Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha was the best film of 1980.l My thanks to Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and the Japanese Government for financing it. My thanks to the Biograph Theater in Chicago for showing it. When this column is published well into 1981, there still may be a chance to see it at local movie houses, but don't count on it. Getting a mass audience to a highly-subsidized Japanese historical epic isn't an easy task. Kagemusha has qualities that an admirer of, say, Lucas' Star Wars should understand. Alas, teenagers who are willing to spend time figuring out the intricacies of The Empire Strikes Back are not going to give Kagemusha a chance. Their parents, moreover, don't go to movies. Very few Americans will get a chance to see Kagemusha. Here's what they're missing.
They're missing, first of all, Kurosawa's flair for action: for bodies moving in space. A messenger dashes down a flight of steps that must go on for a mile, stirring in his wake the multitudes of a resting army. Fussy retainers sweep an entryway with a sort of housewively desperation, then dash back just before warriors ride armored horses through a monumental gateway. There's a lot in these images to give the conjectured feel of a vanished, ancient civilization. The people in this film live intensely, as though however cruel the past may have been it was in some way truer than the present. This conviction comes through forcefully—not as nostalgia, more as simple recognition. Kurosawa can stylize one shot after another—the use of color is extraordinary—but our belief in this world of the past never falters. Not for a moment.
Because of its grasp on a created cinematic reality, Kagemusha can afford a silence or a mystery at its center. Surrounded by memorably visualized action is the story of the shadow king, the mountain which does not move. Our hero is a beggar-thief, saved from crucifixion because he is the perfect double for the leader of a warrior clan. The king is fatally wounded at a siege; the beggar must replace him, must mimic him perfectly, or the bereaved clan will be crushed by several rival factions. The shadow king is at first a great success. He fools his own army and enjoys doing so until suddenly the game seems confining. We see him try to steal a treasure and run, but the giant pot he cracks open in hopes of wealth proves the coffin of his royal double. This is a turning-point in the film. The beggar himself had not realized the king was dead. He is terrified by his discovery—perhaps because he has committed a sacrilege; perhaps because he has confronted his own death; perhaps (finally) because he is now trapped in another man's life. His desire to escape from this role intensifies.
Just the same, he cannot escape. Caught by the guard, he refuses to play king any longer, then—the next day—insists on it. His conviction of personal responsibility comes when he watches the pot submerged in a broad, desolate lake. A few noble mourners bow at the shoreline while the erstwhile shadow king watches from a shore-wrecked boat. He is back in his beggar's rags already, but somehow he cannot leave. Three spies from rival armies peer out another window of the same abandoned vessel, speculating on what this strange ritual might mean. Has the king died, and is it therefore time to attack? At this moment—overhearing their conversation—the beggar resolves to be a king once more.
Kagemusha quietens somewhat in this scene, and the quietness continues. It even begins to prevail. Having begun as an epic, the film seeks out another mode whose spirit we must accommodate. Kurosawa now concentrates on the comic or fearful strangeness of a prolonged impersonation. The shadow king is trained by his advisors much as Eliza Dolittle was trained by Henry Higgins. A whole new set of manners must be learned, a whole new attitude towards the world. He must get through a meeting with his supposed grandson and then with his supposed mistresses. His "grandson" knows him for an imposter at a glance. The shadow king rises to the challenge. He gives the first really difficult performance of his career, responding to the boy's challenge with an affecting combination of affection and deference. Later his advisors tell him that he did right. "You act from the heart," they say; "so did our late lord." The meeting with the mistresses contrasts elegantly. Here the shadow king almost breaks down. He confesses his imposture but the women won't believe him. The scene is played—how can I say it?—as a sentimental farce, with the shadow king's beggarly panic set off against his genuinely changing identity. He no longer has a choice in the matter of who he is.
