The seventh and penultimate film in my analysis of the Chambara films of Akira Kurosawa is the arrestingly stylish epic Kagemusha. Developed and produced during the latter third of Kurosawa’s career, the brilliance of this period drama is often muted by the “drama of its production” and the presence of the ‘70’s darlings’ George Lucas and Frances Ford Coppola during the height of their powers: after they created ‘the blockbuster’, but before they themselves became the “new studio system”. The pulling of focus ultimately undermines the legacy of this film. Its overall commentary on the dehumanization of the Japanese Feudal caste system, and the self-construction of a duplicitous dynasty which futilely attempts to hold on to power after their Lords death, goes under-appreciated.
As a precaution to protect the Leader of the Takeda Clan, Shingen Takeda, his brother Nobukado, finds a thief to impersonate Shingen during potentially hostile events. When Shingen dies from wounds sustained in battle, this “shadow warrior” must take his place full time for a period of two years, to assure a peaceful transfer of power to Shingen’s grandson. However, as the weeks turn into months, and the peasant “look-alike” becomes more comfortable in his role and used to the trappings of wealth and power, his ambition threatens to expose the ruse. The inner circle attempts to thwart his desires, lest the Takeda Clan’s plan falls like a house of cards, thereby leaving it in ruin.
This film marks several firsts in Kurosawa’s career. It is the first film Kurosawa shot in color (more on this later), It is the first-time getting financing outside of the Japanese Toho system, and it is the first time that Kurosawa created a Chambara film that is based upon specific historical events and people rather than just period specific themes.
Set during the Sengoku time of Japanese history, commonly referred to as the “warring states period” (period of civil unrest between 1500-1600) out of which came the (in)famous Tokugawa Shogunate; which not only unified Japan, but also began to bridge the gap with the west through the entrance of Christian missionaries. Kurosawa was drawn to this time because of the mystery surrounding the actions of the Takeda clan during the battle of Nagashino. In that battle, all of the soldiers in the Takeda clan died, but no one in the Oda/Tokugawa clans died. Confused by this action, Kurosawa began to craft a story that would explain this, and tie in the historical use of doubles for royal protection (Rayns 1981). Kurosawa felt that the immersion of “The Double” into the life of Shingen, coupled with the strength of Shingen’s actual character, would cause “The Double” to become him. Thus, his subordinates would then be willing to martyr themselves through “suicide” at the battle of Nahashino. To that end, Kurosawa took Shingen’s battle standards of: “Swift as the wind, as silent as the forest, as sweeping as fire, as immovable as the mountain.” (Shingen himself taking the quote from Sun Tzu) and used them as a unbeatable battle strategy (and important plot point) (Rayns 1981). Just like he depicted the movable forest in Throne of Blood, the moving mountain spells doom in Kagemusha.
Even though Kurosawa was working with historical figures, that did not stop him from taking dramatic license in some areas of the storytelling. In Kagemusha, he intentionally depicts Shingen’s historical antagonists (Tokugawa and Nobunaga) as noticeably younger men than they were. Add to this the historical understanding that both Nobunaga and Tokugawa were “more modern” than the average Japanese at the time (believing the earth to be round, and knowledgeable about the world outside of Japan) being an active importer from abroad (Rayns 1981). While Kurosawa did not set out to make a film about the beginning of Japan’s transition out of the Feudal period, in part because it would take a few more wars and hundreds of years for Japan to really begin to modernize during the Meji era, but Kurosawa understood that it was a “more modern” sensibility that could defeat Shingen and be used as a visual foil for Shingen’s son, whose actions cause the Clan’s collapse.
The origin of Kagemusha began after Kurosawa’s long and difficult shoot on Red Beard in 1965. Kurosawa was intrigued by rulers that would have multiple identities in different situations (Grilli 2009). Still a fan of Shakespeare, the original conception of Kagemusha began as an adaption of King Lear; something Kurosawa would eventually complete just a few years later with Ran in 1985. Yet, in 1965, a medieval Samurai epic was unclear in the mind of Kurosawa, who was consistently distracted by other projects and problems (Grilli 2009).
