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Film / Kagemusha

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"To occupy Kyoto, to fly my flags in the capital, has been my long-cherished dream. But... if something should happen to me, do not pursue that dream. Remember: my death must not be made known. Keep it a secret, for at least three years. Guard our domain. Never move from it. Do not move! If you ignore my order and set out to attack, our Takeda clan will be no more. Heed my words! This... is my final wish."
Shingen Takeda

Kagemusha (影武者) is a 1980 Jidaigeki film by Akira Kurosawa. The title (literally "Shadow Warrior" in Japanese) is a term used for an impersonator. It is set in the Sengoku Period and tells the story of a nameless lower-class criminal who is taught to impersonate a dying warlord in order to dissuade opposing lords from attacking the newly vulnerable clan. The warlord whom the kagemusha impersonates is based on daimyo Takeda Shingen, and the film ends with the climactic 1575 Battle of Nagashino.

Akira Kurosawa returns to the samurai film and to a primary theme of his career—the play between illusion and reality. Sumptuously reconstructing the splendor of feudal Japan and the pageantry of war, Kurosawa creates a historical epic that is also a meditation on the nature of power.

Portraying both Takeda Shingen and the kagemusha is Tatsuya Nakadai, prized Japanese theatre actor who has been working with Kurosawa as early as Yojimbo. Tsutomu Yamazaki, another well-known character actor, portrays Takeda Nobukado, Shingen's brother and a former kagemusha of Shingen himself. Daisuke Ryu plays the younger and more ambitious Oda Nobunaga.

Ishir⁠ō Honda directed the 2nd unit and coordinated the production. The production was also internationally aided by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, admirers of the Japanese master. The film was described by Kurosawa as a dress rehearsal for 1985's Ran. It also reunited Nakadai and Ryu as father-and-son Lord Hidetora Ichimonji and Saburo Ichimonji, respectively.

Kagemusha provides examples of:

