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Kagemusha
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Kagemusha

The 1970s were not kind to director Akira Kurosawa. After the release of Red Beard in 1965, the legendary director spent the next fifteen years struggling to get several pictures out of development hell. He spent two years preparing to direct the Japanese segments of 20th Century-Fox's Pearl Harbor epic, Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), but the experience proved to be an absolute disaster for Kurosawa. After what Fox claimed was reckless and profligate spending of both time and money, with very little usable footage in the can, Kurosawa was ignobly fired from the picture. Worse still, Fox intimated that Kurosawa had suffered some kind of breakdown while working on the picture, thus leading to what the studio saw as an enormous waste of their time and resources. It is true that Kurosawa was not a director who worked on the cheap, but every dime he spent on films such as Seven Samurai (1954) or Throne of Blood (1957) was up there on the screen. Still, the damage was done, and Kurosawa, a director as important to world cinema as Ingmar Bergman or Federico Fellini, only made two pictures between 1965 and 1980, Dodes'ka-den (1970) and Dersu Uzala (1975). The latter film was financed by the Soviet Union's Mosfilm, and not by Kurosawa's home studio, Toho. Due to seismic changes in the Japanese film industry, Toho simply could not afford to foot the bill alone on any more of Kurosawa's pictures. While Kurosawa finished Dodes'ka-den on time and on budget, the film was a disappointment at the box office. With his artistic reputation in shambles, a general malaise set in and the sixty-one-year-old Kurosawa attempted suicide December 22, 1971.

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).
C-179m. Letterboxed.

by Scott McGee

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