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An exploration of foreign films: ‘Kagemusha’ takes extravagance to a new level

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‘An exploration of foreign films’ is a series of movie reviews focusing on films by international directors.

“Sania, you just have to watch this director’s movies,” my dad said at dinner one night.

“Whose?” I asked, looking up with curiosity.

“Kurosawa! He’s just … He’s on a whole other level.” 

I later realized that my dad’s excitement over Akira Kurosawa, one of the most influential and highly regarded movie directors of all time, is shared by the majority of movie critics. When I decided I wanted to watch more foreign movies and began searching for the most popular directors, Kurosawa’s name was on the top of nearly every list.

After watching  “Kagemusha,” I completely understand why.

“Kagemusha,” meaning “the shadow warrior,” is a three-hour action film based, in part, on the story of Shingen Takeda, a powerful warlord and clan leader in 16th century feudal Japan. 

The movie opens with a scene of Shingen and his brother Nobukado, looking at a man who is tied up in front of them. This man, a petty thief, was almost executed, but Nobukado saved him and brought him to Shingen. There is nothing exceptional about this thief … except that he resembles Shingen perfectly. The brothers agree to use this man as a political decoy for the Takeda clan, which is currently fighting with two other nearby rival clans. 

Shortly thereafter, Shingen is shot as he enters the battlefield and wounded to the point where he is unlikely to survive. He asks his loyal generals to keep his death a secret for three years, knowing his rivals will not hesitate to attack during the chaos and unrest caused by the regime change. His generals ask the thief to act as a kagemusha (a political decoy) for Shingen. Although he originally rejects the idea, the thief experiences a change of heart after watching funeral rituals being performed in secret for Shingen and agrees to act as his double.

As someone who never enjoyed action movies, I never expected myself to be capable of sitting through a three hour long movie about war. But “Kagemusha” was nothing short of astounding. The plot was gripping, and the storyline flowed smoothly from beginning to end. The characters each had complex identities and experienced major character developments. The sets and cinematography were jaw-dropping.

The entire movie can be summed up in one word: extravagant. 

The characters are extremely expressive, to the point where it made me tense up at times. They are harsh and rushed in their dialogue, easily conveying emotional turmoil. Each one also has a complicated identity with a background worthy of its own movie. The fact that the full identity of each character is shown makes the movie even more enticing. “Kagemusha” exposes the viewer to the hardships of each character, so much so that I found myself growing attached to and sympathizing with them all. 

The music and sets are also elaborate. The music (or lack thereof) perfectly accompanies what is happening on the screen while eliciting the correct emotions from viewers. For example, loud drums are used to give a sense of foreboding, soft music gives a sense of serenity and intimacy and silence evokes thoughtfulness. 

Kurosawa also took no shortcuts in his efforts to display the full effect of war, from the massive amounts of soldiers and weapons to the ostentatious fight scenes and the vast destruction. Each scene — particularly the outdoor ones — is set in a beautiful, expansive location, a directing aspect for which Kurosawa is known. Because of the multifarious and extensive sets, I found myself overwhelmed numerous times throughout the film. However, the camera does a great job guiding the viewer to the point of focus: Unless the sheer extravagance of the scene is the intended focal point, the camera focuses on the exact spot where the viewer should be paying the most attention. This was extremely helpful because I am quite certain that, had Kurosawa not used the camera in such a targeted manner, I would have paused every scene to take in the immensity of it, and I would not have known where to focus my attention to understand the flow of the story.  

The plot can also be characterized as thoroughly exhaustive. There is not a single scene that seems unnecessary, making the story flow smoothly from start to finish. While I won’t spoil the ending, I think it is a realistic ending that, albeit not the most joyous, makes the rest of the movie fall into place perfectly. 

Kurosawa effectively uses the flow of the plot combined with an examination into the former thief’s character development and emotional states to answer the question of what happens when an alternate identity consumes someone.

The character development of the former thief is shown beautifully throughout the film. At the beginning, he is depicted as unruly, outspoken and uncivilized. However, as the movie progresses and the role of “warlord” consumes him, the thief transforms to fit the identity of Shingen. 

Kurosawa uses symbolism, such as the repeated manipulation of shadows, to illustrate the thief’s transformation. In the first scene with Shingen, Nobukado and the thief, the only character with a shadow is Shingen. This makes sense because the thief eventually becomes Shingen’s double, or his shadow. Later, when the double meets Shingen’s wives for the first time to dine with them, he is unexpectedly able to completely fool the wives into believing that he is the real Shingen. This scene depicts the completion of his transformation. Returning to the shadow theme, as the double leaves the dining room that night, a large shadow is cast on the wall behind him, growing larger as he walks away. The camera then moves off the double to focus on the growing shadow before the scene cuts out. This scene is illustrative of the fact that the role of Shingen has completely consumed the former thief. 

Kurosawa effectively displays how the former thief’s role as Shingen’s double, originally intended to be temporary, eventually consumes him entirely. He also illustrates the difficulty of the double’s transformation: The double originally had many nightmares about acting as Shingen and took a long time to finally accept the position. Slowly, he began to realize the power that came from his resemblance to Shingen, picking up some of the former warlord’s habits such as fiddling with his mustache. During those times, his guards and generals were unable to stop themselves from immediately sitting up taller or bowing in reverence. However, because of the vast gap between a petty thief and a warlord, the double struggled with matching Shingen’s ability to dictate and fight, aspects of the role with which the double required much aid from the generals. His distress with his new role is also shown in fight scenes where he must sit and watch as soldiers die to protect him. The guilt and horror is displayed across his face as he watches soldiers give their life for someone who they do not realize is greatly different from Shingen. His emotional battles parallel the physical battles as he struggles to find balance in his transforming identity. 

“Kagemusha” is one of the best directed movies I have watched, and there is not a shred of doubt in my mind that Kurosawa fully deserves every bit of praise he is given. I recommend this movie to anyone, whether or not they are fans of action movies: Despite being a war movie, “Kagemusha” does not appear too gruesome, likely because it was filmed 40 years ago. The plot seems a little complicated and dense, making it especially difficult to remember all the names and to keep up with every piece of action. The film is also in Japanese, so I personally found myself having to read through the subtitles much more quickly than I would normally in order to give myself time to appreciate the beautiful scenes. I also watched the movie in two parts because of its length and density. Nonetheless, this is a film that is worth the three hours and will leave any viewer speechless at some point throughout. It is a work of art in itself, and it is safe to say that there is nothing else like it. 

Contact Sania Choudhary at choudharysania123 ‘at’ gmail.com.

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Sania Choudhary is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily's Summer Journalism Workshop.