  • Always Someone Better: Nobukado mentions to Kagemusha how, when he was serving as Shingen's kagemusha himself, he wanted to be his own man, but knows he can never dare subvert or surpass his elder brother:
    Nobukado: I often wanted to be myself, to be free. But now I think it was selfish of me. The shadow of a man can never stand up and walk on its own. I was my brother's shadow. Now that I have lost him... I don't know what to do.
  • Ambition Is Evil: Shingen comments he would be capable of doing anything to become the ruler of Japan, and he describes himself as evil.
  • Antagonist in Mourning:
  • Anyone Can Die: The Takeda clan perishes under Katsuyori's poor leadership in the final battle. Kagemusha dies too. It's implied some of the leaders fled in time, however. Serving as Truth in Television as well, as the Battle of Nagashino was the pivotal battle heralding the downward spiral of the Takeda clan. The Takeda would be finished off seven years later at the Battle of Tenmokuzan.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: "I only stole a few coins. A petty thief. But you've killed hundreds and robbed whole domains. Who is wicked, you or I?"
  • Artistic License – History: This film, despite being Kurosawa's closest-to-history work, still takes a significant amount of liberties (starting of course with the very conceit of the kagemusha. In addition, however:
    • The film's armor for Shingen/the Kagemusha explicitly avoided the traditional portrayal of Shingen's armor late in life, which was a striking red, gold and white ensemble. Contrast this to the later 1990 film Heaven and Earth, which hews closer to this iconography of Shingen.
    • This film, including many other series, helped popularize the image of the Battle of Nagashino as a massive case of Too Dumb to Live for Takeda Katsuyori—sending wave after wave of his lightly-armored cavalry against volleys of fire in a dry, open plain—guaranteeing the Takeda cavalry were open season to the enemy gunners. In reality, however:
      • Open plains were actually optimal ground for cavalry, and the Oda lines (beyond the large wooden stockades) were only one line deep. Despite the strength of musket fire, their effective penetrating distance could not have immediately halted and massacred the entire Takeda cavalry at a few distance paces. Indeed, the very strength of the Oda firing line was its depth and alternating fire (i.e. second and third lines firing while the first was reloading). The shallow Oda line as shown in the film would have been easily mowed by the amount of cavalry Katsuyori was shown to be throwing at it.
      • The battle was supposed to have happened in rough terrain surrounded by forests and streams, and the ground was supposed to have been rained on—which does blunt/hamper cavalry charges. (This was why historians and his surviving retainers rightfully criticized Katsuyori). Katsuyori, nonetheless, had a reasonable (if ultimately flawed) assumption that a) the Oda-Tokugawa army's gunpowder would have been wet and unusable; and b) the muddy terrain is as much of a disadvantage to the defenders as it is to his cavalry. The same flawed assumption tends to pop up in multiple battles of the Sengoku period.
      • The cavalry did what they were supposed to do given the terrain (which involved forests and streams), and were banking that the enemies were still scared/demoralized following a previous defeat at the Battle of Mikatagahara. The film ultimately ignored that what ultimately failed the Takeda cavalry was the endurance of the Oda gunners even while being charged upon multiple directions. The Takeda cavalry was doing what they should: they just happened to run against a sturdy wall firing back.
  • As You Know:
    • In the opening scene Nobukado tells Takeda, regarding the thief's resemblance to him, that "Only I, your brother, could see it from the first."
    • Another long slab of dialogue halfway through the movie, as a retainer feels the need to explain to Katsuyori how Shingen passed over Katsuyori as the heir in favor of Katsuyori's little son Takemaru.
  • Attack! Attack! Attack!: This is Katsuyori's strategy for the Battle of Nagashino at the end of the movie. It turns out badly with him sending waves of Takeda infantry and cavalry at Oda Nobunaga's army of matchlock troops hidden behind a long wooden barricade, where Katsuyori's troops end up getting massacred by sustained Oda volley fire in the space of ten minutes' screentime.
  • Big Bad: Oda Nobunaga is the most powerful and ambitious antagonist plotting to destroy the Takeda clan, with the help of his ally Tokugawa Ieyasu. It's mainly for the sake of deterring Nobunaga that the Kagemusha must impersonate the late Shingen, and when the charade is exposed Nobunaga makes his move.
  • Body Double: The thief is offered the role of warlord Takeda Shingen, in exchange for sparing his life. Emergency Impersonation variety.
  • Boxed Crook: The thief's life is spared in order to act as a top-secret double for an identical-looking feudal warlord. Oddly, the Takeda set him free rather than disposing of him when it initially appears he won't be able to succeed, but he returns to them to make another attempt of his own volition.
  • The Cameo: Takashi Shimura, who appeared in just about every movie Akira Kurosawa made from World War II up through Red Beard in 1965, briefly pops up about two hours in as a doctor. This scene was cut from the international version of the film.
  • The Cassandra: Shingen warns that in the event of his death, no offensive actions should be taken by the Takeda clan lest they face oblivion. His words are soundly ignored and his bad omen becomes a reality.
  • Catapult Nightmare: The kagemusha has a nightmare in which the ghost of the real Shingen breaks out of the burial urn and chases him. He not only catapults out of it, he wakes up screaming for good measure.
  • Character Tics: Among Shingen's many mannerisms were his way of handling a resting table and fondling his moustache. The kagemusha spends much time perfecting his imitation of these habits to convince Shingen's household he's the genuine article.
  • Chekhov's Gun: How no-one else can ride the real Shingen's horse, mentioned fairly early in the film when the courtiers are talking about problems with their El Cid Ploy. Much later, the kagemusha rashly attempts to mount the horse, is thrown, and is exposed to the whole household as an impostor when he's revealed to not have the real Shingen's battle scars.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: The climactic Battle of Nagashino, in which wave after wave of Takeda troops attempt to charge the enemy stockades and are mowed down by Nobunaga's arquebusiers.
  • Downer Ending: The kagemusha and the Takeda generals that personally led the attack at Nagashino in the final battle are all killed, and the Takeda army is clearly utterly crushed. It seems the generals who were back at the command post fled, and it's quite likely that the Takeda clan will be destroyed as Shingen predicted.
  • El Cid Ploy: The death of Takeda Shingen threatens to demoralize his forces and embolden his enemies, so the impersonation scheme is set in motion. Double Subverted as after the initial evaluation the thief is deemed unfit for the task and the clan leaders are about to reveal the truth, but this changes again when the thief fully commits to his role.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Anyone familiar with the Battle of Nagashino in 1575 knows most of the movie's ending already.
