We all know what it feels like to put on a role. It’s a very human feeling, maybe uniquely human. Whether we’re eating dinner with old friends, going on a blind date, or impersonating a Japanese feudal lord (wait, you’ve never done that?), there’s seems to be a mask we put on, a role that we play.
That’s what Kagemusha is about.
Kagemusha means ‘The Shadow Warrior’ in Japanese and it probably refers to the main character of this film, who, like all of us, puts on a role – but for him, the stakes are higher. He is a ‘Shadow Warrior’ in that he lives, for a short while, in the shadow of the dead Lord Shingen, who’s final wish was for his death to be kept secret for three years. So it’s the job of a poor bloke (a thief, born ‘base’, who happens to look exactly like Shingen) to keep up appearances, making everyone, except those in the know, believe that Shingen is alive and well.
As a side note, I once heard that Kurosawa used to hand-paint his storyboards in watercolour, which makes a lot of sense watching Kagemusha. The second scene is of a messenger covered in brown mud running through ranks and ranks of sleeping soldiers from opposing clans, all with different colour schemes. It’s like a chase scene through a rainbow.
Kagemusha stars a brilliant actor (who would later be the star of Ran, Kurosawa’s take on King Lear and the next film he would make). There’s an unforgettable scene in Kagemusha where he’s talking to some attendants who know he’s not the real Lord Shingen. He stars to laugh at something immature, in his own unattractive, undistinguished way, and the attendants go “Lord Shingen would never act so vulgar.” And he goes “Yeah? How about this?” and puts on the role for them. The attendants are blown away, they’re seeing their old Lord. It’s very satisfying to see him nail it, even though we know it’s not him. It’s as if he’s saying ‘Here’s your Lord, I can do that whenever’ and we know that, despite his respectable appearance, he’s just as vulgar and immature inside as we all can be when we let down our ‘manners’.
And the finale of this movie transcends all this role playing. We get to see what this man is like stripped of all his roles and of everything he had (maybe there’s a foreshadowing of King Lear here?) and witness what it’s like for him to feel the unendurable emptiness of being left alone without any of his masks. And then it ends, and the credits roll, and you’re left staring into that abyss Kurosawa created for you (see Fig. 1).