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Cranky as he is, Bryan Hartzheim still knows a good thing when he sees it. His second installment of Letter From Japan looks back at Akira Kurosawa's flawed masterpiece "Kagemusha."
Not “Rashomon” or anything, but it’ll do.
I wrote in this space a few weeks back about some of the madness plaguing the Japanese cineplex today with Shinobi. A trite hackwork of an action movie, it is so tiresome that it is nearly unworthy of any efforts at amateur criticism. Merely recalling the film’s banality makes one lose the will to type. Perhaps the best panacea to the plague of Shinobi-type films infesting innocent Japanese minds today is to recall what is best about everything Japanese cinema has accomplished, and this includes even action terrain. And who better to wax nostalgic over than Akira Kurosawa?
Kurosawa embodies what is not just great about the Japanese craft, but also simply what makes cinema cinematic. One only need view his collection of successive masterpieces in the 1950s to witness the startling mind of a master at work. The number of films, their attention to character, the unflinching humanism of the creator’s donnee, and the tremendous variety are in the final estimate Shakespearean. Kurosawa himself took on interpretations of Shakespeare twice during this period -- Throne of Blood and The Bad Sleep Well -- both times with scintillating results.
Others might disagree with my claim that Kurosawa rivals Shakespeare on film. The English critic David Thomson, in a column on Fellini for the The Independent last year, argued that Ingmar Bergman and Jean Luc Godard had managed to stay relevant, while Kurosawa and Federico no longer deserve to rub shoulders with the Euro-giants. Maybe some films are unworthy of Kurosawa’s mettle -- the pre-war experiments; certainly Dodesukaden and some of the succeeding works -- but the bar was set high. The final years, his epic mode financed by George Lucas and Frances Coppola, have been scourged by critics and admirers, and maybe this isn’t unjustified. Though beautiful, many of these films are flawed, and some are just not very good. This decline has been attributed to Kurosawa’s increasingly pessimistic worldview following his suicide attempt, his lack of creative control, and even his obtainment of this control -- not to mention the absence of the knife of a tough editor -- under the limitless purses of Lucas and Coppola that he couldn’t receive even when he was under studio contract. When he was branded by producers as “not a team player,” it was a dig at the director’s lack of concern for spending budgets and interminable hours on location doing take after take, just to find the perfect way to shoot a hat on a coat rack.
One of the films that divides critics and admirers sharpest is the first film Kurosawa “came back” with: Kagemusha. The first to be financed by Lucas and Coppola, it was the first financial success since the critical and commercial flop Dodesukaden. Not one of the master’s best, the film is filled with flaws and lapses in narrative judgment. Yet it is a good gauge to measure how a director working at less than full capacity can still make such an exciting piece of cinema. And make no mistake about it: the whole thing is nothing less than extremely cinematic.
Kagemusha, which translates to “Shadow Warrior” (or the more liberally titled “The Double,” likely framed on the Dostoyevsky novel of the same name), is set during the Sengoku (Warring) Era of feudal Japan, possibly the country’s most turbulent period of violence, wherein three warlords are largely competing for Japanese hegemony. One of these warlords, Takeda Shingen, has avoided dangers by using his brother Nobukado as a double. As the film opens, Nobukado suggests the employment of a new shadow: a nameless petty thief bearing an uncanny resemblance to the warlord. Soon after this introduction, Shingen is cut down early in the film by a sniper’s bullet when he insists on watching an enemy executed. To avoid this news leaking to other clans that would take advantage of this untimely disaster, the retainers of Shingen decide to use the new double to substitute for their deceased lord.
Initially in nervous amusement over his new role, our nameless thief Kagemusha grows to develop the mannerisms, speech, attitude, and even paranoia such power is accoutered with. Unfortunately, Kurosawa treats this as something that is inevitable. Indeed, we as an audience see this as something entirely predictable. So as we see the thief slowly become a lord, Kurosawa seems to be framing the ultimate argument for the influence of environment on our upraising. Put a man into any scenario, and he will become what he is supposed to be. The thesis here is against the tradition of patrilineal descent of a kingdom; if Kagemusha can be a general, even a far better one than Shingen’s son, Katsuyori, then what need is there of a divine throne?
Critics have maintained that this salient feature of the film is a problem since Kagemusha becomes an agent. Reduced to simply filling a role, little of the thief’s rebellious nature displayed early in the film remains in the fractious impersonation of a warlord. He is robbed of his humanity, some argue.
