20 Movies: Kagemusha (1980)

This is a review I wrote a few years ago when I first picked up the DVD of Kagemusha and saw it for the second time, some twenty years after first seeing it. I think I might write something quite different today.

Somewhere on my computer I have a post about old black and white movies and “foreign” films and how, in certain ways, they involve cognitive barriers we have to get past to enjoy the movie. In the case of Kagemusha, it would be the language, Japanese (unless, of course, you speak Japanese). You don’t understand the language; you follow subtitles. That creates a barrier of sorts that you have to adjust to.

Kagemusha is one of the first movies of the subtitles kind that I saw and probably the first where the adjusting was almost non-existent. It was so visually brilliant I was enthralled from the start. Prior to Kagemusha, my movie experience was almost exclusively Hollywood. I’m still essentially a Hollywood formed viewer but it is probably Akira Kurosawa more than any other director that brought me into a world of film beyond the restrictive Hollywood definition.

Kagemusha (1980)
directed by Akira Kurosawa

I probably saw the movie Kagemusha first back in 1980 or 1981, when it was first released in North America with 20 minutes removed from the film Akira Kurosawa made. At the time, it knocked me for a loop.

It was the first Kurosawa movie I had seen. It was also the first samurai film I had seen. I don’t recall many other movies that so impressed me visually. Also, back then, my cinematic references were almost entirely western, as in Hollywood, with maybe a few Fellini films tossed in the mix.

So here was a colourful samurai movie in Japanese with English subtitles. Going in, I was a bit trepidatious. Going out, I was ga-ga.

That was more than twenty years ago. I’ve not seen Kagemusha since, not till last night when I watched the Criterion DVD – Kurosawa’s fully restored, 180 minute version in a transfer that is outstanding.

In those intervening twenty odd years I’ve seen many more kinds of film, many more samurai films and many more Akira Kurosawa films, including some of his non-samurai movies like Ikiru.

So the virgin quality of my first experience of Kagemusha is gone; it’s visual impact has been lessened in that sense. On the other hand, while no expert I’m still a bit more visually conversant than I was then, a bit more attentive and aware, not so impressed by something that looks “cool.” In that sense, the visual impact of the movie has been heightened.

The movie is about a thief, one condemned to die by crucifixion, but is spared because he looks so much like the leader of the Takeda clan, Shingen. It is Shingen’s brother who has discovered the thief’s resemblance, the same brother who has also been acting as Shingen’s double (a kagemusha) as a strategic tool in their conflict with other clans.

The thief does become a kagemusha for the Takeda leader but then Shingen is mortally wounded by a sniper. Before he dies, Shingen makes his final wish known – to not reveal the fact of his death until three years after he has died and to use that time to pull back and consolidate the Takeda position.

The thief then becomes a kagemusha for Shingen in earnest. He does it so well, he fools almost all and thus makes the other clans uncertain – fearful of Shingen and confused about his intentions.

As the film evolves, it becomes a meditation on the nature of power and of leaders while at the same time moving forward with a tragic, inexorable determination.

I’m struck by several things about Kagemusha (including how long the movie is). I suppose more than anything I’m taken by how controlled and deliberate it seems, how managed each shot is.

It begins with the very first scene. It’s a fairly lengthy one where the warrior Shingen and his brother (who has acted as Shingen’s double in the past) first meet the kagemusha (“double” or “shadow” – hence the film’s title sometimes being referred to as Kagemusha: the Shadow Warrior).

The scene is a single, static shot – no cuts, no camera movement. The actors sit Japanese style on the floor and are exactingly positioned to compose the shot. They make a set of three elements placed deliberately in the foreground – two (the brothers) are centre and left. Of the two, one (Shingen, in the middle) is slightly above. The third characer or element, the kagemusha, is off to the right, also below the middle element, Shingen.

This composition of three, or variations of it, occurs over and over throughout the movie. (If I recall correctly, we also see it used in the opening of his next movie, Ran.)

Other than simply liking this kind of composition, I’m not sure what significance it has for Kurosawa. For me, however, it communicates order and a sense of control, or at least its illusion.

It contrasts starkly with where Kurosawa’s film ends up taking us – the disorder of the battlefield after the conflict, and perhaps even the movie’s final image of the kagemusha being carried off by a current in the sea, that image composed in such a way as to severe the “canvas” against which the compositions of three were placed. (Alright, that last bit may be a stretch.)

In his later samurai movies (Kagemusha and Ran), Kurosawa takes a very painterly approach, and also a very deliberate one. As mentioned, the film struck me by its length. This is partly because it is long – three hours – but also because it begins slowly and (to repeat myself) deliberately as the beginning goes through a lengthy exposition.

