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.

The Human Condition III: A Soldier’s Prayer (1961)

Masaki Kobayashi’s epic trilogy comes to a close with “A Soldier’s Prayer”. After wandering from the desecration of the battle field at the end of the previous film, Koji (Tatsuya Nakadai) finds himself along with two other soldiers making their slow painful return to Manchuria. Their steps are dogged by the advancing Soviet forces and they find that the villagers they meet are less than sympathetic. Though a few Japanese still cling to the idea that the war is not yet over, it is clear that they cannot survive. All Koji wants is to return home to Michiko, but first he must trudge through the horrors of their defeat.

The film opens with a sequence that turns much of what has happened in previous films on its head. Koji is forced to kill a guard in order for them to escape detection by an enemy patrol. This leaves him with blood literally and figuratively on his hands and it is a decision that will later come back to haunt him. He can no longer separate himself from the atrocities of the war. The final film in Masaki Kobayashi’s epic “The Human Condition” trilogy is far from a triumphant send off. It shows the men of the Japanese Imperial army at their lowest ebb. The idealistic Koji of the first film is all but gone and he is left as no more than a shell. It is only his love for Michiko that keeps him putting one foot in front of another. Much of the plot also concerns the advancing Soviet troops. Koji, who has always sympathised with the communist cause, finds himself beaten and harassed as they are taken prisoner and put to work in Soviet camps. He maintains his staunch belief in doing good and strives to improve conditions, but just as in the first film he finds that power can corrupt and the leaders of the Russian forces prove no less cruel than the Japanese when they are in control. The film is packed with incident as the protagonists move from one catastrophe to another. It plays off many things that we have seen in the previous two films with references to what Koji has seen. There is also much more open philosophising in this film, with voice over narration explaining what is going through the characters mind. It is a time for reflection. Japan is soon to be crushed by American and Soviet Imperialism. It has reached the limits of its power and is about to suffer a precipitous fall. The acting is once again top notch with Tatsuya Nakadai’s performance a joy to behold. He undergoes a complete transformation throughout the trilogy, from naïve humanist to someone who is struggling to salvage the last scrap of his humanity.

“A Soldier’s Prayer” is about the futility of war and the complete dehumanisation of individuals. It plays heavily on emphasising the importance of power in individual relations. Here we have a reversal of the first film with the Japanese soldiers captured and put to work for the Soviet cause. There is delusion amongst certain Japanese officers who still believe they should continue fighting, while Kaji is convinced that it is over. The most shocking thing about this film, and the trilogy as a whole, is that it shuns the heroic myths of war in favour of brutal realism. Kaji is not perfect, just trying to do his best in the worst possible situation. There is no victory for any side in this war. There certainly appears, in contrast with most trilogies, to be a definite downward spiral to events, with this seeing the characters and situation hit rock bottom. This makes for a powerful drama that is unlike anything else. This lengthy trilogy contains some outstanding sequences and acting. It also delves into the psychology of war and the absolute horror of it in a way that many films shy away from. A masterpiece of storytelling from start to finish with a potent message that remains relevant today.

The Human Condition II: Road to Eternity (1959)

At the end of “No Greater Love”, part one of this epic film trilogy, Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai) is handed a conscription notice. This film takes place a couple of years after the events of that film and sees Kaji in his role as a private in the Imperial Army. It is a tough life, but Kaji has decided to keep his head down and get through it. In fact, he proves himself an excellent shot and would be a model soldier if not for his belief in pacifism. A fellow recruit, Obara (Kunie Tanaka), in contrast is a poor soldier and repeatedly finds himself facing the wrath of his superiors and fellow conscripts. Kaji faces suspicion not only for his empathy with Obara, but his close relationship with fellow soldier Shinjo (Kei Sato), as the two of them are believed to have communist sympathies. Kaji battles with his decision to remain in the army rather than desert as it goes against many of his principles.

“Road to Eternity” brings back only the characters of Kaji and his wife Michiko. The rest of the film is a completely new story that takes us to another part of the war, that is basic training and the front lines of Japan’s Imperial progress. Again the film creates strong characters. As in the first we focus on Kaji and the antagonism his pacificism causes. He is abused verbally and physically, but never wavers from his convictions. As with the first film the story is told on a large canvas and with many characters. This makes the scenes in the barracks full of life and vibrancy. When they are digging the pits it also gives a sense of the monumental scale of events. The climactic battle sequence is incredible to watch with tanks and men scrambling across trenches as the ground explodes around them. As with much of the rest of the film it knows to keep its main focus narrow, while the broader strokes of the war are painted around. The character of Obara gives the audience an insight into the dehumanising process of army life. Similarly, at the end Kaji shares a moment with a young recruit that gives an emotional and relatable coda to the incomprehensible horror of the full battle.

