It begins with Lord Shingen Takeda, his brother Nobukado (also his confidant and double) and a thief whose resemblance to the Lord is superficial yet striking. Present also is the lord’s shadow, thrown high on the wall behind the three. We learn right away that Nobukado discovered the thief as he was about to be crucified1 for his petty crimes; the brothers consequently discuss the thief’s alleged wickedness—Lord Shingen is slightly incredulous of his simulacrum: how can the two be at all alike when one is so clearly superior? The thief interrupts the brothers Takeda to defend his honor, declaring himself not a scoundrel but only a petty thief. He tells Shingen outright that he who has “killed hundreds and robbed whole domains” is the true scoundrel. Shingen agrees with him that he is wicked, but his wickedness, he argues, is out of necessity for the well-being of his dominion. He believes in peace won through its contradictory twin: “Unless somebody unifies the nation and reigns over us… we will see more rivers of blood and more mountains of the dead.”
Shingen is on the threshold of defeating his two greatest enemies who have temporarily joined forces. The last remnant of their strength is gathered in a few fortifications outside of Kyoto, the city Shingen has sought after for a lifetime. There is one heavily-fortified castle that will not yield, seemingly immune to siege, and every night a flute player’s song emanates from the stronghold as Shingen’s men gather below to listen. The siege-layers have just cut off the castle’s water supply and Shingen’s military strategists determine that if they do not hear the flute player again, the castle is ready to fall. Shingen wishes to be there to witness it, or else hear the beautiful flute-song. Indeed, it plays its lusty dirge for a few moments… then a shot suddenly rings out of the night and Shingen’s men scramble.
It is rumored that Shingen has been wounded by a sniper and it seems likely as his men have retreated and Nobukado is spotted playing his brother’s role on the battlefield. Shingen’s enemies think it a ruse, and Kurosawa keeps us in the dark too for we know Shingen is wounded, but we can’t guess the measure of his wounds; Shingen himself considers the possibility that he may die and, gathering his closest advisors, declares that if he should pass into the next realm it shall remain a secret for at least three years; long enough for his domain to realize it’s “long-cherished dream” of planting its flags in Kyoto.
Logically enough, Shingen dies of his wounds and the thief is hired as his double. Much of the running time is dedicated to the double’s assimilation into the Lord’s lifestyle, his imitation of the Lord’s mannerisms and his perfection of the Lord’s habits. This also means mastering the Lord’s relationships; the double has to not only deceive the enemy, and not only his dear retainers, but also his loved ones, namely Shingen’s grandson and his horse. The double’s crudeness and wit are readily apparent which leads to a bit of humor. He is not told initially of Shingen’s death, discovering it quite by accident when he attempts to rob Shingen’s household, which unbeknownst to the double is now his house. He breaks open a decorative jar to discover Shingen’s preserved corpse, prepared for burial, and the shock of it almost dissuades him from his charge.
Kurosawa captures sunlight as never before, one of the film’s many visual strengths (only to be waylaid by the myriad sunsets of his next film). Whether staring directly at the sun’s rise or fall, or watching it cascade over field and meadow, its rays glinting off armor and spear, or forging a rainbow through leaden clouds—no film stock is too precious for its beams. Color too is utilized in ways both natural and dramatic. It is a device for distinguishing the battle standards of opposing armies and the raiment of the various generals. And the expressionistic strokes of primary color that adorn the double’s dream sequence emphasize internal terror, recalling at once the drama of Matsunaga’s dream in Drunken Angel and the visual flourish of Dodes’ka-den.
The director’s early work evinced an uncanny flowing quality. The Kurosawa form of montage, which would set him apart from his predecessors and most contemporaries, often meant numerous quick cuts, many of them practically imperceptible. Kurosawa as editor also shows a bold intelligence; his film economy, meaning here the efficiency with which one employs the techniques of cinema to convey, given a limited amount of screen time, is excellent. It seems like he always cuts a shot at just the right place, only following an object or person or action for as long as necessary to meet some objective, often a narrative one. Every frame serves a purpose until it doesn’t, and this ability to cull from his footage leaving only what is essential is especially laudable.
This is not the full measure of his prowess as editor by any means, but more than anything these identifiable qualities defined the Kurosawa ‘style’ for the better part of a quarter-century. But methods and styles at some point give way, and what was once necessary may become superfluous and what was discarded becomes essential. By 1980 Kurosawa’s camera had clearly become more interested in a very sophisticated aesthetic, leaving some shots, usually with no camera movement at all, running for great lengths of time. The opening scene of Kagemusha, for instance, is a single image (that of Shingen, confidant and thief) which remains virtually unchanged for several minutes.
Though he is rightfully praised as an editor, some even consider him a greater editor than director, it is precisely Kurosawa’s lack of editing in this film that gnaws at a largely competent screenplay. Kurosawa chose to conflate a rather simple, yet crystalline, character-driven metaphysical drama into something far beyond its scope. Sagging under the weight of military maneuvers, heraldic battle-hymns courtesy of Shinichirô Ikebe (who would later compose for many of Shohei Imamura’s films), long takes and a sense of inevitable triumph, the piety of the opening half gives way to the dramatic contrivances of your average Cecil DeMille biblical epic or George Chakiris vehicle with all its pageantry. Of course, the Takeda clan is utterly shattered2, with the thief returning to die for a lost cause, a cause that pardoned him from crucifixion only to exploit his likeness to the Lord. This all makes logical sense considering that Kurosawa clearly wanted to convey the hollowness and political disintegration of an era of crisis.
The thief is a nonperson from beginning to end, swallowed up by the times and spat out as just another casualty on the battlefield. It’s a pessimistic conclusion to an illusory sojourn—and normally something that works for me—but it almost feels like too much. The thief’s expulsion from the Shingen household already sums it up pretty well. The military historian in Kurosawa couldn’t help but demonstrate how the opposition’s use of firearms rendered Takeda’s cavalry charge moot; a mere change in tactics is often enough to overthrow an entire political movement and this again reinforces the point of an epoch that has come to a dramatic close.
One can imagine an altogether different screenplay. Say, for instance, both the audience and the double were kept in the dark about Shingen’s death. Kurosawa might have played with the idea of confusing the audience as to who the real Shingen is, only to reveal that he died, sight unseen, much earlier in the film. This may have yielded some interesting results, but Kurosawa opts instead to show us everything. Everything we see is like the set of a film production in progress, the double is the lead actor, and his projection of his master and the grand scale of unfolding war are the movie. When his supplicants learn that the lead actor is no hero, like an audience they are instinctively disgusted by the subterfuge. Though they suspected it all along, they preferred the delusion.
The double’s humility, conveyed so well by Tatsuya Nakadai, elevates this to tragedy. His identity-struggles, after three long years playing someone else—the grandson loves him and he the child—and his humiliation and banishment when the time comes is heartbreaking. As Nobukado says, “the shadow of a man can never desert that man. I was my brother’s shadow. Now that I have lost him, it is as though I am nothing.” The thief too has given his flesh to another, and his love so wholly that he is a thief no more.
1 Crucifixion does not seem to be a popular method of capital punishment in Japan in any era. Perhaps an error in translation? Yet this revelation in the beginning has given succor to critical claims that the thief appears to be mounting an invisible crucifix as he floats down-river at film’s end. I’ve watched it numerous times and fail to see anything resembling this.
2 Based upon true events. The Takeda clan had been undefeated in battle up until the famous Battle of Nagashino. Of course it was not Shingen, but his son Katsuyori who fought there.