(The Shadow Warrior) (1980)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * * ½

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Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha is a gorgeous, sprawling epic set in a Sixteenth Century feudal principality. Oda Nobunaga has begun his gradual conquest of the various small states into which Japan has been divided, but he is unable to defeat Shingen Takeda, the ruler of one of those states. The title character himself is a petty thief who, having been saved from execution by his resemblance to Shingen, is selected to serve as the nobleman's double. This position soon fills his entire life when Shingen is killed and it is decided that the imposter should be used to make the feudal lord's rivals believe he is still alive.

Kagemusha is beautifully filmed and carefully paced. There is an elegant formality to the entire movie that gives the actions depicted in it a ritualistic feel and subtly divorces them from the reality of the ordinary world. This distancing helps in creating a sense of alienation, of a disjunction between the external forms of the characters' lives and whatever lies beneath. When the ultimate tragedies of the film unfold, these disparities enhance the sorrows the events evoke. The falsity and superficiality of the characters' values and social roles and their insistence upon playing specified parts in their own dramas lead them to their meaningless doom. Even Shingen's double, who, of all the characters, was initially the only one aware of the disparities between these external displays and the truth behind them, himself loses that awareness and is, consequently, left utterly devastated. Having so long lived another man's life, he has, apparently, forgotten that, contrary to appearances, he does not have any real emotional or familial connections with those around him. Like these others, he dies a pointless, pitiable death.


What is more, the formal, ritualistic rhythms of the film help to create a sense of tragedy as such, rather than merely of sympathy for a particular group of petty, brutal men who die violently. By so distancing the events of the movie from those of daily life, Kurosawa transforms Kagemusha into an enactment of sorrow, delusion, and despair. He gives the movie a real universality and raises it above the specifics of a narrative about some fictional or historical person's unhappy end.

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Nevertheless, Kurosawa does evoke another era with considerable skill. There are few film makers who have been as successful in doing so. Most directors imbue their presentations of other ages with the values and conventions of their own time. While it cannot be said that Kurosawa does not do this at all in Kagemusha, he does manage to evoke a world that is often very different from that of the Twentieth Century. The ideals, perspectives, and conventions of behavior depicted in the movie are rarely those of the modern age and are, consequently, genuinely enthralling.


Even the pace of the narrative differs from that of most films, including most of Kurosawa's other works. The director gives Kagemusha an almost dance-like rhythm, one that is, perhaps, more akin to traditional forms of Japanese drama than to the pacing of most modern movies. Thanks to the presence of such elements, Kagemusha is both truly impressive and profoundly affecting.

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The film's ability to enthrall the viewer is further enhanced by its remarkable visual beauty. The costumes and sets of Kagemusha are stunning, and the cinematography lovingly presents each moment as a gorgeously realized tableau. The movie's loveliness transports the viewer into its own world and allows him to savor his experience of watching the spectacle being played out before him.


Although Kagemusha may fall short of being a masterpiece, it is, nonetheless, an interesting, important, and impressive work of art.

Review by Keith Allen

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