From time to time, I like to bring up a story I read in Frank Zappa's autobiography about how he witnessed an idol of his practically begging for a cash advance for a concert, and it discouraged him to the point that he disbanded the group he formed shortly after the concert. The story serves as an illustration of how older influences get cast aside for a presumed flavor of the month. So it shouldn't be that surprising that Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas helped to secure approval for financing a Akira Kurosawa film. Kurosawa had only been responsible for some of the most influential films in the 20th century, including The Seven Samurai, Rashomon and many others. He should be reduced to going to things hat in hand, like Duke Ellington was in Zappa's story. Fortunately for Kurosawa, he had been planning Kagemusha for several years before beginning principal photography. The result is a compelling piece of cinema.
The film, written by Kurosawa and Masato Ide, is set in 16th century Japan and concentrates on Lord Takeda Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai), who took the unusual route of employing a double, to throw his enemies off-guard and reduce the likelihood of assassination attempts. The double is a thief, and while the thief initially resists, Shingen is wounded by a sniper's bullet. The thief is pressed into service by Shingen's generals, and manages to fill the role rather well, often times having a fondness for what Shingen used to do. However, when the secret gets out, the rival warlords threaten to overtake Shingen's leftovers (anyone who took Shingen's place was feared to be not as strong and could not hold his land).
Kurosawa brings up a clever assertion in the film from its opening; while the Thief and Shingen (both played by Nakadai) look alike, they both have done egregious things. Yet the Thief seems more unrepentant in his sins, it is clear that Shingen is aware of what he has done and the magnitude of death that has been around him, some by his hand. The Thief discounts his transgressions; Shingen almost embraces his. It's the lack of real difference between the two that transcends just physical appearance, yet only one of them realizes it in the beginning. The other finds out about it and embraces it as the film goes on.
The similarity permeates the film. As Donald Richie illustrates so well in his book "The Films of Akira Kurosawa," this happens several times in the film; both during the actual and recreated assassination attempts, during the Thief's appearance at a council meeting as Shingen. It even occurs in something as small as when the Thief attempts to ride Shingen's horse and meets with Shingen's mistresses (Shingen's aides use the same excuse, word for word, when bowing out of both). When the Thief eventually gains more respect and reverence for Shingen's status, his initial reluctance to impersonate Shingen wears away and he even takes up arms for him at one point, confirming that, quoting Richie "illusion has become reality."
Carrying the roles of both of the main character, Nakadai avails himself rather well. Considering he came into the film as a replacement (Zatoichi star Shinaro Katsu was originally cast in the dual role) and his tribulations during production (falling off a horse and being hospitalized, according to Richie's book), he plays a much older man, er, men, with a certain quality. Nakadai can show in his face the remorseless killer in Shingen and the belligerent thief exceptionally well. In addition, as for the scale of the film, Kurosawa used hundreds of extras (5,000 by one account) for the battles in the film, and they are brutal, but then again, so was feudal Japan to a degree.
Kurosawa had several years to get this film ready for production, and there were some instances where it might not have happened. While it may not be his best work of his later years (1985's Ran had action, familial betrayal and a better supporting cast, for my money), Kagemusha serves as a return to form for a director that many call the sensei as a term of respect. As it should be.
The Blu-ray Disc:
The thing that is most revelatory about this AVC MPEG-4 encoded 1.85:1 widescreen presentation is how much detail you can find in it. In one scene where the armies are marching, you can distinguish the greens of their flags against the background. Flesh tones and colors appear more natural, and against the backdrop of the Japanese mountains, the picture looks consistently multi-dimensional. You get a newfound appreciation for the composition of shots and how much he can put in a single frame when viewing Kagemusha. There are some moments of image softness, but overall, the film looks amazing on Blu-ray, and is worth a double-dip for the transfer.
Criterion uses a DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 soundtrack for the Blu-ray of Kagemusha, and the results are excellent as well. Dialogue is crisper and cleared than the Dolby track on the standard definition release, and some occasional subwoofer engagement can be detected in the battle sequences. While it's hardly a reference-quality track, it helps illustrate what can be done when older films get a worthy high-definition treatment, as Criterion has done for this.
Criterion has ported over the extras from the two-disc standard definition disc, right down to the 48-page booklet (now 36 pages, missing Kurosawa scholar Donald Richie's Biographical Sketches). Longtime Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince's commentary is another good one, where he mixes production information, historical perspective and scene breakdowns into a valuable lesson on the feature. It's an excellent track. Following that, "Lucas, Koppola & Kurosawa" (19:21) are interviews with the American directors as they discuss Kurosawa's influence on them growing up, and the role they helped play in getting financing for him later in life. The Kagemusha installment of the Toho Masterworks series "It Is Wonderful to Create" is next (41:01). This series has covered a lot of ground on Kurosawa's individual works, and contains a lot of footage from and interviews with the film's cast and crew. It discusses the production aspects of the film to boot. This is another excellent addition to the Criterion/Kurosawa discs. "Image: Kurosawa's Continuity" (43:44) is a fascinating recreation of the film, using its dialogue and soundtrack, played against Kurosawa's storyboards of the film. To see how elaborate these boards are reiterates how Kurosawa thought the film out, and it's a unique addition to the disc. "A Vision Realized" is a series of storyboards compared to the final film, done in stills fashion. Five commercials that Kurosawa shot for Suntory whiskey are next, and three trailers (one U.S. trailer, one Japanese trailer and one Japanese teaser) are the remaining supplements.
Some people might not pick this Kurosawa film as one worthy of high definition treatment (as a side note, it saddens me that Criterion is currently not able to do this to Kurosawa's next film Ran), but Kagemusha looks better than I was expecting on Blu-ray, plus you don't lose any of the extras and get a solid lossless track to boot. Definitely worth buying, whether you have the standard definition copy or not.