable at the time. Still, Kurosawa spent years trying to find that banker. Toho agreed to finance the film at first, but then quickly reneged when Kurosawa submitted his projected budget of $5.5 million, which was about five times the cost of the average feature at the time. Toho simply could not afford it. While he struggled to find a backer for Kagemusha (or any other project really), Kurosawa meticulously storyboarded the entire film using sketches and paintings. Kurosawa said of his approach, "In many of my movies when I could not find words to explain to my cast and crew what I wanted, I would make a sketch. But this case was special. I wanted to leave behind some record of my plans." Kurosawa didn't really believe funding for his new historical epic would ever materialize.
Like Seven Samurai, Kurosawa stumbled onto the idea of Kagemusha while researching medieval Japanese history. The script by Kurosawa and Masato Ide concerns a condemned thief (Tatsuya Nakadai) who is compelled to act as Lord Shingen Takeda's "kagemusha", or double. When Shingen (also played by Nakadai) is felled by a sniper's bullet, Takeda's inner circle of generals and advisors conspire to keep the lord's death a secret, for fear of his enemies taking advantage of it. Thus, the thief continues to act as Shingen for at least three years. Only the inner circle knows of the truth. The question is, how long can the secret, and the Takeda clan, hold?
Concurrent with Kurosawa's failing career in the 1970s, a new generation of filmmakers in Hollywood, members of the so-called "New Hollywood", were remaking the American film industry in their own image. Creative forces such as Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, Arthur Penn, Peter Bogdanovich and Martin Scorsese were redefining the rules of American film but not without heavy influence from outside the film school generation. Classic Hollywood directors such as Orson Welles and John Ford and European art house genius like Ingmar Bergman and Jean-Luc Godard were gods to be worshipped and emulated by the new generation of auteurs. And the deity known as the Emperor, Akira Kurosawa, was granted all appropriate respect and admiration by New Hollywood directors as well, especially by John Milius, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.
It was under these circumstances that Kurosawa found success when searching for financial backers in America. Coppola and Lucas had both achieved astronomical success in the 1970s. Coppola earned huge marks on the artistic side with The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), The Conversation (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979), while Lucas capitalized in 1977 on the American hunger for popcorn fare with a little space opera called Star Wars. [Lucas even references Kurosawa's films in Star Wars; the droids were allusions to the bumbling duo in The Hidden Fortress (1958), and the genre that Kurosawa often worked within, the "Jidaigeki", was shortened into the mythical "Jedi".] With unparalleled power and influence at their disposal, Coppola and Lucas were in a position to lend a much-needed hand to Kurosawa. When the Emperor showed them his story and sketches, they could scarcely believe that investors weren't rushing to finance his film. Lucas said, "It was a tragedy. It was like telling Michelangelo, 'All right, you're seventy and we're not letting you paint anymore.'" Coppola and Lucas approached none other than 20th Century-Fox-the same studio that fired Kurosawa a decade earlier, and more importantly, the same studio that had desperately wanted to distribute Lucas' forthcoming Star Wars sequels-- with a proposition to partially fund Kagemusha. Toho, with the promise of substantial funding from Fox, agreed to cover the remainder of the costs. Thus, Coppola and Lucas were able to engineer the impossible with their earned power and prestige: a new Kurosawa picture.
Given the Herculean task of even beginning Kagemusha, one would think the rest of the production would be relatively easy. Alas, this was not the case. As Donald Richie said in his book The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Kagemusha "was the most disaster-ridden" of all his films. Among the problems was the sudden illness of Kazuo Miyagawa, the cameraman who had worked with Kurosawa on Rashomon (1950) and Yojimbo (1961), and the acrimonious departure of Masaru Sato, the composer with whom Kurosawa had worked on most of his films since Record of a Living Being (also known as I Live in Fear) in 1955. The director and composer clashed over the creative direction the music was to take in Kagemusha. (The finished film was scored by Shinichiro Ikebe.)
Other problems that plagued Kurosawa: the eventual star of the film, Tatsuya Nakadai, fell off of his horse during one scene and was hospitalized; a typhoon interrupted the shoot at a cost of about $40,000 per day; and at the top of the list of irritants was the firing of the film's original star, Shintaro Katsu. A major star in Japan and in the West, mainly through his appearances as Zatoichi, the blind swordsman, Kurosawa and Ide had written Kagemusha specifically with Katsu in mind. The fact that he was a huge star eased Toho's fears about their investment too. At the same time, Katsu was used to having his own way acknowledged first and foremost on the set, so when he came to work on the very first day of shooting with his own television camera and crew, he did not anticipate resistance, even from someone like Akira Kurosawa. When Kurosawa rightly asked that Katsu remove his camera because it would be within range of his own camera, Katsu insisted he needed it so that he himself could judge whether or not he was delivering a good performance. Kurosawa countered that he was the director and he alone would tell Katsu whether or not he was doing a good job. This clash between major director and major star resulted in Katsu's firing. Kurosawa reasoned that if Katsu was this difficult on the first day of shooting, then there was no telling what he'd be like on the second or the last. "There is no need for two directors for the movie," Kurosawa said. For Katsu's replacement, Kurosawa turned to Tatsuya Nakadai, a stage actor who had appeared in Yojimbo, Sanjuro (1962) and High and Low (1963). As eager as he was to take on the role, Nakadai was currently busy with several stage commitments, so the production of Kagemusha had to stand down to accommodate his schedule.
