“The shadow of a man can never stand up and walk on its own” a shadow warrior laments, wondering what happens to the shadow once the man is gone. Set at the tail end of the Sengoku era, Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha (影武者) charts the transformation of a man reborn as someone else and discovers that he’s better at playing the role he’s been assigned than the man who was born to play it only to fall victim to his own hubris and self-delusion.
The nameless hero (Tatsuya Nakadai) is a lowborn thief sentenced to death only to be reprieved thanks to his uncanny resemblance to the local lord, Takeda Shingen (also Tatsuya Nakadai), whose double he must play if he’s to keep his life. The shadow objects to this characterisation, outraged that a man who has killed hundreds and robbed whole domains dares to call him a scoundrel. Shingen agrees he too is morally compromised. He banished his father and killed his own son but justifies it as a necessary evil in his quest to conquer Japan hoping to unify it bringing an end to the Warring States period and ensuring peace throughout the land.
The shadow goes along with it, but does not really realise the full implications of his decision. He tries to smash a giant urn hoping to find treasure to escape with, but is confronted by a corpse bearing his own face. Shingen has been killed by an enemy sniper in an act of hubris sneaking around a castle under siege hoping (not) to hear the sound of a flute. Before passing away, Shingen instructs his men to keep his death a secret for three years, retreating to defend their own domain rather than conquer others. But there are spies everywhere and news of his apparent demise soon travels to the allied Oda Nobunaga (Daisuke Ryu) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (Masayuki Yui), his rivals for the potential hegemony over a unified Japan. The shadow Shingen must keep up the pretence to keep the dream alive and protect the Takeda Clan from being swallowed whole by the advance of Nobunaga.
Shingen had been the “immoveable mountain”, the solid force that anchors his troops from behind but also an implacable leader famed for his austerity. The shadow Shingen is almost caught out by the honest reaction of his grandson and heir Takemaru (Kota Yui) who immediately blurts out that this man is not his grandfather because he is no longer scary, while he’s also bucked by Shingen’s horse who in the end cannot be fooled. His retainers wisely come up with a ruse that he’s too ill to see his mistresses lest they realise the thief’s body does not bear the same scars even as everything about him from the way he talks and moves and laughs is different. Yet in his sudden conversion on witnessing Shingen’s funeral on lake Suwa and resolving that he wants to do something to serve the man who saved his life, the shadow proves an effective leader who earns the trust and affection of his immediate retainers but is equally struck by their sacrifice as they give their lives to protect him.
Meanwhile, his illegitimate son Katsuyori (Kenichi Hagiwara), skipped over in the succession, complains that he can never emerge from his father’s shadow emphasising the ways in which the feudal order disrupts genuine relationships between people and bringing a note of poignancy to the connection that emerges between the shadow Shingen and little Takemaru otherwise raised to perpetuate that same emotional austerity. Hoping to eclipse his father, Katsuyori too experiences a moment of hubris, successful in his first campaign but then over ambitious, forgetting his father’s teachings and walking straight into a trap only to be defeated by Nobunaga’s superior technology.
Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki), Shingen’s brother and sometime shadow, remarks that he hardly knew who he was once his brother was gone, and wonders what will become of the shadow once the three years are up. In a sense, the thief is already dead. As Nobukado puts it, it’s as if Shingen has possessed him, his confidence in his alternate persona apparently solidified by the victory at Takatenjin castle. But the sight of so many dead seems to unnerve him in the hellish spectacle of death that is a Sengoku battlefield knowing that these men died if not quite for him than for his image. When he attempts to mount Shingen’s horse, it’s either born of hubristic self-delusion in wanting to prove that he truly has become him, or else a bid for freedom and to be relieved of his shadow persona. Either way, he becomes a kind of ghost, once again watching his men from behind but this time invisibly and powerless to do anything but watch as they are massacred by Nobunaga’s guns.
Earlier on he’d had a kind of nightmare, painted in surrealist hues by Kurosawa who conjures battlegrounds of angry reds and violent purples along with ominous rainbows, seeing himself dragged down into the water by Shingen’s ghost which he has now seemingly become. In the end all he can do is accept his fate in a final act of futility running defenceless towards the enemy line and reaching out to retrieve his banner from its watery fate only to be carried past it on a current of red. “I’m not a puppet, you can’t control me” the thief had said, but in the end just like everyone else he was powerless, another casualty of the casual cruelties and meaningless struggles of the feudal order.
Kagemusha screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 11th & 31st January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.
Original trailer (English subtitles)