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Category:    Home > Reviews > Epic > Feudal Japan > History > Drama > Kagemusha – The Shadow Warrior (1980/Criterion Collection Blu-ray)

Kagemusha – The Shadow Warrior (1980/Criterion Collection Blu-ray)

 

Picture: B     Sound: B     Extras: B     Film: B

 

 

After 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.

 

The tale 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.

 

However, 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 crossed.

 

As I 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.

 

Here 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.

 

One way 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 believe.

 

 

The 1080p 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.

 

Takao 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.

 

The 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.

 

Extras 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.

 

Criterion does it again and the result is another must-have Blu-ray of a key feature film for all serious collectors.

 

 

-   Nicholas Sheffo


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