But it’s not simply story exposition. It’s visual exposition too, those brilliant compositions of order. Interestingly, contrasted against the structural order of the way each scene is composed is the content, or story itself, which is somewhat confusing as we have several people playing, to some degree, one character – Shingen, the brother and the kagemusha. In the first half hour, it’s not difficult to get these confused.

For me, Kagemusha is a wonderful, if somewhat difficult movie. I think Ran is the better film. Kagemusha, however, is a film Kurosawa needed to make in order to get to Ran. Many of the visual ideas about composition and colour are first explored here. The movie is also an initial iteration of the theme of chaos and order, their roots and the illusions that attend the ideas of power, control and position.

Finally, Kagemusha is well worth seeing if only to sit back and let absolutely stunning images wash over you. This is one of the best looking movies I’ve seen.

See: 20 Movies — The List

20 Movies: Ikiru (1952)

I know people who can’t watch a movie like Ikiru because it’s in black and white and because it is “foreign.” I confess I have to bite my tongue when I hear such things because, while on one hand I understand what they are saying, I find it frustrating that they allow themselves to miss something as wonderful as this movie simply because they can’t give it a chance.

Ikiru isn’t fast paced. It isn’t a spectacle of colour. It isn’t in English; it’s sub-titled. It’s a slow paced meditation in black and white and in Japanese.

It is also one of the best movies ever made.

Ikiru (1952)
directed by Akira Kurosawa

You would think a movie about someone dying of cancer would be a tremendously depressing film but as Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru shows, it needn’t be.

This is because he is not at all concerned with dying. His theme is life, just as the more recent movie by Denys Arcand is – Les Invasions Barbares (The Barbarian Invasions). But this isn’t to say Kurosawa backs away from the unpleasant fact of cancer.

Not only does he not back away from it, he embraces it – almost gleefully as he sets up the story of his main character, Kanji Watanabe (Shinichi Himori).

The movie opens with a shot of Watanabe’s x-ray and an almost officious narrator describing Watanabe’s condition – his current life (which is pretty much nonexistent) and medical condition (dying of stomach cancer).

It opens almost as if God were telling the story of Job.

We’re then shown the pathetic life of Watanabe. He’s a government bureaucrat lost amid the bureaucracy, his goal, like the system’s goal, to do nothing. He has been living this way for thirty years.

Then it’s revealed to him he has cancer and has less than a year to live. It’s interesting that, just as Watanabe in his job attempts to do nothing and keep everything steady and status quo, the doctors refuse to tell him the truth of his condition. Why disturb the waters when there is nothing he can do about it? Better he remain ignorant of his condition.

But he does find out, from another patient, and panics.

In an almost frightened stupor, he stumbles out into the street in what I found to be one of the most striking moments in the movie. It is very quiet as Watanabe enters the street. Then, just as a truck goes by, a cacophony of street sounds erupts.

It suggests that the grim news he’s received has wakened the slumbering Watanabe and he is suddenly aware of life – chaotic and noisy and endlessly vibrant.

His fear now begins to coalesce from a general, instinctive fear of death to something more specific – a fear of never having lived.

Watanabe’s journey is now underway as he tries to discover what it means to live and how this is done. Initially he meets his first guide on his journey, a writer who sees the poetry in Watanabe and his situation. He leads him through a night journey that focuses on the superficial aspects of life – drink, sex, partying – but none of this really resonates for Watanabe, at least not in a profound way. It simply opens his eyes more to the essence of living he has missed.

His next guide is a young, vibrant woman flush with excitement of youth. She takes him on more of a daylight journey where Watanabe finally begins coming out of his depressed stupor. He begins to laugh and enjoy being alive.

And this leads him to his final stage where he reconciles with his condition and decides what it is he must do in order to feel he has lived.

This is where Kurosawa suddenly shifts his focus. He cuts to a later time, after Watanabe’s death, where we see others recalling him and trying to come to an understanding of his final days.

Characters have a range of interpretations, many of which are self-serving, but as this part of the film progresses an image of Watanabe begins to cohere until we are finally left with the essence of Watanabe, the essence of life (which the word ikiru means, “to live”).

While the film’s focus is on Watanabe, Kurosawa does one of the things he loved to do which is to show story from different perspectives (such as in Rashoman). We see Watanabe but we also see how others perceive him, usually erroneously, usually from a self-centred perspective – such as his son and daughter-in-law, or his fellow workers.