By the time Kurosawa made his way back to “The Shadow Warrior” in the late 1970’s, it was after a somewhat tarnished reputation from a series of missteps, setbacks, and failures in the intervening years. After directing Red Beard, Kurosawa’s name became synonymous with tyrannical behavior on set, fluid schedules, and ballooning budgets (Grilli 2009). Also during this time, feeling too restricted by the studio demands, he attempted to create his own production company with three other legendary Japanese directors: Masaki Kobayashi, Kon Ichikawa, and Keisuke Kinoshita. This inundated Kurosawa with a lot of business distraction that impacted his overall cinematic creativity, resulting in the 1970’s commercial failure of Dodes’ka-den. This failure, and the collapse of the production company, led Kurosawa to begin to compromise his artistic vision by being drawn into the production of Tora, Tora, Tora, co-produced by Hollywood. While he eventually left the project over creative differences, this experience added to his reputation for being impossible to work with, causing Kurosawa to descend into a suicidal depression in December of 1971 (Grilli 2009). He eventually experienced a spiritual resurgence after winning the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 1975 for Dersu Uzala, but the damage was done, and he found the financing for Kagemusha to be next to impossible. Enter George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.
George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Brian DePalma, Martin Scorsese and John Millius were a part of the cinematic revolution of the 1970’s. They were integral in shifting Hollywood away from the dominant Studio system, born in the 1930’s, to more independent, director focused cinema. In the late 70’s, these directors were the young “hotshots”; transforming the way films were made; but they also were big fans of Kurosawa; George Lucas being especially vocal about the influence Kurosawa’s work had on 1978’s Star Wars. So, when Lucas and Coppola heard that one of their idols couldn’t get the complete financing for his next project, they used their clout in the industry at the time, to convince American studios to give Toho the money to produce and complete the film (Criterion 2009). By their own accounts, Lucas and Coppola would take edited dailies from Kagemusha and present them to different studios to try and convince them to back the film’s completion. In the end, it was 20th Century Fox that supplied the rest of the capital necessary to finish the film; in part, or in total, to keep George Lucas happy, due to his massive success for them with Star Wars. Thus, “the circle was now complete”, and George Lucas was able to use his “blank check” status at Fox, to pay Kurosawa back for being such an inspiration/model for him.
Additionally, what made the pitch by Lucas and Coppola even easier, was Kurosawa’s painted storyboards, all of which were used in the presentation to the studios. Having painted as a hobby when he was younger, Kurosawa returned to this passion with vigor in the intervening years as he struggled with Kagemusha’s financing. Kurosawa visualized the epic so intricately in these paintings, that it convinced art director Yoshiro Muraki and cinematographers Kazuo Miyagawa and Asakazu Nakai, to have Kagemusha be the first of Kurosawa’s films to be shot in color; to create a painting in celluloid. When you look at the comparison between Kurosawa’s images and the finished film, it is visual poetry set in motion.
One of the interesting ironies of this film, and “late stage” Kurosawa in general, is that even though his later work gets either overshadowed by the film’s production, or unnecessarily compared to his earlier work, the later films of his career still inspire other films that pay homage to both Kurosawa and his work. A lot of Kagemusha can be seen in such films as Dave (1993), The Man in the Iron Mask (1998), The Devil’s Double (2011), and most directly, Shadow (2018) by Zhang Yimou, who substitutes ancient China for Feudal Japan. According to Matt Seitz (2019), Yimou’s openly derivative film pales in comparison because Kurosawa was “better at making the talking bits exciting, too.” And I tend to agree.
The essential story of Kagemusha revolves around a man forcibly trying to take on the life of someone else. Yet, through the development of a convincing impersonation, the person ultimately begins to believe the part that has been thrust upon them. This has Sociological implications in the work of Berger and Luckmann’s Social Construction of Reality and Goffman’s Presentation of Self. However, before getting into those specifics, there are also general Sociological implications of class dynamics, and the way we are folded into a larger social system, that needs to be addressed.
Kurosawa understood very clearly the importance of the use of doubles for people in power. The use of “the decoy” is a common military strategy to achieve success. However, historically, that success was achieved by the dehumanization of (usually) the underclass. They become as Foucault (1990) states “the docile bodies” by which the will of the powerful is enacted upon, and through which they maintain their sovereignty. This violation of human rights was often masked through the rationalization of conscription, where peasants were compulsorily “inducted” into military service. The authority of the ruling class (usually justified through some manner of divinity) then used the bodies of their charges to protect the sanctity of their own lives, and the order they have established.
