Cannes Flashback: Kagemusha

This is a continuation of a series looking back at some of my favorite winners of the Cannes Film Festival upon its 64th anniversary this year.

Following a five year cinematic hiatus due to financial difficulties and battling personal demons, Akira Kurosawa emerged victorious at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980 with Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior), winning the Palme D’or, the top prize of the festival. This stunning meditation on identity and power within the era of 16th century Japan, would come to mark the beginning of the late period of Kurosawa’s career, for he was already seventy when it premiered. Known most prominently for his medieval and feudal samurai pictures, Kurosawa reasserted his position not only in the genre he was best known for, but also as one of the very best filmmakers who ever lived.

Kagemusha concerns the story of a warlord, who, when wounded in battle, is forced to have his lookalike portray him. Soon after, the warlord dies, but his council decides not to make his death public, and persuade his double, a petty local thief, to continue to portray the warlord for at least three years in order to keep their lands from being attacked and invaded. Only the inner circle is aware of the double’s true identity, not the people of the lands, not the soldiers, and not even the warlord’s grandson. Though initially reluctant, the double eventually acquiesces and takes on the role. Although he he becomes a bit more comfortable with his task as the months transpire, the double becomes haunted by not only nightmares of the dead warlord, but also by the lie he is living. Coupled with this are the growing suspicions of the enemy about the warlord’s supposed death.

As with his previous pictures, Kurosawa’s understanding of the frame and composing within it is truly unparalleled, and Kagemusha is no exception. Be it the film’s striking first scene in which the brother of the warlord formally introduces the double to his master, or the final devastating battle at the end of the film, everything within the frame is in its exact place. Ever the perfectionist, Kurosawa had years of preparation for the film while waiting for funding and distribution and put his artistic skill set to use by painting over two hundred paintings depicting his vision for Kagemusha. By the time he began production, there’s likely no doubt that Kurosawa had every single shot already envisioned in his mind. George Lucas, an admirer of Kurosawa’s, notes his love of having clean compositions, and it is an astute point. Though battle scenes in any film are inherently chaotic, Kurosawa finds a way to manage that chaos in order to directly affect the audience, and it is clear that he also inspired Lucas to do the same in his space fantasy pictures.

One of the major visual aspects of Kagemusha is its broad color palette. Though color has technically been available to filmmakers since the late 1930’s, filmmakers would not embrace it fully until the mid-1960’s, and Kurosawa, for that matter, not until the 1970’s. One realizes that it is because of his meticulous attention to detail, especially with painting, that Kurosawa was able to create such stunning visual moments as the one pictured above. Indeed, Kurosawa’s use of color likens Kagemusha, and Ran after it to something closer to a moving painting than a moving picture, which is by no means a criticism. In fact, since painting predates cinema literally by millennia, to call a film like Kagemusha a work of art is one of the highest compliments I can give.


~ by romancinema on May 16, 2011.

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