Kagemusha (1980) by Akira Kurosawa

A thrilling samurai epic about loyalty and lordship from a master of the historical drama. A kagemusha, or ‘shadow warrior’, is a body double used to avoid the lord being put in danger, or to trick the enemy. The film begins with prominent warlord Shingen Takeda’s brother Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki) having found a perfect double of the lord, a former thief who he saved from hanging. Although he is nothing like the fearsome lord in manner, he is the spitting image of him (Tatsuya Nakadai plays both Shingen Takeda and his new kagemusha). At this time three mighty leaders are vying for control of the county: Ieyasu Tokugawa (Masayuki Yui) and Nobunaga Oda (Daisuke Ryu), who have formed an alliance are in bitter conflict with the third, Shingen Takeda. Takeda is close to victory, when he is shot and wounded by a sniper. Following his death, the kagemusha must step in to take his place, as per the lord’s wishes, for three years. This presents a problem for Takeda’s supporters as this doppelganger risks exposing himself as an imposter. Meanwhile, Tokugawa and Oda move forward with their campaign to unify Japan; and Takeda’s son Katsuyori (Kenichi Hagiwara) attempts to win power in his own right.

“Kagemusha” is set during the warring states period, a pivotal moment of Japanese history. It takes for its basis one of the possible stories about Takeda’s death and spins a fantastical tale of deception and feudal conflict culminating in the Battle of Nagashino. The film has a theatrical feel to it, beginning from the opening scene in which we have a long dialogue between Nobukado, Takeda and their new kagemusha. Simply staged with a fixed camera it relies on the excellent performances and framing to tell the story. Throughout the film this carefully considered tone is maintained. Kurosawa is known to have painted out his own storyboards and it shows in the composition of each shot. Background details take on great significance, whether the suit of armour that hangs in the background as Tokugawa sits in his hall, or the incredible landscapes of crashing waves at the shore. Each detail is carefully calculated to enhance the drama, drawing out the power of the surrounding environment to bolster the unfolding drama. Kurosawa also knows how to use extras to maximum effect, from scores of corpses showing the horror of battle, to the triumphant marching of spearmen and cavalry. The use of colour is also notable with scenes lent vitality through the reds, greens and blues of armour and banners.

Kurosawa uses long takes and scenes to excellent effect in “Kagemusha”, giving the actors space to express themselves and ideas and emotions time to take on real significance. One example of this is in the scene where the sniper explains how he shot Takeda. Rather than a quick explanation, we are given an extended sequence where he runs step by step through his actions. It is in Kurosawa’s measured pacing that scenes such as this are leant dramatic weight. In the scenes with Takeda’s grandson and mistresses the unbearable tension that he may be exposed is drawn out, creating a palpable sense of threat.

The soundscape also feels inspired by theatre, with the use of traditional instruments played for reactions or mood setting. As the film progresses we get a more traditional epic score that begins to play over the battle scenes. Equally noteworthy however is the film’s use of silence in many scenes, allowing the acting to speak for itself. Again an example of Kurosawa’s still, contemplative style that allows the audience to really empathise fully with  the trials and tribulations of the kagemusha.

While much of the film is a tragic lament on the loss of nobility and the horror of war, it also features plenty of humour to lighten the tone, such as hapless servants walking over an area they have just brushed, the kagemusha discovering Takeda’s body, or crude jokes about how the kagemusha should deal with Takeda’s mistresses in the same way he does the horse (by claiming he is too ill to ride that day). Kurosawa’s belief in his actors is justified, with Tatsuya Nakadai delivering an incredible performance as Takeda and the kagemusha. We watch him transform from a lowly thief to the embodiment of honour and calm surety.

