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KAGEMUSHA
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Tatsuya Nakadai, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kenichi Hagiwara, Kota Yui
Director:  Akira Kurosawa
Audio:  DTS HD 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  180 Minutes
Release Date:  August 18, 2009

"The shadow of a man can never stand up and walk on its own."

Film ****

Is the measure of a man more shadow than substance?  Is illusion just as powerful, if not more so, than reality?  Is the idea stronger than the mind that crafts it?

Such are the key questions in Akira Kurosawa's bold and ambitious historical drama Kagemusha (The Shadow Warrior).  Released in 1980 after a period in his career where no one seemed interested in his visions anymore, and when he even attempted suicide out of frustration, these questions seem a lot more than fodder for simple filmed entertainment.  Kurosawa seemed to be exploring his own worth as a man at the same time he sifted through the legends of Japanese history to find their skeletal foundations.

It's a rather simple plotline to sketch:  a condemned thief is spared by a great warlord because of his uncanny resemblance to himself.  Later, when the warlord is mortally wounded by a sniper, his brother and generals conspire an audacious scheme:  dress the thief, train him, and show him to the world to create the illusion that their leader had survived and was still directing his army.  Only a small number of people would know the truth...even most of the warlord's family were kept in the dark and fooled by the fakery. 

It seems like something straight out of Shakespeare, who was undoubtedly a major influence on Kurosawa's creative mind.  But these events originated in actual Japanese history, and marked the beginning of the end of the samurai way of life and feudal system in the 16th century.

For the thief (Nakadai) who goes from near crucifixion to warlord of a powerful samurai clan, life seems trepidatious at best.  He has to wear the armor, learn the patterns, and become so convincing that not even his mistresses see through the deception.  When called upon to lead, he must behave as the great warlord once did, even if it means letting those close to him shield him from enemy bullets.  He is a nobody, or even less...yet the illusion supplants the reality.  As long as he looks, sounds and acts like the fallen leader, his armies will follow, even to their deaths.  If the thief's value is merely a trick of the light, one can't help but wonder...maybe the warlord's was, too.

The tragic turn of events, which again comes right from the pages of Japanese history, occurs when the truth finally comes to light.  The fantasy was indeed a powerful force, and without it, the story can only march somberly toward a bloody and bleak conclusion, filled with imagery that the filmgoer won't soon forget.

Kurosawa is both cinema's master storyteller and its consummate artist.  For the audience that seeks only entertainment, they always get their money's worth with his vibrant ways of telling great tales made up of memorable people, places and events.  But for the movie lover with a discriminating eye, there is more to behold, dissect and analyze in a Kurosawa film than just about any other. 

His framed compositions are astounding, using light and shadow (and in the case of this film, color) expressively and painstakingly.  A terrific painter himself, Kurosawa uses imagery on the screen like an artist applying oils to his canvas.  His camerawork is seldom equaled, ranging from the most quietly still and contemplative shots to scenes where he takes his audience hurtling at breathtaking speeds.  Not only does he fill his frame from left to right and top to bottom, but his compositions have an intriguing amount of depth to them, as he frequently keeps action going simultaneously on different planes of the Z axis.  His ability to craft deep shots with amazingly clear focus from front to back is one of his trademarks, and one of the technical crown jewels in cinema history.

Even a film 3 hours in length one's attention never wanes because of the way he pulls story, character, and technique together into one sumptuous package.  When you see a picture like Kagemusha, you walk away knowing you've seen something incredible and groundbreaking, and the way you look at movies is going to be forever altered in some small way.

Video ****

Kagemusha is as close to high definition perfection as fans could hope for.  Kurosawa's striking use of color and contrast really rings out with a sharpness and clarity like never before, and the sweeping action scenes showcase the technological advances of 1080p, as nothing gets lost or blurred.  Some darker scenes are a little murkier, but that's probably owing more to the age of the film and original stocks than to this Blu-ray presentation.  This is a truly remarkable offering.

Audio ***1/2

The addition of a DTS HD soundtrack really makes this movie sound more alive than ever.  The battle scenes put you right in the middle of the action, and you can hear the fighting and chaos from every channel.  The thunderous horses' hooves rumble with a power that's almost frightening.  Dynamic range is fairly strong, as the larger sequences are nicely balanced against the many more quiet and introspective moments.  The music by Shinichiro Ikebe is powerful and sounds wonderful in this mix.

Features ****

With Blu-ray, what once took up two discs can now fit nicely on a single platter.  There is a formidable commentary track by Kurosawa author Stephen Prince, who not only has plenty to say about the filmmaker and the production of this movie, but offers a wealth of insights into the actual Japanese history that the picture was based on.  His comments and knowledge actually made me appreciate the film even more the second time through.  There are also three trailers, one for the U.S. market, and a teaser and full trailer for Japanese audiences.

The recently made 19 minute retrospective titled "Lucas, Coppola and Kurosawa" is also included, in which the former two discuss working with the man who influenced both of them, and their efforts to help him realize his vision for Kagemusha.  A 41 minute segment from "Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create" is dedicated solely to this film.

A particularly cool extra is a 43 minute video presentation showing the vision of Kagemusha through Kurosawa's original drawings, accompanied by the soundtrack of the film.  A storyboard gallery shows comparisons of these drawings to the final screen images.

Lastly, one extra is here for sheer amusement...a series of Japanese TV commercials featuring Kurosawa and Coppola for...you guessed it, Suntory Whiskey, the very brand Bill Murray was hocking in Sophia Coppola's Lost in Translation!

Oh, and I'd be completely remiss not to mention the 48 page booklet, which contains a new essay, a reprinted interview with Kurosawa, biographical sketches, and a gallery of some of Kurosawa's full color paintings for fans to peruse up close and at length.  This is a treasure trove, friends...enjoy.

Summary:

Criterion has outdone themselves once again, and if I had my wish, no company but them would be allowed to touch Akira Kurosawa's films for home theatre presentation.  Kagemusha is a stunningly colorful yet strikingly bleak epic about the closure of one of the most prolific chapters in Japanese history.  If you're a fan of Kurosawa, Criterion, and Blu-ray, this is the perfect merger of the three into one unforgettable experience.

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