When discussing later era Kurosawa films, Ran is almost universally considered his finest work from the later part of his career. While it is certainly a wonderful film, hopefully with this superb two disc DVD release from The Criterion Collection, Kurosawa's 1980 samurai epic Kagemusha will gain a few more fans as it is a truly under appreciated masterpiece from a filmmaker with a long filmography full of masterpieces.
Released in North America in an 'International Version' that was shorn of twenty minutes (most of which was dialogue and character interaction), Criterion presents Kurosawa's film in its complete Japanese form on DVD in North America for the first time.
A lowly thief in feudal Japan named Takeda (Tatsuya Nakadai of Ran and Sword Of Doom) is spared by an influential and powerful warlord because the warlord thinks that the thief bears more than a passing resemblance to himself (which he does). Soon after, an assassin wounds and kills the warlord and the thief now finds himself impersonating the man at the insistence of his family and his commanding officers.
The reasoning behind this seemingly needlessly complicated ruse? They intend to show their foes that the warlord is still alive and still in control of his considerable forces – after all, appearances are everything sometimes. All but the closest of family members and the highest of commanding officers will know nothing about the plan. The thief must learn to completely and utterly change his lifestyle and his mannerisms in order to pull this off, and he's thrown into a world that is completely foreign to him.
Not really having much of a choice, Takeda throws himself into the roll and is so convincing that not even the women who share his bed can tell the difference. Soon though, he learns that acting is really all that there is to it, and that the warlord himself was just as much an illusion of the real thing as Takeda is now.
Kagemusha is hardly the best Kurosawa film to start with (go out and grab The Seven Samurai or Yojimbo if you've yet to be initiated into his world) as it unfolds at a fairly slow pace and at three hours in length it might try the patience of those unfamiliar with the way that the man made movies. But for more seasoned viewers, it doesn't get a whole lot better than this. Shakespearian twists, gigantic battles, gorgeous costumes, beautiful sets and scenery all add up to a film that lives up to the very definition of the word 'epic.' The cinematography is stunning – everything from the lighting to the color schemes used to the camera angles looks literally picture perfect – his training and background as a painter are very apparent here in this film, one of his first color features. Despite the fact that this 'come back film' of sorts was made shortly after the director had given up hope of affecting people with his work anymore and tried to kill himself, it's done with such confidence and such precise skill that it's amazing to me that the thought and doubt had ever once crossed his mind in the first place. Kurosawa's love of John Ford's films is very well represented here in the camera work as it has a lot of the same scope and depth to it that Ford's better films like The Searchers had, only here we're seeing it all unfold in feudal Japan as opposed to the American west.
Given the director's state of mind when the film was made, it makes perfect sense that the movie so prominently deals with the themes of illusion and of pretending to be something you're not. Whether or not Kurosawa felt he had to pretend to be someone he wasn't to appeal to larger audiences in his native Japan I can't honestly say but it's certainly not much of a stretch to assume that this may have had some sort of influence on the way that this story unfolds. After all, isn't filmmaking at its core simply the art of creating an illusion anyway? Maybe it's a metaphor, maybe it isn't (these things are all up to the eye of the beholder and often times best left there in my opinion), argue that all you like, but what can't be disputed is the intensity with which this film build and finishes. It may start of slow but it's never dull and by the time that the inevitable bloody conclusion arises, even if we know where it's all going, it's such an experience getting there that the three hour running time almost doesn't seem like enough!
Kagemusha, like many of Kurosawa's films and like all great films in general, continues to be a beautiful and fascinating look into political grandstanding and military tactics. It's simply stunning to look at, it's gripping and intense, and it's a truly brilliant accomplishment in film. While Ran may get more of the accolades, this film came first and served as a sort of test run for the later movie which many consider his last truly great film. For that reason alone it deserves a place in any film buff's movie collection, but there are so many more reasons to love this movie that it seems an insult to limit it. In short, Kagemusha is a brilliant film from one of the world's most brilliant and influential directors.
Criterion's 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of Kagemusha is absolutely gorgeous. The very first think that you'll notice as the film starts is how fantastic the color reproduction is on this transfer. The reds and greens and blues all seem very alive and very organic feeling, giving the movie a very bold and distinct look. Grain is limited to a very fine and natural looking coat that you won't even notice unless you're looking for it and print damage has been almost completely eliminated. The level of detail in the foreground and background objects is amazing, you can see every hair on every samurai's face and you can see every crease in the leather of their uniforms. Black levels are very strong and never break up or pixelate at all and edge enhancement is never a noticeable problem.