The reader will have understood by this time that Kurosawa elicits many kinds of intelligence from his audience. We are to appreciate an intricate and colorful spectacle; we are to catch the social nuances of an alien society (alien, I suppose, to contemporary Japanese audiences; much more so to us); above all, we are to be sensitive to a tone, an elusive spirit of mystery. The film is meditative: philosophical, almost, in the manner of Shakespeare's romances.2 After you've been watching it for an hour or so, this unwieldy spectacle seems to be happening inside your mind. Prospero's speech about actors melting to air would go well in Kagemusha. The great movements of history are treated as performances, controlled illusions sustained by a magical influence. Kurosawa doesn't need to show us ghosts stalking across the screen. We understand, if we look and listen, that the shadow warrior is at times inspired—virtually to the point of possession. It is difficult to distinguish between possession and theatrical competence. The disguised beggar strokes his mustache in the style of the lord he impersonates. A group of retainers—all of them in on the secret of the impersonation—burst out weeping. The illusion is most affecting for those who can acknowledge it as such. What, then, are the boundaries between natural and supernatural, the fitful inspiration of a somewhat cowardly impersonator and the truth that he weirdly seizes? Kurosawa never pauses for explanations, for they would only dispel the remarkable mood of the film.
My account of Kagemusha has emphasized a movement from action to stillness, from chronicle to meditation, but this movement is really both ways. The point has been made before, about other Kurosawa films. In his fine account of Cobweb Castle (Throne of Blood), Noel Burch identifies a fluctuation between "dramatically 'full' stasis and . . . 'empty' agitation."3 Something like this dialectic informs many of Kurosawa's movies. Burch assumes that such a movement is intrinsically valuable—valuable, that is, because it sets Kurosawa's work apart from corrupt western values—but this is a bit much. Kagemusha is getting at something much more specific, much less abstract. When the film returns to action, it is to test the shadow king. The dialectic of "stasis" and "agitation" becomes a challenge to the validity of this prolonged impersonation.
In conversation with retainers, the shadow king learns much of the clan's lore. He learns, especially, that the lord should sit like a mountain. This immovable spirit is essential to his rule. All very well to accept such imperatives—but can he actually obey them? At the climax of the film, he gets his chance. As he surveys a complicated nighttime battle, where his mere presence is supposed to frighten the enemy, hostile calvary move precipitously towards and around him. He flinches, but he remains a still center. He is a presence which cannot be violated. His unmistakable silhouette finally forces a retreat.
Since the late lord received his fatal wound as he sat at the siege of a city—since the enemy was able to kill him because he sat so immovably—the shadow king has clearly taken a chance. Stillness is a risk, not a cure-all, and not (as Burch sometimes appears to believe) an intrinsic value to which the oriental mind invariably reverts. Stillness is only the right risk. It is the right way to live or die, at least for this particular clan. The triumph of the shadow king is that he fleetingly understands the nature of his own imposture, the strength on which its flimsiness can draw.
The imposture comes to an end, eventually, when the shadow king refuses to sit still. He tries to mount the late lord's horse, a savage beast, and is humiliatingly thrown. One of his mistresses opens his shirt to help revive him and discovers that he lacks an identifying scar (he has not been sleeping with either mistress). When we next see him, he is being driven away from the fortress city he once ruled.
After this painful scene, Kagemusha builds quickly to its conclusion, a disastrous cavalry charge in which the entire clan is wiped out. The late lord's son, who has taken over, does not understand the value of mountains. The charge itself is soon dealt with. Kurosawa lengthens out its aftermath, which becomes a ghastly slow-motion dance of men and horses trying to rise from the field and then subsiding into death. We might say: the battlefield of expiring warriors is neither motion nor stasis. It exists in a trance-like moment where any action brings death, and stillness is death itself. The shadow king—a homeless beggar once more—watches from a nearby field, much as he had watched the funeral on the lake. When he dashes out this time, he dies with a tradition that briefly survived because of him.4
Valparaiso University readers of this column might note that while Kagemusha will not be seen on campus for a few years, Kon Ichikawa's An Actor's Revenge will play on campus February 19. This is one of the great Japanese films and makes a striking companion piece to the Kurosawa work.
1. Among American films, I still haven't seen The Stunt Man or Melvin and Howard. Nor have I seen the new works by Godard and Bergman. Of those movies I have seen, I liked My Brilliant Career, Being There, Dressed to Kill, and The Empire Strikes Back. Not too much else.
2. Kurosawa's next project is evidently to be something from Shakespeare. Cobweb Castle (1957) is an inspired retelling of Macbeth.
3. To The Distant Observer (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979), p. 313.