The film is at once an historical epic, with the clashing of great martial forces for the future of Japan, and at the same time a highly personal tale of one man’s journey to discover a sense of honour. One of the bloodiest periods of Japanese history, the warring clans knew that whoever triumphed would control the fate of the country. The opening and closing of the film show the great sacrifices that were made to achieve what they believed was a unifying mission, with hundreds upon thousands killed. The film offers little praise or condemnation of the actions of Tokugawa, Oda and Takeda, giving a stoic appraisal of their actions. All are shown to be great leaders and there is little indication that any one of them is better or worse than the others. In the story of the kagemusha we are given an account of a man who is forced to become someone better than he is. When the film begins he is disloyal, avaricious and immature; by contrast Takeda is shown to be a thoughtful and fearsome warrior. The film might be read as a commentary on how individual will can be forced into subservience to a lord or master, necessitating complete destruction of the ego in service of a higher power. However, the film also suggests that Takeda is truly great and that this transformation of the lowly thief into a lord is something of an honour. One interesting aspect of the film is the kagemusha’s relationship with Takeda’s grandson, who immediately marks him out as an imposter. He states that he is no longer afraid of him, and later their relationship becomes one of genuine warmth. This indicates a more nuanced view of the difference between Takeda and kagemusha, showing what the first had to sacrifice in order to become a fierce warlord. An incredible film that speaks to what it means to be a leader and giving an insight into this bloody period of history.

Seven Samurai (1954) by Akira Kurosawa

A small farming village in feudal Japan is facing starvation as their crops are being taken by bandits. They set out to look for samurai who they can hire to protect them. The first Kanbei (Takashi Shimura), recruits five more, and they are later joined by the unusual Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a commoner who claims to be a samurai. Together they return to the village to defend it from the bandits.

The film is epic in scope with many characters and situations to explore. The plot is relatively straight-forward, but beautifully executed and, despite a long running time, it holds the viewer’s interest throughout. Akira Kurosawa’s direction is instrumental in creating a sense of momentum and the expert composition of shots would inspire filmmakers for generations to come. The music by Fumio Hayasaka is tense and dramatic and used sparingly. There are many scenes where the painting-like shots are left to be appreciated in silence. The cast all do a superb job, Toshiro Mifune again proves to be Kurosawa’s muse, having many hilarious moments in the comic role of Kikuchiyo. Takashi Shimura as the leader of the group, who must gather together this gang of seven to defend the village, also manages to carry the sense of stoic leadership and martial prowess.

Essentially an action film, “Seven Samurai” takes its time in building up the characters and the set-pieces are far from gratuitous, being carried out with real emotion. Through the film run undercurrents of philosophical and moral concepts, with the samurai code of conduct scrutinized and the struggles and fortitude of the common man praised. A film worthy of the accolades and recognition it has received.

Rashomon (1950) by Akira Kurosawa

Escaping from a downpour, a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) takes shelter at Rashomon gate, where he meets a wood-cutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) who are discussing a recent trial they have witnessed. The wood-cutter tells the man that as he was walking through the forest a few days before, he came across a dead samurai. The priest had earlier seen the samurai (Masayuki Mori) leading his wife (Machiko Kyo) on a horse in that direction. Later a thief Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) was caught with the weapons from the samurai. Tajomaru is taken to trial and tells his version of events, claiming that he did kill the samurai. They also hear the story of the wife of the samurai, which is different in points to that of Tajomaru. We also get two different version of events, with no hints as to which is correct, and all seeming to take the blame for the death of the samurai.

Based on a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the film has an interesting structure, one that would later influence many other works. Instead of being a straightforward narrative, we are instead presented, through flashbacks, with several versions of the same event, and asked to choose which one we believe or trust. This makes the film engaging, especially when you reach the third and fourth versions, as you attempt to puzzle out why they would be lying about certain things, whether you can trust the witnesses, and what the true circumstances of the murder were. Unlike other historical films, this is focussed heavily on the telling of stories, and dialogue between the major players, rather than action sequences. All the actors do a great job, particularly the three involved in the crime, as they act out the various interpretations of the scenes. Akira Kurosawa’s direction is fantastic, with the use of static cameras during the trial scenes putting you in the role of an unbiased judge as each story is told, and use of framing and movement in the flashback sequences showing you exactly what you need to see. Both the story and direction work together to create a compelling narrative, that keeps you wanting to learn more about what really happened.