While the first film showed the cruelty of Japanese forces, this film gives a more pointed rebuke to the intentions of the government and Imperial Army of Japan. Before the film’s closing tank battle, characters are already discussing the inevitable failure of this venture. The Italian and German surrender means it is a matter of time before Japan falls. There are several men who are still firmly committed to the Ultimate Victory promised by their leaders. Kaji again is a solitary voice, telling them he would much rather be home with his wife than fighting these pointless battles. However, Kaji is also in turmoil over his own decision to remain in the army. He questions whether it is not more cowardly to remain than to flee when he knows that he is part of the problem. “Road to Eternity” continues the story of Kaji with a story that stands easily on its own. It creates a whole new scenario that plays off his experiences in the first film, while introducing new characters and ideas.

The Human Condition I: No Greater Love (1959)

Set in 1959, “No Greater Love” is the first part of Masaki Kobayashi’s epic trilogy “The Human Condition”. This first part follows Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), a young man who is sent out to Japanese-occupied Manchuria in 1943. His job is to oversee the iron-ore mining operations. He travels to China with his wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) and soon comes up against fierce resistance in his attempts to improve the conditions of the workers. Despite his colleague Okishima (So Yamamura) being sympathetic to his aims, the foremen of the mines, in particular Okazaki (Eitaro Ozawa), treat him with contempt believing him to be weak. When the military police send hundreds of prisoners to be put to work, Kaji is left in charge of the men and tries to help them despite their distrust of the Japanese and repeated escape attempts.

“The Human Condition” is based on a novel by Junpei Gomikawa with a screenplay by Zenzo Matsuyama and director Masaki Kobayashi. The story is epic in scale, but manages to keep its central plot personal. Beginning with Kaji and Michiko, they act as a focal point for the horrors that are happening around them. Kaji represents the viewer in his disbelief and disgust at what he finds in Manchuria. But despite his best efforts he is unable to stop many of the atrocities. This creates a poignant narrative of humanity’s failure to effectively tackle its most vile elements. Despite a large cast of characters the film never feels overly complex, even when it comes to the escape attempts which involve a number of players on both sides of the fence. Likewise, the framing creates clear distinctions between characters and numerous moments of tension as their ideologies come into contact. This is most clear when Kaji faces off against the military police officers. The presence of the Japanese Imperial flag in the background in scenes where the characters actions may be immoral mark the film as a bold work. It is unsurprising that it had its critics on release due to an apparent anti-Japanese bias (in fact the film is staunchly anti-war, but this distinction may have gone unnoticed at the time). The production value is clearly high and the sets and number of extras create a sense of realism that helps the film achieve a greater impact. The brutality is largely only alluded to until the final third of the film. This creates a sense of tension and foreboding that something terrible will happen. Chuji Kinoshita provides a suitably epic score and the cinematography by Yoshio Miyajima is exceptional.

The film is a startling criticism of Japanese militarism and a rebuke to nationalist sympathies. It shows the Japanese occupation of Manchuria as cruel and the inhumane treatment of their prisoners who were put to work in the mines. Racism is rife, with the Japanese looking down on the Chinese locals. The inclusion of “comfort women” and enforced prostitution in the film also exposes a part of history that many would rather keep hidden. The women are given a strong voice through the character of an unwilling prostitute used by the Japanese forces and their captives. She states explicitly that they are as much prisoners as the men who are kept behind the barbed wire fences. They have no freedom to choose. The film shows the most despicable side of human nature, one that is cruel and discriminatory. However, it balances this by including the love story between her and one of the prisoners. There is a frail sense of hope that love can blossom even in adversity. In the end, Kaji feels that he has failed. Not because he participated in the violence, but because he allowed it to happen. Kaji’s pacifism and humanism are a constant cause of scorn for his fellow men, who believe this to be a sign of weakness. However, as the film progresses it becomes clear that he has chosen by far the more difficult path, to espouse peace and care for his fellow men when all around him are violent.