Kurosawa also uses sound to great effect in Ikiru, associating life with a cacophony of vibrancy (such as the entering the street scene mentioned earlier). There is also the song Watanabe sings and occurs several times in the film, beginning, “Life is brief …”

The song is sung twice by Watanabe – first in a bar in a gloomy scene where the theme of “life is brief” negatively presented, as a reason for sorrow. The second time is toward the end of the film, after he has accomplished what he set out to do and he’s seen on a swing set. Here, there is a sense of joy to the song. The contrasting versions of the same song suggests life involves making choices and those choices determine whether the quality of life.

Ikiru is a tremendously life affirming movie made by one of cinema’s great masters, Akira Kurosawa. It makes a stark contrast to some of the tremendous samurai films he made. It has a gentleness to it that is disarming while at the same time maintaining the unflinching quality of vision constant through Kurosawa’s films.

As others have mentioned, this is a movie that should be seen every few years or so. Like the best stories, it prompts us to look at the world around us and assess our own lives and, perhaps as we get older, speculate on how much of Watanabe is within us.

20 Movies: Hero (Ying xiong) (2002)

It seems appropriate that a movie that is mythic and fantastic should also be fantastic, not in the fantasy sense but in the Wow! sense. To a degree, the story is irrelevant here because the movie is so visually stunning, partly due to the acrobatic swordplay scenes but primarily through the use of colour and staging of scenes.

But there is more to Hero than its look. At its heart, it is romantic. It’s romantic in its view of China’s history and it’s romantic in the relationships between characters. As story ingredients go, there are few things as engaging as romance.

Hero (Ying xiong) (2002)
irected by Yimou Zhang

With a movie as good as Hero, where do you begin? There are so many elements, so many perspectives, so many levels that warrant lengthy discussion it’s almost impossible to start.

So I’ll begin by first saying my knowledge of China, it’s history and culture and everything else, could be put on the head of pin and still leave room. My ignorance is boundless so anything I have to say comes from a totally western perspective.

But that’s okay because, like any worthwhile art, Hero is a movie for everyone and likely becomes more interesting as more perspectives and interpretations are brought to it.

Set roughly 2,000 years ago in China, Hero is about the beginning of China’s unification as a single nation under the harsh leadership of the King of Qin (played by Daoming Chen).

As mentioned, I know nothing of China but my guess is that Hero is a little bit of history, a little bit of legend and a fairly loose interpretation of both.

The king has his enemies and the movie begins with a man called Nameless (Jet Li) coming to the emperor to say he has destroyed his three greatest enemies: Sky (Donnie Yen), Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung). Nameless, in the emperor’s court, tells the king of how he killed these three.

While comparisons have been made between Hero and Akira Kurosawa’s Rashoman, this is a bit misleading. They are similar, however, to the extent that Hero tells the story of the three enemies and their ruin from different perspectives (including the king’s) and not necessarily truthfully. (As Yunda Eddie Feng at suggests, a better comparison might be to The Usual Suspects.)

The film, then, moves inexorably toward its truth and this is where the film’s title, Hero, becomes interesting. Who is the hero? There appear to be several.

I understand that ying xiong doesn’t distinguish between singular and plural (as we do with the English hero and heroes). I don’t know, but it is certainly one of the interesting aspects of the film – what is a hero and what makes him or her heroic?

In the movie, despite it’s Hong Kong martial arts and swordplay, the implicit violence of swords is downplayed.

One of the film’s keys is the idea of swordsmanship and calligraphy being connected. Calligraphy is a hugely important element of the film.

The movie overall is lyrical, even poetic. Similar to Ang Lee’s approach in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the film is more interested in the romance of its story than in any other element. It’s from this romance the lyricism is drawn and it is what unifies the entire film.

And while there is romance of the love variety, the greater romance is in the view of heroism – sacrifice and honour.

For me, the best martial arts films are like the best westerns. In fact, I think they are essentially the same genres but from different (though dovetailing) cultures.

Both are at their best when informed by morality and romance. I would argue (and have argued) that these two genres (martial arts and westerns) are the same, and are essentially romantic, moral tales given a deceptive high adventure gloss.

From my admittedly limited perspective, what Hero most reminds me of are the great films of Sergio Leone like The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. It’s not just in the type of story but also the way it is told.

Like Leone’s films, I can’t image Hero in anything but widescreen. The cinematography of Christopher Doyle is breathtaking.

The way scenes are framed, spread across the screen, elements juxtaposed, gives the movie its epic and legendary look.

And while I see many movies use colour (usually in an annoying way), in Hero colour literally tells the story.

Working in tandem with the wonderful music of Tan Dun, the story gets told almost without the necessity of words.

Hero isn’t just a good movie, it’s a great movie. It’s epic and rich and a veritable visual feast … even if, like me, you know next to nothing about China.

See: 20 Movies – The List

Hero (the trailer):