The film asks some difficult questions about the nature of truth and reality, and also includes some very dark themes of murder and rape, although never graphic, and nasty characters. At the beginning of the film we see the crumbling Rashomon gate amidst a rainstorm, which acts as a perfect visual metaphor for the chaotic reality of life, and the forces of nature that act to destroy what civilisation attempts to construct. The lack of order symbolised by the gates destruction is explained as the characters tear firewood from the building, further emphasizing the necessary selfishness of humanity). A deserved classic, this film is a must watch for fans of cinema, as it inspired the way many future stories were told.

Madadayo (1993) by Akira Kurosawa

A professor of German at an all-boys school in Tokyo is taking his final lesson. He explains to the class that he is now able to make enough money from his books and has decided to give up teaching to pursue a writing career. He is self-deprecating, funny, and clearly  beloved of the class who hang on his every word. One of the students tells him that he is respected even by students who have left the school, still according him the title “teacher”. Following his retirement from the school, some students continue to call on him at home where they are welcomed in and treated to the professor’s humorous anecdotes and philosophizing. They decide to honour his birthday each year with a celebration that they call “Maadakai”, a play on words that sounds like the question “Not yet?” in reference to his longevity, to which the professor jokingly replies that he will respond “Madadayo” (not yet!).

Akira Kurosawa’s final film is a beautifully crafted portrait of aging, touching on themes of nostalgia, time, and loss, among other things. The film begins in the latter years of the second world war, when Japan was subjected to bombing raids, catching up with his story at intervals over the following decades. The film uses light and colour to great effect in emphasising particular moments, such as red sunlight indicating an auspicious moment. The professor mentions that he never sleeps with the lights off as he is afraid of the dark. He believes that those who are not afraid lack imagination and as such have a defect as a human. At the end of the film the camera moves upwards to a sky that shifts through several colours. Kurosawa was known to paint out his own storyboards and as such colour has a deep significance in his work. One of the standout moments of the film comes when we see the professor and his wife in their small home, following the destruction of their own, as the seasons are changing. It is a wonderful moment, without any dialogue, as we see the slow passage of time with this couple.

Tatsuo Matsumura plays the professor perfectly. He is kind and charismatic, funny and intelligent. It is clear that he was born to be a teacher, as he is able to completely captivate his students with whatever he is saying. They look up to him as an ideal, while also gently ribbing him about his unusual way of thinking. The supporting cast are all great. Kyoko Kagawa plays the professors wife with understated compassion, clearly devoted to her husband. The main group of students are also interesting characters, clearly all having taken different paths in life, but with the same respect and admiration for their former professor.

The professor’s final decades coincide with Kurosawa’s early years as a film-maker and it is clear to see that there is a sense of nostalgia running through everything. The professor loves old songs and sayings and his peculiar sense of humour is something his students take particular delight in (such as his unique burglar protection system). We see this relationship between the younger and older generations as something positive, with them looking up in admiration. Perhaps this is Kurosawa’s way of paying homage to those who have gone before and according them the respect they deserve. Kurosawa shows his mastery of direction in the framing of each scene, in particular the many large group or crowd sequences when there is a turmoil of action and laughter. In working with these large groups he succeeds in multiplying the emotional impact of each moment as the students work almost as a singular entity either laughing or honouring their professor as a collective. The clearest example of this is when they come together, moving backwards and forwards as the waves of the sea to ask him “Maadakai?” during the first birthday celebration.

