Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa, 1980)

Three men, all identical, but positioned differently, changing their relationship to the viewer. The room is exceptionally bare and the lighting is dim but clear-not excessively so. This is how Kurosawa begins this late entry in his career. It’s a move meant to indicate mastery-Kurosawa is aware of every element in his film, how they interrelate and is similarly aware of the tools and techniques he uses to put across and explore these themes. This method, while undertaken in this instance with an impressive rigor, leads to an unfortunate bottoming out of meaning.

The plot is fairly simple. In 16th century Japan, a warlord is mortally wounded. His brother, who long served as his double, would no longer like to assume this role, but when the lord dies there must be a double so competing groups don’t sense weakness and attack. When a thief with an uncanny resemblance to the lord is brought in, an opportunity is seized-the brother will train this thief to imitate the lord. A deal is struck-they will not crucify this thief if he agrees to imitate the lord.

As would seem logical in a story of doubles, the contrast is used to tease out the rudiments of identity. Kurosawa mulls over several possible origins from the inside and outside. In an early scene, Kagemusha, the thief, is brought before several of the lord’s subjects, and is immediately found out as a fake by his laughter. Is identity founded in the behavioral facade one has constructed? The scene seems to answer this question definitely when Kagemusha assumes the quiet stoic pose for the subjects and receives their approval.

But the question isn’t yet settled, as soon after, in front of the Lord’s mistresses, Kagemusha not only laughs broadly with coarseness, but outright admits that he isn’t lord Shingen. The mistresses burst out laughing and marvel at how funny Shingen has become-there is more wiggle room in performance than was previously thought. The mistresses can accommodate this, but Shingen’s brother cannot and Kagemusha is taken away promptly for being ‘too drunk’. Kagemusha has to be a different lord for each new crowd he encounters. Is there a single self?

Kagemusha’s previous life as a thief is still in the back of his mind as Kurosawa indicates in a dream sequence where he walks around in his old clothes through a set whose backdrop is the royal colors. Kagemusha walks unable to escape reflection and mirroring in the frame.

Finally found out, Kagemusha must return to his old way of life, banished from all his new acquaintances, and only after he has fully come into his own as the lord. He is deprived of his identity twice, and later commits suicide in a battle whose futility might only rank second in the history of cinema to the one which ends Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac. The two are similar and as Kagemusha’s body, earlier baptized in the water, is floating swiftly, dead, upstream in it, is punctuated by the film’s most bitter irony. The flag whose mantra he’d taken up-“Swift as the wind, quiet as the forest”, is submerged in the water as well…
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Kurosawa manages to juggle symbols and shift their meaning throughout the work. Crosses, visual references to American westerns, and other symbols of Christianity/the west come up repeatedly.

The sequence that most interested me is one where a son of the lord who was previously in control of the territory is meeting with his adviser. The two are sitting in a room which is bare besides an empty suit of armor behind the son and something I’m at a loss to remember behind his adviser. They stand up and shift positions in the room. The son is now in front of the flag for the clan, while the adviser’s head is surrounded by an ocean view out a window. The use of interior decoration in cinema is often a clue as to the grammar under which it operates. In Breathless, Godard has the camera move up from Jean Paul Belmondo’s face in bed to a kitschy picture on the wall, using it as a quick humorous interjection. Mark Rappaport meanwhile uses it as both a means of granting interiority to his characters in yet another way beyond his employment of third person limited and first person narration.

Kurosawa’s shift of pictures is radical. In a minor way of course, but it’s still not something I’ve encountered elsewhere in films. Otherwise, it aligns characters with the symbol systems of the film; an empty suit of armor wouldn’t seem to be a stab at interiority so much as a basic editorial comment on the scene-a way of framing the action.

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