In short, Kagemusha looks damn near perfect on this Criterion Collection DVD.
The Japanese language Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 Mix is on par with the video transfer in terms of quality. Plenty of nice and distinct channel separation is used to heighten the battle scenes while dialogue remains consistently clear. The entire mix is free of even the faintest trace of hiss or distortion and the sound effects and background music are balanced against the actor's voices perfectly. While some of Kurosawa's earlier efforts sounded a little dull, Kagemusha is quite the opposite with a clean and clear sounding high end and a thunderous and ominous sounding low end. Optional English subtitles are included that are free of any typographical errors and easy to read.
The extra features on this two disc set are laid out as follows:
Available as a second audio track is a screen specific commentary that plays over top of the film courtesy of Stephen Prince, author of the Akira Kurosawa biography, The Warriors Camera: The Cinema Of Akira Kurosawa. Prince lends not only a wealth of insight into much of the symbolism and meaning that the film contains but also does an excellent job of detailing the history of the film, who the project came to be, as well as how it relates to a lot of Kurosawa's other films. While at three hours in length the commentary can get a little trying (best to just check it out in smaller doses unless you're a true die hard or have seen the film a few times before and are looking for an alternate way to enhance the experience) it is literally jam packed with information. Given the complicated pre-production and planning that went into making this epic film, it's nice to see such a well informed and interesting commentary track adorning the film.
Aside from the commentary, the first disc also contains the American theatrical trailer, the Japanese theatrical trailer, and the Japanese teaser trailer as well.
Getting things rolling on the second disc is a nineteen minute documentary entitled Helping A Master: Coppola, Lucas, and Kagemusha. This newly shot video interview with George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola (who served as executive producers on this film) details how the two American filmmakers become involved in getting Kagemusha to North American shores and how Akira Kurosawa influenced both of them in their formative years as filmmakers themselves and beyond. The two men have many kind things to say about Kurosawa but don't sugarcoat a lot of the trials and tribulations that they went through on their end getting all of this to happen the way that it did.
After that is a forty-one minute documentary shot for Japanese television entitled Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful To Create that documents the making of Kagemusha. Part of the Toho Masterworks Series this is an informative and in-depth look at what went on behind the camera to bring you what you see on the screen. A lot of the focus of this documentary is on Kurosawa's later era films, and the importance that Kagemusha holds not only in regards to his last few films but to his filmography as a whole. This documentary also covers some of the details behind the fight that erupted between Kurosawa and Zatoichi star Shintaro Katsu who was originally intended to play the lead, which resulted in Katsu loosing the part and being kicked off of the set all together.
A featurette running roughly forty minutes entitled Image: Kurosawa's Continuity is a video that dissects the film using Kurosawa's original paintings and audio from the film to recreate a 'skeletal' version of the film. While this one isn't likely to appeal to everyone as it gets a bit dry, it does do an exceptional job of breaking down the director's working process and it gives us a better story of how he took ideas out of his head and got them up on the big screen.
Following that feature, appropriately enough, is a storyboard to film comparison entitled A Vision Realized that does an interesting job of demonstrating how detailed his storyboards were and how much of them ended up in the final filmed product.
Last but certainly not least are a trio of commercials shot on the set of the film for Suntory Whiskey that feature Akira Kurosawa and Francis Ford Coppola! While in terms of what you'll learn about the film these segments are negligible but as a curiosity item alone, they're invaluable and actually rather amusing. It's certainly fun to see them included here along with the more serious supplements.
In addition to what is contained on the DVDs themselves, Criterion has also supplied a gorgeous booklet inside the keepcase that contains many paintings from the film as well as some essays from Darrell Davis and Peter Grilli on Kurosawa and this film.
A simply gorgeous film, an epic in the true sense of the word, gets the deluxe treatment that it so justly deserves from Criterion. Reference quality audio and video, plenty of interesting and relevant extra features, and a main attraction that is fascinating and very beautiful make this two disc Kagemusha worthy of the DVD Talk Collector Series stamp of approval, and it's worth every penny of the rather high MSRP.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.