  • General Failure: Takeda Katsuyori is aggressive to a fault as a military leader, lacking his father's wisdom and judgement. His audacity leads to the capture of the Tokugawa fortress of Takatenjin, which Shingen himself was never able to take, but this is only because his reckless attack on the fortress gives the Takeda generals and the Kagemusha no choice but to reinforce him. Unfortunately, Katsuyori gains control of the clan when the Kagemusha is exposed, and when Nobunaga invades their territory he leads a counteroffensive instead of staying on the defense as his late father and the other generals advised. This leads to catastrophic defeat at Nagashino: even though directly charging the enemy stockades and arquebusiers proves futile, Katsuyori insists on sending wave after wave of troops to be mowed down until he has nothing left.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Subverted. As the Takeda companies charge in the Battle of Nagashino, their being devastated is only implied by the horrified expressions of their commanders looking on. After they all attack, then the next few minutes displays the shattered blood-stained remnants of the companies writhing and struggling among a field of corpses.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: Kagemusha's last scene in the clan compound, when he is refused a goodbye with his "grandson" and expelled.
  • He Knows Too Much: The servants that witnessed the death of the real Shingen are killed.
  • The Hero Dies: Kagemusha is shot by Oda gunners while observing the ruination of the Takeda clan. He dies as he attempts to grab the standard floating down a stream, and floats with it.
  • Historical Domain Character: Takeda Shingen, Oda Nobunaga, Tokugawa Ieyasu and Uesugi Kenshin among others.
  • Identical Stranger: The reason they figure the soon-to-be kagemusha could pull off the task, of course.
  • Jidaigeki: Japan, late XVI century.
  • Job Title: Roughly translates to "Shadow Warrior" or "Impostor".
  • Last Request: The real Shingen, correctly guessing his gunshot wound would be fatal, gives a very forceful one to his retainers. He eventually dies on the road after seeing Mount Fuji — which eventually kicks off the need for the kagemusha:
    Shingen: To occupy Kyoto, to fly my flags in the capital, has been my long-cherished dream. But... if something should happen to me, do not pursue that dream. Remember: my death must not be made known. Keep it a secret, for at least three years. Guard our domain. Never move from it. Do not move! If you ignore my order and set out to attack, our Takeda clan will be no more. Heed my words! This... is my final wish.
  • Leave the Camera Running: One of Kurosawa's trademarks; long, silent shots of soldiers riding horses, generals lost in contemplative thought, and battlefields strewn with dead bodies.
  • Loss of Identity: Implied to be the tragedy of the kagemusha (as discussed by Nobukado above in Always Someone Better): in performing the role of Shingen so well and internalizing what he represents to the Takeda, his dismissal after his status as a fake was discovered left him without anything to cling on to. Watching the Takeda get slaughtered at Nagashino pretty much makes him snap, pick up a spear and futilely charge at the Oda camp's gunners, where he is riddled with bullets. His last scene of trying to save the now-tattered banner of Shingen from floating to the river (before succumbing and floating downstream himself) is truly Tear Jerker stuff. This also is probably why Kagemusha tried to ride Shingen's horse which would end up ruining the impersonation. He was so sure of being Shingen that it didn't occur to him that the horse, established as refusing to be ridden anyone but Shingen himself, would have disagreed.
  • No Name Given: The thief/kagemusha.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: The thief resents being called scum by Shingen and remarks that a bloody warlord has no right to claim the higher moral ground. Shingen concedes the point.
  • Offing the Offspring: Shingen mentions he killed his son, and also exiled his father.
  • One-Word Title: In the original Japanese, anyway. The English title is directly translated into three words: "The Shadow Warrior".
  • Pet the Dog: Kagemusha's tender relationship with his fake grandson. He is a better and warmer grandfather than the dreadful Shingen ever was.
  • Replacement Scrappyinvoked:
    • How Shingen's warlords viewed Katsuyori in his overblown belief that he is a better leader than Shingen himself. All of these turned out well-founded in the disastrous Battle of Nagashino.
    • The Kagemusha receives all the love and respect of Shingen's followers while the deception lasts, but once they find out that their real master is dead and the Shingen they've been serving since then is an impostor, they despise the Kagemusha and drive him away.
  • Rule of Symbolism: While likely ahistorical, it was invoked in Shingen's battle armor helmet. The mon (emblem) installed is the stylized kanji for "mountain" (山, yama/zan), which happened to be the last part of the Takeda battle standard. Throughout the film, Shingen has been noted to prefer being "the immovable mountain" daring his enemies to bring the battle to him, and this has been the source of most of his victories. Part of the kagemusha's Character Development in the role is in learning to embody it—even as he essentially sends off foot-soldiers to die for him even if he isn't the real Shingen anyway.
  • Sarcastic Confession: The Kagemusha admits the whole deception to Shingen's concubines in their first meeting, but laughs it off. They think that he's just teasing them.
  • Spotting the Thread: Shingen's mistresses realize Kagemusha's an impersonator after they check his back after he falls off of Shingen's horse and realize he has no scar where Shingen would have had a sword wound.
  • The Stoic: Nobukado, who is the only one of the Takeda leaders observing the Battle of Nagashino to maintain his cool while everyone else — including Katsuyori — are visibly panicking over the slaughter. A close-up shows, however, that he is utterly heartbroken at having to see so many brave and faithful Takeda retainers lose their lives for nothing. His face being stricken with Undeathly Pallor doesn't help, either.note 
  • Strong Family Resemblance: Shingen's brother Nobukado also bears a very strong resemblance to the warlord, and has impersonated him in the past.
  • Truth in Television: The presence of Catholic Christians in Nobunaga's domains in the film. Nobunaga, being a patron of Western culture and food, was very lenient in giving them living space and setting up churches, in contrast to his reputation as a ruthless warlord. Considering the xenophobic tendencies of Japanese at the time, though, it may have actually contributed to that reputation.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: At the beginning of the film, Shingen defends his historical villainous acts as the means to a good goal: The country needs a powerful ruler and the unification of Japan would stop the bloodshed.
  • The Wrongful Heir to the Throne: The final part of the movie.