Nakadai had not made a film with Kurosawa for over fifteen years, but he wasn't the only old comrade making a return. Seventy-four-year-old Takashi Shimura, a veteran actor who had appeared in more Kurosawa films than even Toshiro Mifune, was flown in for a small role, despite being in the advance stages of emphysema. Kurosawa wanted to give his old friend a bigger role but, he said, "I was afraid he'd break." Also returning to Kurosawa's side was one of his oldest friends and colleagues, Ishiro Honda. The veteran director of several Godzilla movies was brought onto Kagemusha as chief assistant director. Kurosawa said, "He advised me about the special effects scenes and shot supplementary footage as director of B Group...He made an effort to communicate with the crew and teach acting. I was able to concentrate on other things without anxiety thanks to his good work...I learned a lot from him and his movies. He was my mental support." Toho was glad to have Honda on the set with Kurosawa. He brought peace of mind and stability to Kurosawa, which in turn gave Toho confidence that their investment was in safe, reliable hands.
Shooting on Kagemusha took nine months, and the eventual cost of the film was around $7 million. Kurosawa kept close to his final budget and shooting schedule. As high as the final budgetary number seems, the money was well spent in support of this extraordinary story and it shows. Kurosawa demanded unrelenting fidelity to historical accuracy and insisted that all actors, artists and other craftsmen work their hardest in bringing his vision to the screen. You can see this directorial authority in his use of horses and riders. Long before legions of equestrian warriors would be filled in via CGI, Kurosawa hired thousands of horses and riders to fill the expanse of his frame. (In a rare departure of historical accuracy, many of the riders were women. Kurosawa admired these female riders, saying publicly that they were "more daring than most men.") And speaking of his framing, the compositions Kurosawa creates in Kagemusha are stunning; in a multitude of scenes, there is often two to three planes of activity going on in the extreme foreground, middle and extreme background. The world of Kagemusha is always pulsating with life and death. Moreover, Kagemusha is perhaps the first great work Kurosawa made in color, even though it is his third film in this regard. It's here that Kurosawa focused his painterly eye on an epic canvas with the full color spectrum at his fingertips. It is a stunning achievement.
Kagemusha premiered in Japan on April 27, 1980 and became an enormous hit in Japan, earning back its negative cost two weeks after it opened. The film also did very well in Europe, but in the United States it actually lost money. Critics were mostly in agreement that Kagemusha marked a high point in Kurosawa's career. Andrew Sarris, writing about the film's screening at the Cannes Film Festival, said, "The fierceness and energy of Kagemusha...burst through the screen as it if were the visual roar of a young lion. Its dynamically pulsating canvas of sixteenth-century Japan derives some of its inspiration from Shakespeare's chronicle plays, and some from John Ford's cavalry Westerns, but Kurosawa's personal signature is inscribed on every physical and spiritual contortions of his characters." Shortly after it premiered at Cannes with a running time of 179 minutes, audiences outside of Japan saw only a 162-minute version. The version TCM shows is the original's nearly 3-hour running time.
One interesting footnote relating to Kagemusha: when Kurosawa was struggling to secure financing for his film and for his own personal expenses, he opted to act in a series of commercials that aired on Japanese television. Some of these commercials were shot on the set of Kagemusha with Francis Ford Coppola appearing alongside Kurosawa. As we see the two filmmakers conferring over the script and sipping the product they are advertising, the voice-over says, "The world's gaze is fixed on these two men right now as on nobody else. There's no stronger friendship than that between these two men." The product these commercials were pushing was Suntory whiskey, the very same beverage Bill Murray's American movie star character is pushing in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation (2003).
Producer: Akira Kurosawa
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa, Masato Ide
Cinematography: Takao Saito, Shoji Ueda
Art Direction: Yoshiro Muraki
Music: Shinichiro Ikebe
Cast: Tatsuya Nakadai (Shingen Takeda/Kagemusha), Tsutomu Yamazaki (Nobukado Takeda), Kenichi Hagiwara (Katsuyori Takeda), Jinpachi Nezu (Sohachiro Tsuchiya), Hideji Otaki (Masakage Yamagata), Daisuke Ryu (Nobunaga Oda), Masayuki Yui (Ieyasu Tokugawa), Kaori Momoi (Otsuyanokata), Mitsuko Baisho (Oyunokata), Hideo Murota (Nobufusa Baba), Takayuki Shiho (Masatoyo Naito), Koji Shimizu (Katsusuke Atobe), Noboru Shimizu (Masatane Hara).
