KAGEMUSHA begins with a simple tableau: a Japanese feudal lord, Shingen (Tatsya Nakada), sits in the center of the screen: on the left is his brother (Tsutomu Yamakazi); in the lower right corner is a thief (Tatsuya Nakada), whom the brother has plucked from a crucifix because he bears a strong resemblance to Shingen. An austere composition, the lord virtually immobile, the camera immobile, the long scene played out in one shot. Later, after the lord. Shingen, has been assassinated, we learn that he was called the Moutain, that the Moutain did not move, and therein was his strength as a ruler and a warrior. Under his leadership, armies could move "swift as the wind, quiet as a forest, fierce as fire," and in spite of occasional cruelties, he maintained order and defeated his enemies in battle. But--oh, Lord--how fragile is that order, how fleeting the lord's life, how quick to descend are the forces of chaos when Shingen's heir rebels against a powerful tradition!
Pardon the sermonizing. But Akira Kurosawa's new film is, among other things, a parable about the importance of tradition in holding back the natural tendency toward disorder. Yet the film doesn't play like a parable. Although the boundless agony of the film's finale has a certain invevitability, the characters are not Kurosawa's puppets. Much of Kagemusha is intimate--the scope of the movie does not become apparent until the last half hour. Before that it proceeds matter-of-factly, with a subtle but pervasive irony, the compositions not only beautiful and delicate, but brimming with thematic imagery. The film is accessible on cvery level; it is absorbing and then funny, charming and then ghastly.
Chaos lurks in shots of Shingen's army. The soldiers on horseback carry lofty banners and spears and rifles and everyting's always criss-crossed. Blood-splotched bodies lie tangled in other bodies with banners still aloft. Spears sticking into the air.
Kurosawa undercuts the very idea of meaningful action by consistently cutting away from it. His camera looks over the sleeping army when Shingen is mortally wounded (shot, we later discover, by a tubby little sniper who simply into the dark). Before Ieyasu, Singen's snarling enemy, leaps onto a horse, Kurosawa cuts to the smirking face of his servant, and we only hear the man mount and gallop off. The vigorous sound-track, in fact, gives us amplified, overly heroic sounds--thundering hoofbeats, ringing shots, and a lush score by Shinichiro Ikebe that frequently reminds one of Star Wars--but with real feeling underneath the poses.
The director also breaks down the one-to-one relationship between killer and killed. In a terrific battle scene, Kurosawa doesn't even show a gun going off--shots from the dark pick off one soldier after another, and the soundtrack is filled with clinking spears and screams. In the final battle we see volley after volley of an immense line of rifles, and we hear men shrieking, horses whinnying and bodies falling, but only after the last shot is fired does Kurosawa cut to the battlefield itself. Then he gives us, in slow motion with hollow trumpets ironically restating the victory theme, horses writhing, kicking the air; men, doused in blood collapsing into the mud, twitching; young, white, pasty faces.
KUROSAWA SAID he was making an antiwar film with Seven Samurai as well; he tacked on a coda where the survivors bitterly realized that their fellow samurai had died for nothing. But we go back to that film for the kinetic charge of the battle scenes, for the lyrical action. Like Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch, Kurosawa inadvertently ended up affirming the violence he set out to condemn. Now, he has made a true anti-war film, with all the horror of battle and none of the thrill.
Kagemusha is magnificently served by Tatsuya Nakada as Shingen and his double, the thief. Nakada has white, puffed-out sideburns, and capacious sacks beneath his beautiful liquid eyes. As Shingen they convey warehouses of wisdom; as the thief they are the befuddled eyes of a clown. Eventually the two personas merge; so powerful is Shingen's spirit that merely by acting naturally the thief begins to duplicate his actions, almost to think his thoughts. When Shingen's son, Katsuyori, eager to assume his dead father's power by exposing the double, challenges the compulsorily silent double at a large meeting, Kurosawa doesn't cut to the double's face for the comic reaction of a man stuck in the spotlight who doesn't know what to say. Instead, he shoots from behind the double; there is a silence and then he responds, surely as Shingen would have, and you feel the presence of the former lord in the double's silhouette.
The double views the battle, in effect, from a position of crucifixion: he is powerless to act, he knows he musn't move, but he also suffers for these soldiers, perhaps glimpsing the inevitable moment when Shingen's death would be known and all hell would break loose.
KUROSAWA, at age 70, displays a simple and confident technique; the camera is always placed for maximum poetic and dramatic effect, and he rarely resorts to flashy editing. He wrings remarkable comedy from a stock situation (the impersonator), but because the characters have such depth, and because the story accumulates meaning as it goes along, every laugh is fresh, every sentiment unforced. Epic in scope, dexterous in execution, almost Shakespearean in its authority, Kagemusha affirms Kurosawa's reputation as one of our few world-class directors.