Kagemusha (review)

Kagemusha, directed by Kurosawa Akira (1980), DVD. 6/10

Kagemusha is set in the 1570s, towards the end of Japan’s Sengoku period (1467–1615). It draws on the uncertainty surrounding the death of the historical Takeda Shingen, one of the great warlords of the period shortly before the unification of Japan and the beginning of the Edo period (1603-1867). The movie imagines a scenario where Shingen died of a bullet wound, but decreed that for three years, his clan should keep his death a secret. The kagemusha (shadow warrior) of the title is a petty criminal whom Shingen’s brother, Takeda Nobukado, saves from crucifixion. The criminal looks exactly like Shingen, and when Shingen dies, he is given the task of appearing in his place to keep up the clan’s morale and to intimidate rival warlords Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu, who regard Shingen as a fearsome general.


Kurosawa is considered one of the great movie directors of the twentieth century and, since movies are mostly a twentienth century phenomenon, one of the great directors of all time. I think he’s a little overrated, not because he’s not a great filmmaker, but because the reverence accorded to he and his films is too much.

Kagemusha is never really dull, but it’s never really exciting, either. The major battle scenes are grand, and overlaid by an imposing soundtrack, but to me there’s not a lot of human interest in combat. Often combat scenes just seem like showing off, proof that the team can do a great fight scene, and Kagemusha is seldom any different. It’s only in the final scene, which recreates the Battle of Nagashino, that Kurosawa extracts dramatic interest from the fighting. The ere, the conduct of Shingen’s son, Takeda Katusyori, is appalling: he sends hundreds of his warriors to die in charges at an impenetrable barricade through which arquebusiers mow them down with gunfire. The scene reminds me of the “Battle of the Sand Belt” in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.In history, it was raining heavily, which gave Katsuyori reason to believe that his opponents’ guns would fail. In Kagemusha, however, there is no rain, so Katsuyori’s orders seem brutally petulant, with him sending them to die because he cannot bear to admit that he was wrong to attack Nagashino in the first place. The change in historical detail thus allows for some subtle characterisation, and allows the senseless killing to provoke the double, watching secretly, to embark on a final, suicidal charge on the barricades to finish the great destruction that Katusyori has wrought on the Takeda clan’s fortunes.

Part of the pseudo-dullness of Kagemusha is its minimalist aesthetic. There’s a lot of silence, a lot of blank walls, and most of the double’s lines are just wordless grunting.This, of course, is part of Japan’s great cultural legacy, and it is, in its way, calming and inspiring, but it contributes to a sense that, in a film that’s 152 minutes long, not a great deal actually happens, and that we don’t, in all that time, really learn anything about the ostensible main character, that nameless double.

As a technical note, the picture quality on this film is appalling: grainy at times, indistinct at others. I have to remind myself that 25 years ago, back in the 1980s, we didn’t have HD video cameras. The technology of film-making has come a long way.

Author: Ben Hourigan

Ben Hourigan is a novelist from Melbourne, Australia. His books Kiss Me, Genius Boy and My Generation’s Lament are Amazon category bestsellers, and are available wherever good books are sold online. Ben also works as an editor, copywriter, and self-publishing consultant at his own firm, Hourigan & Co. For news and book release updates, sign up to his email newsletter.