Kagemusha, Blu-ray (1980/2009)

by | Aug 29, 2009 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Kagemusha, Blu-ray (1980/2009)

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Tatsuya Nakadai
Studio: Toho/Fox/The Criterion Collection 267 [Release date: Aug. 18, 09]
Video: 1.85:1 for 16:9 1080p HD color
Audio: Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0, DD 2.0
Subtitles: English
Extras: Audio commentary by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Price, “Lucas, Coppola and Kurosawa” – 19-min. featurette on the American directors’ support of the film, 41-min. documentary on making of the film, “Image: Kurosawa’s Continuity” – 44-min. video reconstructing Kagemusha thru Kurosawa’s paintings and sketches, Suntory whiskey commercials made on the set of Kagemusha, Storyboards painting by Kurosawa, Theatrical trailers and teasers, Printed booklet with Kurosawa’s paintings, an interview with him, and essay by film scholar Peter Grilli.
Length: 180 minutes
Rating: *****

An amazing and highly artistic historical epic that has little similarity to your standard samurai movie. Kurosawa had some difficulties getting his studio to agree to the needed budget for his reconstruction of feudal Japan in the 16th century.  He met George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola at a film festival and later the two American directors – flush from their successes with Star Wars and The Godfather – got an American studio to invest in the Japanese production.  That was the first time that had ever occurred. During the years of struggle trying to get funding for Kagemusha, Kurosawa busied himself with painting little storyboard-like images illustrating the film.  The emphasis was on the pageantry of warriors, horses and costumes for war – most carrying large banners for their clan affixed to the back of their armor. The internationally-distributed version was only 162 minutes, and this 180 restoration has added short scenes thruout the film, plus a long scene where the fake Shingen is being visited by a Jesuit priest physician – as a spying effort by the enemy clans.

The warlord head of the Takada clan is shot by an enemy sniper.  He lingers but then dies. He has told the clan that his death must not be revealed for three years to prevent their enemies from attacking them. The warlord’s brother has meanwhile secured a petty thief who was about to be crucified for stealing, who looks amazingly like the late lord. At first the “kagemusha” refuses to play the role, but as time goes on he begins to acclimate to life in the castle, and develops a genuine feeling for the former lord’s grandson who is the next heir in line. There is a wonderful scene where the grandson is presented to the kagemusha and at first says “That is not my grandfather,” but then is convinced by the stand in. Later on, gathering with the lord’s concubines, he suddenly tells them he’s just playing the part of the real lord who is dead, but they all laugh uproariously. The brother prevents the kagemusha from consorting with the concubines “because the doctor said he mustn’t exert himself.”

After the three years pass and they hold the funeral for the actual lord, the enemy clans attack, and have the edge in firearms, which the Takedas do not have.  The battle is launched with impressive pageantry as three different phalanxes of fighters race to the barricades – representing the Wind, the Forest and the Fire – but the result is finally shown to be a terrible bloodbath. The dichotomy between illusion and reality is a constant thread in the film. Kagemusha is different other Kurosawa films in that the hero of the film attempts to fit into the social order, and in fact is terribly hurt when he is cast out after the funeral and the clan doesn’t need him anymore. This contrasts with the rebels of such films as The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. Another interesting departure is that since the film is about illusion, some main events of the plot – such as the sniper shooting of Shingen – are not shown at all.

Again, you must look really carefully to discern that this disc is in fact Blu-ray; Criterion is bucking the Blu-ray marketing guidelines by using none of the blue packaging and having only a fine print “Blue-ray Edition” notation on the rear cover. (My copy lacked the blue sticker seen on this cover scan.) The restored hi-def Blu-ray transfer is glorious in its color and details, though sometimes a bit of grain and tiny spectral reflections show up in the images. The four-channel surround is excellent and sufficient for bringing out the realistic and important battle sounds and the striking musical score of Shinichiro Ikebe. There are often ping-pong taiko drum hits on the left and right channels alternately. It is not the expected quadraphonic but three channels frontal and a mono surround channel – which is infrequently but effectively used.  The special features are all fascinating and well worth watching, and the 45-page printed booklet – with many reproductions of Kurosawa’s drawings and paintings reproduced horizontally – is a fine read.

 – John Sunier