Taken more broadly, this idea of conscription can be used as an analogous metaphor for the general process of socialization; but instead of military service, we are forced into labor to become productive, law-abiding members of society. Most everyone socialized into any society (but especially within the US) is taught to enter the workforce. This is the culmination of (usually) decades long learning and social investment in an individual. Yet, like Shingen’s “shadow warrior”, We, the past, present, and future labor force are trained, then forced to supplant each other. The cycle is usually the same: we spend the first part of our lives learning to take the jobs that others are currently doing. When we get those jobs, we feel, as “The Double” felt, that we do not/cannot measure up. Then, as we get comfortable, we begin to believe that we have earned our positions through our experiential trials (The Double’s presence on the battlefield) and become willing to (sometimes literally) kill ourselves for our work; whether that be through a lifetime of harsh labor that destroys our bodies, or our identities becoming so wrapped up in what we do, that when we are ritualistically supplanted (retirements) many do not know what to do, or even who they are.
One of the seemingly innocuous, but secretly toxic phrases that illustrates Kurosawa’s “shadow warrior” analogy for the socialization of the general labor force, is the phrase: “Fake it, till you Make it.” This is the advice that is given to Shingen’s double in Kagemusha; and it is the same advice that is spewed out in countless commencement speeches every year at high schools, colleges, and Universities across the country. On the surface, this statement is supposed to generate solidarity; that we are all in this together, because no one knows what they are doing. That, by the simple act of going through the motions enough times to breed familiarity, it will magically generate comfortability, and therefore confidence. Outside of just how objectively terrifying the idea is that many people in positions of power such as policymakers, rulers, and the like, actively don’t know what they are doing (Openly evil is sometimes easier to reconcile than straight incompetence); what a lot of people miss about this overtilled “faux inspirational statement”, is the way that it purposefully conditions and normalizes feelings of uncertainty and apprehension in order to keep the public docile, while placating the already established system without providing any means of challenging it.
Berger, Luckmann and Goffman
When we get into the specific theoretical concepts that Kagemusha represents we have to turn to the work of Berger, Luckmann and Goffman. The basic principles of The Social Construction of Reality and The Presentation of Self are as follows:
The Social Construction of Reality is a cornerstone of Social Constructionism. Social Constructionism contends that individuals within society are defining, and therefore creating, the world around them through social interactions as a type of communal exchange. Therefore, our understanding about the world cannot take place without other people. It is a social process.
1) We are born blank (Tabula Rasa), without an understanding of reality that is then filled in by social norms, rituals, and routines.
2) Individuals actively participate in the creation and maintenance of the world around them just by living and interacting with in a society, with a particular social order.
3) The understanding of the world, including those that we take as concrete truths, have the ability to change based upon the influence of social forces, history and the shifting perception of the populace. (it is like water)
4) Just because something is a social construction does not diminish its value or importance. Something that can be social constructed, fluid with history, and impacted by social forces can cause, create, and maintain consequences. These consequences can be both positive and/or negative
5) Conversely, a consequence that is so extreme or persistent in a particular society (e.g. forms of racism and sexism) can partially solidify the socially constructed term. Thus making it seem natural to those within the social structure. It is through this process, and the results of consequences and practices, that the object or term becomes “real”.
In the context of the film, “The Shadow Warrior” became the real Shingen when he was validated by others around him (especially the grandson), when his presence on the battlefield resulted in the consequence of the battle’s success, and people’s willingness to die for him. He became the real Shingen through his interactions with others, and the consequences attached to those experiences.
