Kagemusha – The Shadow Warrior (1980/Criterion Collection Blu-ray)
B Sound: B Extras: B Film: B
finishing a 70mm epic film like Dersu
Uzala in 1975, you would think master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa would be on
a roll making any film he wanted to.
Unfortunately, a bad experience on Tora,
Tora, Tora and the fact that the 1975 film was made with the then Soviet
Union was not helping him commercially.
However, thanks to some powerful fans, the Toho Studios and 20th
Century Fox co-produced Kagemusha – The
Shadow Warrior (1980) and the result was a comeback hit no one could deny.
of the title character replacing a powerful warlord (both played very well by
Shingen Takeda) without the knowledge of anyone as the warlord died in private
becomes a deal with the devil that is meant to keep the “king’s men” in power
longer than they should be allowed.
Kagemusha is a thief, but he is not stealing the man’s identity, but is
being forced to do so or face death (beheading, perhaps) to replace the man and
the temptation to enjoy the dead man’s benefits is too tempting for the
thief. In all that, he goes along.
how long can the fraud last and be successful?
That is part of the suspense and tension throughout so thick that it can
compete with the most brutal hand-to-hand combats scenes and grandest battles,
both of which this epic (at 180 minutes) offers, but the other battle is over
the soul of the individual and our impersonator starts to cross a line he knows
he should not. Suddenly, as the
historical events are unwinding, an internal battle sparks, making this a
complex mediation on spirituality, existence and lines that should never be
watched it again for the first time in many years, one thing that did strike me
were some similarities (not necessarily intended) between this film and Stanley
Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) have
title characters whose character is lacking and have personal flaws that
undermine them, causing repercussions for everyone around them. However, instead of being predictable, it
becomes a character study of the antagonists, the men around them and the times
they live in. Whereas Lyndon drifts into
his situation, Kagemusha’s climb to power is more tentative, yet the downside
results have the same seismic-level power shifts.
though, Kurosawa believes in the spiritual world and the dead leader comes back
to haunt his cheap imitator. Kagemusha
himself takes his own personal inner-journey, but in the Eastern Feudal
Japanese system, repercussions are more profound. But Kurosawa is totally connected with all of
it and as the story unwinds, his vision is absolute and once you start watching
and get into the story, you cannot stop.
A world master is in control and passionately telling a story he feels
has to be told.
he does this in a highly superior use of color, which is beautiful, deceptive,
intentional and brilliant. What it means
is worthy of a separate essay to explain it all, but the best clue I give all
who watch this with me is that the color blue is one of truth or the
possibilities of truth. It is also about
what people see and do not see, no matter how obvious and up front that may
be. Kurosawa is known for so many of his
Samurai classics, usually in beautiful black and white and that was not the
only kind of film he made. Like the
greatest giant like Kubrick, Truffaut, Godard, Altman and Fellini, he was just
at home in color and Kagemusha – The
Shadow Warrior demonstrates that in ways on Blu-ray you have to see to
1.85 X 1 digital High Definition image has superior color reproduction typical
of Criterion’s Blu-rays and is as good as this film is ever going to look
outside of a new 35mm print from the original negative. Like Criterion’s El Norte Blu-ray (unreviewed, but highly recommended), there are
moments of grain throughout, but the color, sharpness, fullness and detail of
the transfer is impressive. However,
there is still much grain and I had to hold it accountable for it, but this is
amazing otherwise and had two Directors of Photography.
Saito returned to work with Kurosawa ten years after they worked on Dodes’ ka-den and is joined by Masaharu
Ueda, working so well together that they would co-lens Ran five years later. The
work is impressive and rarely does such an arrangement work, but it works here
and very well indeed. Some shots are
definitely demonstration quality.
DTS-HD MA (Master Audio) lossless discrete 4.0 mix was reportedly a Dolby
analog A-type theatrical sound release and the master used here is a bit weak,
but it has very interesting sound design just the same. A four-channel master was used and
transferred at 24 bits. Music sounds
better than the dialogue, but this is as good as this film is ever going to sound,
give or take the music score by Shinichiro Ikebe being released in a 5.1
SA-CD. Kurosawa was also a sound
innovator and the design shows this again in the subtlest of ways.
include a thick, exceptionally well-produced, high quality booklet with
excellent reproductions of Kurosawa’s advanced sketches for this film before he
was certain it would be a reality. It
includes text of technical credits, Peter Grilli’s essay Kagemusha: From Painting To Film Pageantry and an equally excellent
interview with Kurosawa from Sight & Sound Magazine. The Blu-ray itself includes feature length
audio commentary by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince, teasers, trailers, the
paintings as storyboards including comparisons to the final film, Suntory
Whisky commercials with Kurosawa and co-producer Francis Coppola, Lucas, Coppola, and Kurosawa 19-minutes
interview piece about how Coppola and George Lucas helped Kurosawa finish the
film financially by securing the rest of its budget among other stories, a
41-minutes making of film and Image: Kurosawa’s Continuity, which fully
reconstructs the film through all of Kurosawa’s paintings.
does it again and the result is another must-have Blu-ray of a key feature film
for all serious collectors.
- Nicholas Sheffo