In the midst of a 16th century civil war between three rival clans, a powerful warlord is mortally wounded. Terrified of the repercussions, his clan decides to place a lowly thief, who uncannily resembles him, in his guise. As the years pass this downtrodden no-mark Kagemusha becomes possessed with the spirit of the dead warrior.
Fallen on hard times, care of fashion and local indifference, it took the intervention of Francis Coppola and George Lucas, to assist the once mighty Akira Kurosawa to get this epic return to the Samurai traditions that made him great, before the cameras. We should be thankful they persevered, this masterful quasi-Shakespearean morality tale of an urchin placed as a surrogate king allowed colour to flood through the black and white splendour of old and, alongside Ran, marks the fabulous, near-divine, return to form of one of cinema’s true greats.
Even at 70, Kurosawa reveals such calm control over the vastness of his vision, the film squalls with hoards of Samurai horseman, battlefields oceans of colour-coded warriors, is extraordinary to behold. The film manages both magnitude and intimacy, a work of easy spectacle — in the thunder of its action — and the tragic complexities of history. Again, the legion fans of Kurosawa’s work are left to wonder if he has full control over the heavens themselves, as a rainbow clashes against the soot-dark skies as a warning of battle. History and nature are intertwined, lowly man slaves to forces beyond our meagre ken. Kurosawa was certainly not letting age or depression dim his ardour for the big screen effect.
Yet, his brilliant small stuff is also here. Tatsuya Nakadai’s flamboyant journey into Kagemusha’s tragedy reveals that although saved from a death sentence and placed in this miraculously noble position, he may still have got the rough end of the stick. Overcome with the spirit of the dead warlord, he descends into drink and, finally, insanity — the responsibilities of greatness can be as destructive as penury. Ran, his last great masterpiece, was to follow, and while its range and confidence surpass Kagemusha’s florid exemplar, it’s not by much.
An often overlooked fine entry in the Kurasawa canon, this shows a good many western 'epics' how it's done.