The Shadow Warrior
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 27 April 2005
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
The late films of major filmmakers form a peculiar subcategory of cinema. Any particular director with a long career has a series of formative early efforts (a Lodger or a 39 Steps) followed by a “high” period of characteristically strong works (your North by Northwests and your Psychos). But those films that round out a filmmaker’s career tend to be more ambivalent. They are often (if not usually) highly mannerist, and depending on one’s investment in the filmmaker’s work as a whole, one may regard them as intense distillations of style or else as obtuse self-parodies. In any case, these tend to be works that the viewer must work up to: one is unlikely to enjoy Gertrud without knowing The Passion of Joan of Arc, as one is unlikely to enjoy Finnegans Wake without having read Ulysses (to the extent that one is likely to enjoy Finnegans Wake at all).
This is particularly the case with Akira Kurosawa, as his career is quite neatly bifurcated: an intensely prolific couple of decades leading up to the late 1960s, followed by a couple of decades of sparse output. In the context of the director’s biography, this shift seems to occur with a number of pivotal events: Kurosawa’s decisive split with his star, Toshiro Mifune; the financial failure of his film Dodes’ka-den and the independent company that produced it; his disastrous aesthetic impasse with the American producers of Tora! Tora! Tora!; and finally, his attempt at suicide. All of this makes for a conveniently schematic chronology that strangely echoes the structure of many of his films, such as Ikiru and High and Low.
If Kagemusha is not the first film of this period, it nonetheless represents the decisive shift into the rarefied stylizations of Kurosawa’s later work. (His previous film, 1975’s Dersu Uzala is more of a transitional work, with a naturalism and emphasis on character that are closer to the earlier films.) With the financial assistance of fans George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, Kurosawa was able to create a vast and visually astonishing spectacle of feudal Japan, an opulent and colorful distension of history into a story of mythic resonance and proportion.
Kagemusha concerns a petty criminal whose uncanny resemblance to Lord Shingen of the Takeda clan is exploited by the clan’s generals when the lord is killed. The criminal is used as the lord’s double, his shadow warrior, instructed in his mannerisms, his speech, and his implacable disposition. The film expands upon many of the themes of Kurosawa’s earlier films, notably questions of power, predestination, and identity. In particular, Kurosawa is deeply concerned with social behavior as performance, and as Shingen’s double comes to fully embody the lord in all of his gestures and speech, there is a sense in which the double has fully become his subject. Indeed, in the context of feudal Japan, Kurosawa emphasizes the total performativity of daily life, the rigorously circumscribed execution of ritual and the complete deference to tradition. In this way, the film most resembles Throne of Blood in its thematic concerns. Both works (like the Shakespeare play on which the earlier film is based) turn upon the conceit of the mask and the convolutions of illusion and reality.
Where Kagemusha departs from Throne of Blood (and from Kurosawa’s earlier career as a whole) is in its total emphasis on the play of surfaces. For the late Kurosawa, identity is performance, and the double is Shingen (as suggested by the double’s trainers who, moved by the impersonator’s uncanny portrayal of their dead master, bow to him in tears). Where Throne of Blood enacts the tragedy of human existence struggling in the confines of its fate, Kagemusha leaves no room even for struggle. Human experience is entirely circumscribed by tradition, power, history, and fate. Mifune is seen to strain and labor under his mask, but the internal conflicts of Tatsuya Nakadai (in the roles of lord and double) are all but entirely absent. His allegiance to the lord and his dutiful performance of his role is little explained or emphasized in the drama.
The result is an oppressive and deeply pessimistic film, one that locks its characters into a rigorous set of actions and into Kurosawa’s distinctive, flattening anamorphic compositions. Even the vibrant and often astonishing set design serves to fix the human figures into the frame, enclosing them in a stylized fantasy world from which no breath of life can escape. Here we see what has been lost in Kurosawa’s late career: vitality, hope, and a humanistic impulse, though (with the director’s precise sense of structure) never at the risk of being mawkish. In Kurosawa’s late films, this sense of hopeless fixity renders unconvincing any hope for human agency. At most we can stand in mute horror like Shingen’s shadow warrior, watching horses and faceless soldiers cut down on the battlefield and splashing in their own blood.