Similarly, coming out of the Sociological study of Dramaturgy, the study of social interactions by invoking Theatrical terms, Goffman saw the theatre as a metaphor for social interactions. For Goffman (1959), we all perform our “selves/ identities” for a particular audience. Aided by the Teamwork of our fellow Actors, we all participate in Impression Management and Performance, both on a micro (individual level) and Macro (the group impression) level. According to Goffman (1959), there are two types of impressions that exist. Impressions that are given, (This is what you openly present to people either verbally or through a sense of self definition) and Impressions that are given off (This is insight or information that someone gleans from observing your behavior). Since impressions that are “Given off” are more powerful in determining our “Self”, Goffman says these are the impressions we attempt to control…in other words, we attempt to control how other people see us. We do this through products (clothing, cars, etc.), behaviors, languages, and the way that we speak (slang, rate of speech). Goffman’s work understands that this process takes place in two different stages: The Front Stage and The Back Stage. The front stage is where the performance is given and where the audience members for that performance is located. This is the space for individual performances of a particular impression, and the space where teamwork is done to maintain a group impression. The Back Stage is where the performance is dropped and worked on. Goffman (1959) elucidates that we all have multiple Statuses and Roles we need to play in our society. Each of these statuses, and their corresponding roles, have their own Front Stage performance and Back Stage maintenance. These different stages for different impressions overlap with one another. Which is why Goffman says that the world is divided into Front Stages and Back Stages. One performance’s Front Stage is another performance’s Back Stage…we are constantly performing. Yet, things get interesting, and more closely related to the double’s experience in Kagemusha, when you combine these Goffmanian ideas with Charles Horton Cooley’s idea of “The Looking Glass self”
“The looking glass self” is a theory of self-construction by Charles Horton Cooley. According to Cooley (1902), the perception of our self is dictated by our interpretations of interactions and reactions that we have with others daily. Therefore, we get an idea about who we are by the way other people treat us. If we get positive treatment, it will more likely lead to a positive self-concept. The opposite is also valid. This implies that when we upset someone (especially someone that we know) the compassion and empathy we feel to reconcile with that person, is coming from a desire to mend our own self-concept. If we don’t feel the desire to reconcile, then that person’s reaction matters little to us (or, more accurately, they matter little to the formation of our self-concept). Unfortunately, this also implies that all of our interactions and relationships are motivated by self-interest. Additionally, this means that much of who we are (in terms of self-construction) is based on other people’s actions toward us.
When we combine Goffman’s ideas of Impression Management with Cooley’s “looking glass self”, what we realize, is that it creates an elaborate and purposeful form of self-deception to maintain the social order. We solidify in others how we want to be perceived, but that in turn, shapes the perception of our selves. We are manufacturing support and “evidence” for our own self construction, which thereby helps the larger impression of a functional, productive, and stable society. This is the last wish of Shingen Takeda, the goal of the Daiymio’s council, and the plight of the “Kagemusha” so completely, that “The Double” is willing to die with the rest of the Takeda soldiers, to prove his loyalty in a final sacrificial display.
In all of Kurosawa’s Chambara filmography, Kagemusha often gets overlooked. Even as a product of “late stage” Kurosawa, that conversation usually gets monopolized by Ran; leaving this masterpiece without recognition. When looking at this through a sociological lens, as we continue to exist in this ever-corporatized dehumanization of the labor force, many of us may empathize with the “Kagemusha”, feeling that we too are “the shadow”. Like him, we desire for acceptance and validation from a system we know, deep down, we will never get; certainly not in equal measure to what we put into it. We may love our jobs, but our jobs will never love us back. Ultimately, that is the crux of the problem. We shouldn’t love our jobs to begin with, and we sure as shit shouldn’t die for them.
Criterion Collection 2009. “Lucas, Coppola and Kurosawa” from Criterion Blu-Ray Edition Spine 267
Cooley Charles H. 1902. “The looking Glass self” in Human Nature and the Social Order
Berger, Peter and Thomas Luckmann 1966. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge New York: Anchor Books
Foucault, Michel 1990 Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prisons New York: Vantage Books
Goffman Erving 1959. The Presentation of self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books
Grilli Peter 2009. “Kagemusha: From Painting to Film Pageantry” in Current Retrieved on 5/1/2022 Retrieved at: https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/360-kagemusha-from-painting-to-film-pageantry
Rayns Tony 1981. “Talking with the Director” in Sight and Sound Included in the booklet on the Criterion Blu-ray
Seitz, Mathew Zoller 2019. “Shadow Review” in RogerEbert.com retrieved on 5/1/2022 retrieved at https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/shadow-2019
 How do you say “No” to a Kurosawa suggestion?
 Vonnegut would enjoy this
 This seems to only hold up with US Socialization patterns.