Code Breaker


Akira Kurosawa, Kagemusha, 1980, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 162 minutes. Left and right: Shingen Takeda/Kagemusha (Tatsuya Nakadai).

KAGEMUSHA (1980) DOESN’T SO MUCH BUILD TO A CLIMAX as unwind into the inevitable. It takes nearly three hours for the film to arrive at the darkly picturesque denouement—the collective death rattle of a pulverized army, the sea of blood that spans the horizon—that constitutes one of the great battlefield scenes in cinema. Akira Kurosawa punctuates this eerie epic, as he did others throughout his career, with visual asides that are both bleak and beautiful. An army marches into battle and then retreats, in front of the same setting sun. A circle of elders meditate stoically in a closed-door meeting, all the while looking up to a leader who is, in fact, an imposter. This may be Kurosawa’s most cynical samurai story, a rebuke of the samurai code that suggests that it is not our honor, but sheer luck, that ultimately decides our fate.

Kagemusha translates as “Shadow Warrior.” Tatsuya Nakadai plays the story’s central “shadow,” a petty thief in sixteenth-century Japan who bears a startling resemblance to Shingen, the warlord of one of the nation’s most powerful factions. He is brought into the clan’s inner sanctum to serve as the master’s double, and when the original Shingen is killed, the replacement Shingen is taught how to comport himself to fill the vacancy and preserve order among the ranks. The master’s son finds this insulting; he feels slighted that an imposter has taken his rightful place on the throne, and he appears confused by the multiple body doubles who've managed to earn his father’s trust. Indeed, for the first third of the movie, it’s difficult to tell which characters on the screen are look-alikes and which are the real McCoy.

This confusion is most certainly intentional. Unlike many of Kurosawa’s early samurai spectacles, in which characters fret over issues of duty, Kagemusha calls into question both the legitimacy of the figureheads to which these warriors devote themselves and the massive divide that separates the paeans on the battlefield from the elites in the inner sanctum. After the death of the real warlord, nearly every scene in Kagemusha is fraught with the danger that the fake Shingen, who is leading the army, will be found out. He, too, becomes aware of this dark contradiction—that as a placeholder in a war his value is vast but as an original he’s decidedly unremarkable.

When the civil war comes to a head and the Shingen clan sets out to battle a rival, Kurosawa films the final clash from a safe distance—the same perspective taken by Shingen’s son, sitting on the sidelines. And it is here, in the final, suicidal charge of a lone warrior after the meaningless mass slaughter of his comrades, that the identity crisis tormenting Shingen’s double finds its most salient context. These men, bound by duty, have hardly died with honor. For years, Kurosawa made movies that celebrated a heroism constituted by blind loyalty; the second half of his career was dedicated to stories, like Kagemusha, that considered the darker implications of such allegiances, of what it must have been like to live a life in the shadows.

Kagemusha plays July 17–23 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. For more details, click here. Criterion will release a Blu-Ray version of Kagemusha on August 18. For more details, click here.

S. James Snyder