Kagemusha takes place towards the end of the Warring States period, a time of much internal strife in Japan, with multiple warlords vying over control of the entire country. Shingen Takeda was one of the more notable of those clan chiefs and remains popular in Japan today, with numerous legends revolving around his life. His chief rivals near the end of his life were the allies Ieyasu Tokugawa and Nobunaga Oda, the latter of whom was comparatively friendly with Christian priests and Western culture in general (Shingen, on the other hand, was a staunch Buddhist). After Shingen’s death, the Takeda lost the struggle to bring Japan under their rule and their clan was effectively wiped out, in part because of outdated military tactics. Nobunaga was later murdered, and Ieyasu eventually became the first shogun of any real power governing a united Japan in many centuries, and his dynasty lasted over 250 years. The developments during this era effectively marked the decline of feudalism in Japan, and hence the end of the samurai as noble knights.
The reason I know all this is not because I’m so interested in medieval Japanese history, but because the film, while illustrating the period, doesn’t explain its setting at all. Kurosawa didn’t write a documentary, of course, and while much of his film is reasonably true to history, he took some liberties; the thief plot is apparently completely fictional, and while the battles all happened, their portrayal in the film was tweaked for dramatic purposes. But without at least some knowledge of the historical context, large parts of the film become nigh incomprehensible, so I felt compelled during and after watching it to do some research so I could keep up or find out after the fact what a particular scene was all about.
That isn’t necessarily the fault of Kurosawa or the movie; a mainstream Western film dealing with well-known historical events can expect its audience to fill in the gaps without loads of exposition, after all, and the same is true for common literary/Biblical allusions. The film was #1 at the Japanese box office in the year it came out, apparently, so the people it was made for must not have had much of a problem with it. It’s just a bit striking that a movie made with partial financing by a Western studio (Fox) and the involvement (however slight) of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola is so inaccessible to a Western audience (or at least this Westerner).
—Spoilers infiltrated the sections below—
However, while the cryptic plot poses a challenge, the 180-minute film is never actually boring. The broad-strokes glimpses of story the viewer gets don’t form a coherent whole without knowing the historical basis, but they are interesting in their own right, if only as a succession of beautifully composed shots. And if there’s one thing the movie is always clear about it’s the characterisations of the two main Takeda characters: Shingen’s son and the impersonator-thief, one overcome with jealousy and a feeling of being underappreciated, the other overcome with the responsibility of acting out a role every second of every day he spends in public.
In a Western film, the thief would almost certainly have developed personal ambitions (political or otherwise) of his own, and that would have been the main source of conflict; compare, for instance, the somewhat similar Dave (1993). Not so in Kagemusha. The thief does a pretty good job in the role, but other than maybe being more affectionate towards Shingen’s grandson, he does not infuse the role with his own personality, leaving the politics and warfare strategy to the generals.
In fact, from the outset we are never told much about his life prior to his drafting as a double, and we are never told his name at all. What little of his own personality he has he sheds over the course of the film, becoming more and more consumed by the performance. A dream sequence sees him both chased by and chasing after Shingen’s spirit, illustrating how conflicted he is about losing his own identity. By the end of the film, the role has thoroughly taken the thief over, and even if the clan has abandoned him, he cannot abandon the clan and must serve it to the bitter and bloody end, however futile the attempt may be.
This part of Kagemusha, its most personal and focused, is all about a willingness to sacrifice oneself for a higher ideal. Ultimately, the thief is unsuccessful; he is not Shingen, no matter how hard he tries. In fact, trying too hard and being too overconfident is what eventually leads to the ruse being discovered and thief being cast out. What I take from that is that illusions are fragile, and testing their limits can break them.
When Shingen’s son Katsuyori – who is very much not willing to bow down to a mere thief in public and wants proper recognition – rashly attacks an enemy outpost about two-thirds through the film, the clan prevents a defeat by bluffing their way through the battle with the Shingen double’s help (in a battle scene that, by the way, is highly confusing if one hasn’t taken the time to familiarise oneself with which emblems belong to which clan). Once the illusion has fallen and Katsuyori can finally take full credit, his futile attack against an army with superior weapons and tactics leads the Takeda to extinction. Kurosawa places the blame for that plainly at the feet of Katsuyori’s personal ambition for glory.
The generals are complicit in their downfall, too, because they refuse to act on their own. As long as the thief inhabits the role, they can say they’re upholding Shingen’s wishes; once Katsuyori takes control, they are bound to follow his orders, no matter how suicidal. There’s a scene in the film just before the final battle which shows they know they are sacrificing themselves, but they are sacrificing themselves for a notion of loyalty not followed by their own leader.
Everything else about the movie is a somewhat impersonal historical epic that functions as a sort of swan song for the era of the samurai and a complicated time in Japanese history that does not just feature “warring states”, but also a clash of philosophies. The film spends a lot of time with Shingen’s rivals Nobunaga and Ieyasu, and those are the scenes that really require a more than passing acquaintance with who these people were historically. Without context, the movie ends with the pointless destruction of the main characters; in context, the events portrayed were a shocking but necessary step towards the eventual unification of Japan and a period of peace and prosperity, but also a period of isolationism and anti-Western sentiment. The film never develops these ideas fully, but it does use the Nobunaga/Ieyasu scenes (and a few Takeda scenes depending on them) to briefly shine a light on them. To the uninitiated, these portions of the film won’t seem to serve any purpose other than humanising the Takeda clan’s enemies and pad the running time. The international cuts of the film apparently shorten or excise many of them.
I have no doubt that my very cursory research done with the help of Wikipedia and portions of the Blu-ray’s commentary track stays very close to the surface. It certainly feels like Kurosawa had a great many things to say about that particular period of Japanese history and how it related to the period the film was produced in, and maybe one of those days, I’ll revisit the film. As is, it is a bit flawed for being rather opaque in some respects (though again, that is not necessarily Kurosawa’s problem, so that’s just my personal perspective). But it’s always interesting.