by Scott McGee
Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha on DVD
Kagemusha is the story of a petty thief who is spared from his death sentence because of his resemblance to a powerful clan leader. Tatsuya Nakadai takes on both roles, and gives added dramatic gusto to his portrayal of the double, known also as a Kagemusha, or "shadow warrior." While the use of doubles by political figures has been documented throughout history and persists to this day, Kagemusha is the unusual story of a pawn that suddenly tries to assume the entire persona of the king on an increasingly crowded chessboard full of suspicious and antagonistic players. With 70 cast members selected from among 15,000 applicants and an incredible battle scene that dangerously mixed real actors with a field of horses (each kicking off their anesthetics at different times), Kagemusha fuses visual poetics with an incredible spectacle that won the film the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980.
The title role was originally meant for Katsu Shintaro, who carried a lot of weight and was famous as Zatoichi, the blind swordsman, but a disagreement followed that resulted in Kurosawa firing Shintaro or, alternate theories suggest, Shintaro quitting. Among the many extras on the Criterion double-dvd release of Kagemusha is a 41-minute documentary that suggests Shintaro was simply trying to videotape some scenes to study his acting. The liner notes include fascinating "Biographical Sketches" by Donald Richie that detail Katsu's first day of shooting, bringing his own television crew to the set despite Kurosawa's objections. "Kurosawa pointed out that he was using multiple cameras and that the TV crew would be in the scene." Katsu's reply? "Hey, you guys, go hide behind that pillar...There, see? Invisible." Thomas Weisser and Yuko Mihara Weisser (Japanese Cinema: The Essential Handbook) phrase it a bit more strongly. "The last straw was when Katsu, doubting Kurosawa's eye, hired his own independent cameramen to shoot from the sidelines and then he'd take breaks to look at the 'private rushes' before continuing. Kurosawa fired Katsu, reportedly, after punches were thrown." This was all bad news for Zatoichi fans looking forward to seeing their hero in an epic Kurosawa film, but it was good news for Tatsuya Nakadai, who had already worked several times with Kurosawa and would later land another big role in Ran.
Disc One of Criterion's dvd for Kagemusha features the full length film (180 minutes, rather than an original American edit that clocked in at 159 minutes) in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Viewers can opt for an audio commentary by Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa. Also of note: theatrical trailers, teasers, and new and improved English subtitle translations.
Disc Two is devoted to supplements. "Lucas, Coppola, and Kurosawa" is a 19-minute long look at interviews with longtime Kurosawa fans Lucas and Coppola in the early fall of 2004. Lucas tells of being turned onto Seventh Samurai (1954) by John Milius and how that film, and the beginning of an arthouse movement in the 1950's, had a big influence on his life. "The notion," Coppola says in this interview "was put forth that if George Lucas after his great success with Star Wars and myself present his film we could go to a film company and with that package of George Lucas and Francis Coppola presenting a new film by Akira Kurosawa that that might swing getting the finance - and of course we were anxious to help. This had happened to me before really in the early days of Zoetrope when we tried to gain financing for Orson Welles who was in a similar situation 10 years before, wanting to make a film and not being trusted by the studios and in that case we tried to support Orson Welles but we didn't have any prestige, really, at that time but 10-12 years later we did. And the notion came up in regards to Mr. Kurosawa and we said 'of course we'd like to, and the film was Kagemusha...Fox was the company that had done Star Wars so it was probably George who was the instrumental one in saying 'do the Kurosawa film...because at that point Star Wars had saved them." That Star Wars (1977) should come to Kurosawa's rescue is very fitting since Lucas has been candid about the influence Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress (1958) had on Star Wars, and he also adopted another Kurosawa trademark in his intergalactic saga: the "wipe effect."
Also included: A 41-minute documentary titled "Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create," a 43-minute reconstruction of Kagemusha using Kurosawa's paintings and sketches, a series of Suntory Whiskey ads made on the set of Kagemusha that might now remind some viewers of Bill Murray's plight in Lost in Translation (2003), and a gallery of storyboards placed side-by-side with their filmic realization. The 48-page booklet that accompanies this double-dvd package has a new essay by scholar Peter Grilli, a reprinted Sight & Sound interview between Kurosawa and Tony Rayns, and biographical sketches by Japanese film historian Donald Ritchie.
For more information about Kagemusha, visit the Criterion Collection. To order Kagemusha, go to TCM Shopping.
by Pablo Kjolseth
Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha on DVD
The Republic of Japan
Released in United States Fall October 1, 1980
Released in United States 1980
Released in United States March 1980
Shown at New York Film Festival September-October 1980.
Shown at San Francisco International Film Festival March 1980.
Released in USA on video.
Released in United States Fall October 1, 1980
Released in United States 1980 (Shown at New York Film Festival September-October 1980.)
Released in United States March 1980 (Shown at San Francisco International Film Festival March 1980.)