An elegant depiction of a man who is well-loved and respected, giving everyone something to aspire to. The film’s tender portrayal of the love that his former students still have for him is heart-warming to watch. The ideals of kindness, selflessness, and good humour are shown to be reciprocated by the students, and the film carries this uplifting message through to the end. A worthwhile watch that is packed with some very funny moments, a touching message about kinship and community, and bittersweet ruminations on growing old.

Red Beard (1965)

Dr. Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama) arrives at a rural clinic run by Red Beard (Toshiro Mifune), a doctor whose patients include impoverished individuals without the money for an expensive physician. Yasumoto is insistent that he is only there on an errand and not to work; he tells the staff that he intends to work for the Shogun and leave as soon as possible. After a prickly reception from Red Beard, Yasumoto decides to sabotage his placement, acting in a lazy  and insolent manner in hopes that he will be dismissed. However, he soon comes to respect Red Beard as not only a skilled doctor but a great man. The film also follows the story of a particular patient’s retelling of his ill-fated marriage, and a young girl who is brought to the clinic from a brothel suffering a fever.

“Red Beard” is directed by Akira Kurosawa from a screenplay by Kurosawa and long term collaborators Masato ide, Hideo Oguni, Ryuzo Kikushima, based on a short story by Shugoro Yamamoto. As with most ofKurosawa’s films this is a period drama, though set a little later than the samurai epics for which he is most well-known. The film is set in the late 19th century and the world is carefully recreated, not only through the sets and costumes, but in Kurosawa’s use of extras. Scenes are often crowded with characters, such as the group of women working at the hospital, the patients,or denizens of this small town. The use of people filling out the backgrounds give a life and vibrancy to every scene. The cast is led by Yuzo Kayama as the arrogant young Doctor Noboru Yasumoto whose arrival chimes with that of the audience into this world. While he is initially rude and unwilling to take on his duties, he is never unlikeable. And as he develops he grows to be a protagonist whom the audience is fully sympathetic too. Toshiro Mifune, known for his starring roles in several Kurosawa films (Yojimbo, Sanjuro), plays Dr. Kyojo Niide, also known as “Red Beard”. Although he is the titular character,he is used somewhat sparingly and to brilliant effect. We see a number of sides to Niide, though never get close enough to fully understand him. Despite his care for his patients, he is also shown to have negative traits, and himself admits that he may be a terrible person. “Red Beard” has a huge and impressive cast, bolstered by the aforementioned supporting roles. Miyuki Kuwano as Onaka and Tsutomu Yamazaki as Sahachi give great performances in an almost stand-alone romantic tragedy. Terumi Niki also gives a heartbreaking performance as Otoyo, the young woman rescued from the brothel. 

The cinematography by Asakazu Nakai and Takao Saito creates some powerfully emotional sequences. There is incredible use of shadow in the film. One example of this is the sequence with Otoyo and Yasumoto, when only her eyes are illuminated in a strip of light through the dense shadows. Expert camera movement also provides for creative yet never distracting sequences. The sequence of a young thief sneaking in to steal rice sees the camera effortlessly integrating itself into the film to the extent that you can get areal sense of the environment.

“Red Beard” is a film that wears its politics proudly. It shows the societal scourge of poverty and its effects on the population. Early in the film there are discussions regarding the possibility of improving the health of many of the clinic’s patients by redistributing wealth from those with an abundance of money. This point is driven home by the inclusion of a lord whose rich diet has led to him having the precise opposite problem to many of his poor subjects. His obesity caused by over-indulgence is starkly contrasted to the young boy reduced to stealing food for his family. The film also deals with the issue of prostitution, and the treatment by society of women and the elderly. The film’s strength is in contrasting these everyday problems with more universal concerns of life and death. The film carefully plays out the final moments of particular characters in a quietly emotional way that brings home the finality of death. The end, when it comes, is final, but further highlights the greatness of those in the film who dedicate themselves to saving lives. It is a simple call for kindness over self interest that hits home thanks to the brilliance of the performances and direction.