But there is humanity there. Kagemusha becomes a much better surrogate father to Shingen’s grandchild than Shingen likely ever was. His attachment to the boy is the only display of anything close to love in the entire film. Rather, the bigger flaw in the story lies in why Kagemusha should be a great lord. It’s clear he’s kind and a quick learner, but he's also meek. These virtues are kept after extensive impersonation, but why aren’t the vices of power absorbed? What in this thief is selectively choosing what to be, what to learn, how to act, what to think? Kurosawa doesn’t include enough of the innerworkings of the man. It’s not that the film doesn’t display what Kagemusha is thinking, but rather that he doesn’t appear to be thinking very much at all. In Throne of Blood, in overt Macbeth-fashion, we see Toshiro Mifune grappling with decision after decision of his fate. His face contorts, his mind winds, his ambition, agony, and frustration are apparent. None of that from Tatsuya Nakadai. We understand he’s confused and being tortured at having to play the part of someone else, but the evolution of his character is largely absent. There is no cumulative effect to this torment.
Why should this be so? To be less than Swiftian, you take a dirty, thieving bum and put him in the role of an aspiring shogun and you will probably find a few inconsistencies. The personalities of an egomaniac and a kleptomaniac are likely (though not necessarily) to contrast. Since Kurosawa chooses to spend time stewing over war strategy and watching Kagemusha play games with kids, we as an audience are forced to supply drama that simply isn’t there. Why, also, should this peasant become a snake merely by wearing his skin is not answered. The final moments of the film are of a single man’s deep love of his kingdom and its people, but this transformation is simply celebration fueled by cause celebre, the case being built on flimsy sand. The music roars for the heart of the warrior without supplying the actual organ.
It’s grandstanding without substance.
But enough of all that. If this later Kurosawa is bloated and filled with less vitality, that still doesn’t defeat the fact that the film is a visual feast. Every battle is amazing, and man’s helpless fate is thrust in full view of our senses in these scenes. By contrasting the stoicism of Kagemusha with the ignoble fanaticism of Katsuyori, few arguments have been framed so persuasively against the arrogance of poor leadership and the forcible exercise of power over the vulnerable.
Kurosawa’s background as a painter is as evident in Kagemusha as it is in Ran; what we witness is landscape after landscape of gorgeous beauty. If critics like Thomson have been disappointed at directors’ lack of imagination to take advantage of film’s transition to color, Kurosawa is not one of the sources of scourge. In his late years, the director was a genius at depicting the apocalypse, Lear’s end-of-the-world state of mind . In Ran, we are subjected to one of the most intensely horrifying battles depicted on screen, with visual graphic content accompanied by the swelling dread of a Mahlerian score. Kagemusha can’t quite equal this intensity; the color palette isn’t utilized with as much variety, and the compositions of the scenes are occasionally flat, boxed in and framed like canvasses.
But what is nightmarish about Kagemusha’s intense blacks and reds is that it helps to frame the excitement of the action. The chilling battle led by Kagemusha is terrifically exciting and speaks to the creativity of the director to find effective ways of delivering action. We don’t see anything but blurs of bodies on horses, the sounds of arrows whizzing past, voices screaming and shouting. Kagemusha subtly shows us the power of the visual medium to concentrate energy in the sounds of combat paired with our constant anticipation at never being able to find the action.
This is hell on earth, and while the heights aren’t ever up to Ran's standards, I’ll take it. Film is always more than photography, but certain shots can communicate tremendous power. The final shots of a decimated army are some of the most rationally stupefying and emotionally charged to be committed to the screen, as we must be forced to watch not only wounded troops walking aimlessly like zombies among the slaughtered on the combat field, but also dozens of dying horses, braying and kicking their hooves to the final beats of life. One must go back to Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game to find such mortal beauty on screen rendered from animal suffering.
Kurosawa is so brilliant; in Kagemusha, he created an action film with little visible action. Other than horses galloping in great droves, we see very little war, and even less violence. It’s up to our imaginations to recreate the slaughter in the night. Despite this, it’s all very scary and surreal. By looking into their own country’s film history, the CG-libidos of the makers of Shinobi could learn a thing or two about actual cinematic technique.
Date Posted: 11/17/2005