Monday, 22 February 2010


Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior, 152 mins, 1980, is still as impressive as when I first saw it nearly 30 years ago, though perhaps less surprising given that I'm much more familiar with Japanese cinema than when I first saw it.

Now it seems almost like a stately fatalistic dance. Beginning around 1570, The Shingen, a powerful warlord who perhaps senses his impending death, takes on another impersonator to replace his tiring brother. This one is an actor and a thief, low-born from the north. The Shingen does indeed die and his chief aides put into action his plan to hide his death for three years. The actor has to pretend and fool both allies and enemies that he is The Shingen. At first it works but then it all goes wrong and The Shingen's son leads the clan into disaster.

This isn't a subtle film. While there is more depth than I've hinted at in the above brief synopsis, it still isn't a wordy film. It's power comes primarily from its succession of striking images. Some of this are filmed on location, others in the studio, often both are part of one scene. A dream sequence is rich in colour and particularly effective. But then so is the climactic battle when almost all the killing takes place off-screen as wave after wave of soldiers and cavalry charge into a killing field of artillery fire. The aftermath, however, is shown most graphically. The real tragedy is brought home as the now-disgraced impersonator wanders distraught through the killing field.

This is a visually gorgeous and emotionally heart-breaking film.

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