It is night time. Dust ripples through the small ridges and valleys of the area surrounding a large, classical Japanese castle. Droves of warriors lay in wait for a command from their general to lay siege upon the well-secured fortress. A rumble of small side conversations from the Samurai can be heard as a flute begins to play. The men sit and listen to the music, entranced by the elegant playing. A peaceful moment amidst staggering anticipation for violence. A loud crack rings out. The sound of a gunshot stops the playing and sends the entire area into a panic. Horses and their riders storm off into the distance to investigate the noise. The leader of the attacking Takeda clan, Lord Shingen, has allegedly been killed.
And so begins the events of “Kagemusha,” Akira Kurosawa’s 1980 period drama and epic that has been historically lauded for its immensity in both scale and cost. Kurosawa staged jaw-dropping battle scenes with nearly 5,000 extra actors to help visualize not just the extraordinary size of medieval Japanese battles but also the vast amount of trademarked death and violence for which the Sengoku period is known. By the end of the final scene, bodies lie in the hundreds, sprawled across the land in a blanket of armor and blood.
For almost 40 years, “Kagemusha” has been celebrated as a success both commercially and cinematically. But while special effects and sheer size often aid in the longevity of a film, it is often the concluding message that elevates it to classic status. So just what is it about “Kagemusha” that allows its story to retain its weight after so many generations? While many of Kurosawa’s images during the film certainly point toward the atrocities and humanitarian consequences of war, it is the quieter, more intimate moments that help to weave a cautionary tale on the repercussions of loyalty and power.
Beyond the expansive war-scapes, “Kagemusha” is, at its core, a political drama. The story details the life of a thief turned Kagemusha, or shadow warrior. The drama begins after the death of Lord Shingen (Tatsuya Nakadai), the leader of the powerful Takeda clan whose goal is to gain major control over Japan. Shingen, an intelligent and domineering figure, knows that the announcement of his death will signify a point of weakness in his clan, giving his enemies the opportunity to stage a takeover. Luckily, Shingen has discovered a thief, also played by Nakadai, who resembles him to near perfection. As an offer to absolve him of his past crimes, the thief is given the opportunity to be trained as Shingen’s Kagemusha, essentially a body double. With Shingen’s death, the Kagemusha takes on his role, and faces the conflicts and disagreements spurred by this decision between all of Shingen’s cabinet and Shingen’s own son.
But beneath the thrill of watching the Kagemusha perform the duty with which he has been tasked lies a quiet, unspoken feeling of nausea for the viewer, almost a form of pity. Before accepting his role as Kagemusha, the thief acts on his old impulses. Planning to leave and not accept the role, he ventures around the castle to steal valuables before he sneaks out. Finding a large pot, he breaks it open to find the preserved body of the deceased Lord Shingen. Gazing intently at the body, the thief literally sees himself sitting there in death. In this way, Kurosawa puts peculiar and symbolic mirrors in front of his characters. It is a strange moment of duality that incites a feeling of guilt in the thief, as if he is seeing a grander version of himself with a true vision for the future of the country. It is this feeling of guilt that carries over to his sense of loyalty to Shingen that eventually has him adhere to his role as a Kagemusha. In a later scene, where the cabinet has decided that the thief is not ready for the job, he pleads with them so he can be of use to the late Shingen. He gets down on his knees and wails for their approval. While this can be seen as a desire by the thief to gain status, it is also a demonstration of self-imposed loyalty. The thief’s feelings of thankfulness at Shingen’s decision to spare his life as a thief and the guilt of outliving this idolized Lord twists an interesting thread of devotion. Shingen has done nothing for the thief. He has captured him and simply decided not to kill the thief in order to use him. Through this scene, Kurosawa is showing that the loyalty of people of a lower class is purely based on idealism and fear. It is this same type of loyalty through mercy that is seen so often in other stories with “obey or be killed” mentalities. It poses the question: from what does true loyalty arise?. Oddly enough, this commentary on the absurdity of the Japanese feudal system is precisely what makes Kurosawa’s storytelling so relatable to modern viewers.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this story is how the role of the Kagemusha is played out—specifically, how easy it was for him to convince those outside the cabinet that he was actually Lord Shingen. During one of the most tense scenes in the movie, the Kagemusha sits during a strategy meeting with many of Shingen’s generals and military strategists who were unaware of the Kagemusha’s true identity. With a single statement of “we will hold our ground,” and a confident stride out of the room, he was able to convince everyone that he was indeed Shingen. This happens multiple times within the film. Another notable moment is when he is able to convince Shingen’s own young grandson of his fake identity with only a short time in the role. This stands out as a criticism of Sengoku period politics as it shows how easy it was for high figures like Shingen to be impersonated, even by the likes of a thief. After a only a brief training and acclimation period, the Kagemusha is able to fool almost everyone. Kurosawa took two men who look identical but had wildly different experience in life, and put them in the same role as a figure head, and not one person could tell the difference based on their mannerisms.
As the warlord during this period made all final decisions on war, strategy and how the clan was run, it is curious just how interchangeable the leaders are. With this piece of criticism, Kurosawa wonders to whom we truly give power: Is it truly the person with the vision and the charisma to lead that we entrust our futures to, or is it simply the person who holds the title? In the case of the Kagemusha, the power that he is given is a mere piece of clothing that anyone can put on and take off. Power is not necessarily earned, it is given.
Nuanced ideas of power, identity and loyalty are what is truly captivating about Kurosawa’s three-hour-long epic. The question of where we choose to place our loyalty translates well for citizens living in a democratic society. The legitimacy of the power we give our officials is something near and dear to the hearts of Americans. The question of whether power is in the person or in the title is extremely pertinent in places like the United States, where there is often a debate between charisma and qualification when it comes to the legitimacy of elected officials. With other, more modern pieces of film covering topics like material idolization and validation of identity, one may ask what legitimacy and relevance remains in a period piece like “Kagemusha.” While it is true that “Kagemusha” marks a time where political identity was part of the key to gaining control over Japan and indeed does lack the more intimate personality, there is a certain level of rawness in its historical context. Watching such trivial games being played at such a high political level makes the conversational aspect of “Kagemusha” almost comical. Yet the stark contrast between political games and bloodbaths is both ethically disturbing and truly reflective of our history as human beings.