Dir: Akira Kurosawa
It is intersting to watch a great director miss the mark. Not everyone else's mark, Kurosawa could film himself mowing the lawn and it would be better than 90% of the movies ever made. But I have seen true jaw-dropping brilliance from the man. Kagemusha is not jaw dropping at all. And watching it teaches me about what makes a great film great.
It had been five years since Kurosawa went to the Soviet Union to make his very entertaining Dersu Uzala. He was having trouble getting financing in Japan. It was American backing in the name of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola who made Kagemush possible. I wonder if Kurosawa felt some pressure to make money with the film as a result. Certainly, this is most commerical feeling movie I have seen from him, the script and direction both clunky and garish.
The script falls pray to heavy handed plot summaries, as if Kurosawa were worried that people would be confused by the intricate story line. The story is about political intrique among and within rival samurai clans. After the death of the powerful Shingen Takeda, a body double is enlisted to hide the loss of the leader from enemies. These details are developed with leaden clarity. For example, when we are first introduced to Shingen's youthful heir, the child's nanny proceeds to relate the entire history of the family relations while dressing the boy. You know, cuase one often discusses that with a 7 year old right after his bath. It's like a Shakespeare play, where the audience is given the whole backstory by two guards gossiping in the first five minutes, or a messenger comes in with a ten minute speech that happens to set up all of the characters. Necessary on the stage, but artificial in a film.
And yet, amidst all of this naked plot development, the movie fails to provide any grander context about who these warlords are, what they are fighting for or how long this has been going on. The result is a script that focuses too narrowly on reminding us over and over about the basic plot points (it must have been six scenes where the body double was in danger of being discovered by various parties like the kid, his lovers, his guards, his horse etc., and at every one we are reminded what happens if the double is discovered) and too glibly on the real intrigue of Samurai macro-politics.
I found the use of color pretty heavy handed as well. A red sky becomes a cherry red sky here, like a red Corvette. The warriors are all wearing glow-in-the-dark green pants. The atmosphere of the lighting and color schemes comes off as neon, and the warriors tend to look like they are wearing day-glo BMX biking oufits as opposed to regal lacquered armor.
This movie is much better that most historical epics. But seeing a predestrian script really makes me appreciate a subtle one. And this movie makes me appreciate understated , yet still resonant, direction all the more.
In my mind, this movie is for AK completists only. Five years later comes Ran, which I have not seen yet. I will be interested if Kurosawa regains some of his spark in that oft praised film.