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: Ben-Hur (1959)

Let’s go big; really big. Before the world of CGI, big spectacular stuff had to be done the hard way. (No, I’m not saying CGI is easy.) It had to be done on sets, on location and with real people in the scenes.

Watch Ben-Hur and try to imagine what was involved. Now try to imagine doing that and making a movie that was actually good, one with an interesting story and captivating characters, while you’re also trying to figure out how to manage all the extras, the technical end and all the other hoo-hah that must have gone into this.

It’s really quite remarkable. Ben-Hur is an example of Hollywood doing what Hollywood tends to do, big and bloated, and actually pulling it off.

Ben-Hur (1959)
directed by William Wyler

If ever a movie deserved the term “Hollywood spectacle,” it’s 1959’s Ben-Hur from director William Wyler. More than a few dollars went into the making of this one and, to a large extent, you see those dollars on the screen.

Remarkably, it manages to be a pretty good movie too.

Ben-Hur was made in late 50s early 60s period when spectacle was the big thing in for studios. The movies arrived with an air of their own importance, a degree of pomposity that is a little hard to take today. (It may have been hard to handle back then too.)

But Ben-Hur, despite a few slip-ups, largely justifies its pretentious elements.

Like many of those “important” movies of the period, it is quite long. Part of the length is due to beginning the film with an “overture,” an image held on screen for a few minutes while loud and stirring music plays. When finished, they finally start the opening credits.

Later, after a normal film would have concluded, it pauses again a few minutes for the “entre acte,” then proceeds for another hour or so to its finish.

Today, particularly on the home editions of the film, these are historical curiosities that do little else than clog the film.

At the time, they had some purpose but for the most part were elements of the period’s pretentiousness – they served to signal the artistic importance of the movie by suggesting they were to be viewed on the artistic level of opera and symphonies.

The movie itself (subtitled A Tale of the Christ) is drawn from an earlier film (1926’s Ben-Hur) and the original 1880 novel by Lew Wallace.

The Christ reference is due to the presence of the life of Christ as part of the story’s background – it occurs at the time of Jesus, who appears as a character a few times in the film and has an influence on Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur.

If you’ve seen Ridley Scott’s Gladiator then you have a good sense for what the story is about. Ben-Hur is a kind of well-off, aristocratic Jew at time they are living under the rule of Rome (the time of Christ). His best friend as a child was a young Roman, Messala (Stephen Boyd). The movie opens with the two boys as men, Messala returning as a Roman legionnaire to rule for Caesar over the Jews.

While still friends who love one another, the division between them of Jew and Roman quickly sets them against each other. Ben-Hur feels compelled to stand up for his people while Messala, somewhat drunk with the power Rome represents, is determined to impose his will on the Jews.

The acrimony between them leads Messala to use Ben-Hur as an example. Charges are brought against Ben-Hur and his family which Messala knows to be false. But he sees an opportunity to impose his will be using his friend.

Ben-Hur soon finds himself a prisoner of Rome, banished to the galleys of the Roman fleet.

He spends years as a galley slave until he saves the life of a Roman general, Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), who in gratitude takes him under his wing. Ben-Hur goes to Rome where he races in the arena as a charioteer.

He excels and wins honours. Arrius even adopts Ben-Hur as a son.

His freedom won, his position secured again, Ben-Hur returns home. He is focused on finding his mother and sister, and getting revenge on Messala. This leads to the great chariot race the movie is famous for, but the movie does not end there.

The final portion of the film is about Ben-Hur finding his family and struggling with his hatred of Messala and Rome within the context of the influence of Christ, particularly Christ’s final days (leading to the crucifixion).

It’s a sprawling story with numerous characters and threads. But by and large it hold together. Wyler manages an enormous task. If nothing else, Ben-Hur is a testimony and tribute to project management (as opposed to the later fiasco, Cleopatra).

Being large, it’s many movies at once: an historical costume drama, an action adventure, and a religious film. And each succeeds. Heston is perfect as Ben-Hur. With his granite face, he manages to communicate his character’s simmering rage at the injustice he has suffered.

In fact, the only real flaw in the film is the pretentiousness mentioned earlier. The movie probably could also us some editing to cut down its length but like a novel by Doestoyevsky, in some ways its charm is its lengthy, meandering narrative.

When people speak of movies and say such things as, “…That’s not how they use to make ’em,” Ben-Hur is an example of how Hollywood use to make them: big and large and visually riveting by virtue of its scope.

It’s worth bearing in mind when seeing Ben-Hur that there are no computers used here. What is on screen is what was on the set, including the great chariot race.